The House of RT Paras: The Story Behind The Oldest Fashion Retailer In The Philippines
This feature story was originally titled as The House of Style, and was published in the January 2008 issue of Tatler Philippines
The date book of the Atelier House of RT Paras shows a photograph of the philanthropist and style icon Imelda Cojuangco fitting a dress by the couturière Josefina Tayag Paras-Gonzales. The letter is clad in her signature work wear—a house dress, her bumblebee glasses, chunky earrings and bracelets, and slippers. Today, her son, the Paris-trained couturier, Roy Gonzales, still enjoys the patronage of Ms Cojuangco. He shows a white brocade cocktail dress with a pouf hemline and matching cap sleeves. The inside of the dress is just as polished of the fabric. This is the secret of stylish women—classic and artisanal clothes. In a world of throwaway or cheap chic, bespoke dressmaking still remains a compelling influence because it gives distinction in construction and technique. To discriminating women accustomed to quality, having clothes custom-made at the House of RT Paras is a necessity more than a luxury.
Despite the popularity of ready-to-wear or fashions with planned obsolescence (as in "that dress was sooo five minutes ago"), made-to-measure clothing endures in providing women with an ideal of the well-made garment that can be created.
The House of RT Paras is 106 years old, the oldest fashion atelier in the country today. Behind a successful son was the hand that rocked the cradle, Josefina, known as Inang, the prime mover of the atelier.
Josefina was dubbed "the Chanel of the Philippines." Gonzales says the moniker was given by a French airline executive who was impressed by her atelier. Like Coco Chanel, Inang had penetrated the male-dominated fashion scene. On the other hand, Clarita Paras, Gonzales's aunt and business partner, explains that Inang was given that sobriquet because the customer usually received a perfect fit accomplished only by meticulous methods of cutting and fitting to her body.
Inang was one of the few influential Filipinos in fashion to recognise one of the most important changes of the 20th century. Women wanted elegance in line, cut, and detail. She believed that women should feel comfortable in what they wore because it made them feel more confident. Many loyal clients, especially with problem figures, say that only the House of RT Paras could understand their needs. The clothes made them look taller or thinner or gave them shapelier waists and shoulders or smaller hips.
The tradition of perfection was started by Roberta Tablante Paras in 1902 in Angeles, Pampanga, when she was still single. The self-taught couturiere studied the construction and finishing of European-made clothes and adopted their techniques. When she married Jose Tayag she adopted the Spanish tradition of maintaining maiden names. In 1901 she gave birth to Inang.
As a young girl, Inang loved to dress up and be photographed. Over the years the self-styled model sent postcards to friends and collected legions of photo albums. When the family migrated to Manila to set up the business, Inang was sent to St Theresa's and Jose Rizal College, majoring in business administration. Between textbooks, Inang took formal training in dressmaking at her mother's school. After graduation, she married Francisco Gonzales, a provincial reserve officer of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. They had two children, Roberta (her grandmother's namesake) and Froilan or Roy. Gonzales's earliest recollection of his mother was that she often encouraged him to finish his milk with gusto and dub him the champion.
A family tragedy changed the lives of his mother and grandmother. Gonzales's sister drowned at the age of seven in Manila Bay. His grandmother, who was already suffering from cancer, was grief stricken. When she died in 1952, Inang took over the House of RT Paras. Meanwhile, Inang's marriage was on the skids. Her husband preferred the carefree, bachelor's life. The couple separated when Gonzales was five years old. (They remained good friends. When the older Gonzales was ailing with cancer, Inang took care of him. Francisco Gonzales died in 1989 at the age of 79.)
Inang immersed herself in her work. Like her mother, she collected foreign-made clothes not just to indulge her vanity but also to learn new couture methods. In Manila in the fifties and sixties, when socials were prevalent, women were required to dress up from daytime to evening. The orders for clothes kept the House extremely busy. As the business grew, so did Inang's social desirability. She was her own best advertisement, wearing her own designs to socials. She liked to accessorise herself with multiple strands of pearls; chains linked with faceted stones; big, clunky button-type earrings; handbags and pumps that matched her clothes.
Women and their children would either bring fabrics or select fabrics from the House which Inang sourced from the Japan, Hong Kong, or Paris. Inang or a trusted fitter would guide the customer through a series of fittings to find out the minute adjustments of the government to the individual's size, body stance, and feeling of comfort. Even if the client was satisfied with the dress, Inang spotted the tiniest flaws and corrected them.
The House of RT produced clothes distinguished for fastidious craftsmanship. The evening wear differed from the day equivalents only in their fabrics and the degree of intricate construction. The atelier produced beaded dresses, composed in the round (the contrast being two flat panels sewn together). The other signatures were the flawless blending of grains and prints, and comfortable, well-fitted sleeves, and collars. the ubiquitous Paras precision should be in the elegant harmony of varied fabrics and prints; the harmonising of a coat lining to the fabric or the colours and motifs in buttons, belts, and lapel flowers; and the neat hand-sewn edges and drapes as opposed to machinery.
Inang had her own version of the little black dress. These dresses looked deceptively simple but were brilliant in cut and proportion. She favoured classic elegant materials such as silks and crepes in a tailored way. Like Chanel, her dresses made women wearing anything else appear affected or showy.
A keen businesswoman, Inang knew how to control the costs and make a profit. In the late fifties, when Quezon City was still a marshland, she bought property on Quezon Avenue. This is the present location of the House of RT Paras. At its peak, it employed a hundred seamstresses.
Gonzales recalls that he first designed an outfit for his mother at the age of 6. It was a sundress with embroidered floral cutwork on the edges and an X design on the back. Originally, his rendition had a crisscross straps at the back. Inang said it wasn't practical for the wearer so she adjusted the design. The sundress was sewn in yellow piqué with plain cutwork straps. Fifty-seven years later, it still looks classic and fresh.
The atelier was Gonzales's playground. He learnt his craft by osmosis and with his agile hands and fecund imagination, he crocheted, sewed aprons and doll dresses. In his early teens he made his own magazines from cutouts. The "magazine" called Elegance contained illustrations of dresses inspired by the silhouettes of the late fifties and early sixties. His mother would sometimes use his designs as a reference. Today, socialite and lovers of vintage clothes, like Audrey and Reina Puckett, select their orders from his magazine.
While studying at the Ateneo, Gonzales's attention span was short as he showed more interest in the arts than in academics. Two years into college, he was sent to Paris. Because of his local experience, Gonzales was placed in the advanced course of Chambre Syndicale dela Couture Parisienne. At the end of the term, Inang flew to Paris to bring him back to Manila. However, the 20-year-old had already signed a contract with the House of Pierre Cardin.
"Mama was shocked to learn that I was going to stay. She wanted me to come home and work with her. I didn't have any career plans. I wasn't looking for work. My teacher said, 'go to Cardin and show your work,'" recalls Gonzales.
He worked at this fashion house for eight years with a short break in between. Unknown to many, he invented the iconic peekaboo dress and peekaboo bags for Pierre Cardin.
After Cardin, he did freelance jobs in prêt-à-porter. From 1973 to 1981 he worked his way up at the House of Jean Patou from stylists to chief designer, producing four collections a year for haute couture and prêt-à-porter. (One of his designs—an asymmetric gown with bold diagonal stripes—is featured in a couture book on a chapter on Patou.) Gonzales was pressured to make sure that all the collections would be critical and commercial successes. After all, part of his package included a certain percentage from the sales. The management insisted that he should make clothes more saleable. The designer refused to pander to market demands, insisting that he was an artists. The strained relationship resulted in his departure. He was replaced by Christian Lacroix. Gonzales then fell into depression and was hospitalised. His mother provided moral support. She knew that despite the career setback, his life was in Paris. Gonzales got on his feet again by providing creative ideas for Dorothy Bis. His last job was at Lecoanet-Hemant, also as chief designer and technician-stylist designing the collections.
Back home, Inang's life had been a cycle of business, travel, and socials. As she matured, she took to ballroom dancing. Her dress sense was bolder, displaying audacious headdresses and fancy costumes.
Inang never questioned Gonzales's sexuality. Over the years she treated all of his friends as if they her sons. One of them, Jean Yves Daniel, adored her so much because he had never felt much love and acceptance. In 1992 Inang urged her son to fly home for her 80th birthday. Gonzales made and excuse that he was busy in Paris. Secretly, he and Daniel planned to surprise her. At the party, Inang was astonished to see her son and his friend carrying her birthday cake. To Gonzales, the reunion was one of the most heart-tugging moments in their lives.
In 1998 Gonzales was asked to return because of his mother's weakening health. She was diagnosed with throat cancer, but survived after surgery. Three years later, when he was in Paris, he had to rush home again. Inang felt a sharp pain in her stomach. The findings revealed adhesions in her intestines. As she was taken to the operating room, Inang called out for her son. "Roy! Roy!" Those were her last words. She died on January 28, 2001 at the age of 88. Two years later, Gonzales's long-time partner, Daniel also died. He asked to be buried beside Inang at the Manila Memorial Park.
Gonzales has since taken over the House of RT Paras, and still maintains the family tradition, enhanced by his Parisian experience. He adds that more than the business, Inang's greatest legacy was her generosity of spirit. "I learned from her that what you give will come back to you. We have donated to charities and have helped those in need. That is why our business thrives."