Joe Salazar: A Filipino Master Of Fashion
This feature story was originally titled as Joe Salazar: A Filipino Master, published in the May 2004 issue of Tatler Philippines.
As the King of Philippine couture, Jose B. Salazar (25 December 1944 - 14 February 2004) upheld the lofty ideals of creativity and craftsmanship in an era when fashion had become a commodity.
Salazar's signature was to imbue romanticism on correct technique and punctuate that with handmade decorative details. Inspired by his love for plants, his clothes stayed close to such motifs as leaves, petals and flowers, particularly roses.
He had humble beginnings in Batangas province. His passion for architecture and fashion was influenced by his parents' occupations: his father was a carpenter, while his mother was one of the best seamstresses in town.
After studying architecture at the Mapua Institute of Technology in Manila, Salazar enrolled in fashion design and pattern-making at Slim's School while working as a portraitist for well-to-do-people.
He became an apprentice for top designers Ben Farrales and Casimiro Abad, who gave him good grounding in the world of elite clientele and the opportunity to sketch clothes. Farrales imparted discipline, especially meeting the client's deadlines, and Abad fine-tuned him in the art of fitting.
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From United States-trained Rudy Diego, Salazar mastered technique and perfectionism, the core of couture. Aureo Alonso taught him clean workmanship and structural shapes. When he opened his first shop on Mayon Street close to Ramon Valera's atelier, Salazar's exposure to the master's elaborate beadwork left a deep impression.
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Salazar rose from obscurity when he designed pant suits for Nora Aunor and later a debut gown for a party at the Sampaguita Pictures compound in 1971.
In 1975, Salazar earned his place in fashion by winning the Valera Award for his columnar gowns embellished with giant leaves and rococo patterns, seamlessly executed on traced beadwork. He astonished the judges with the flawlessness of his work: the handwork was as exquisite inside as it was on the outside.
First Lady Imelda Marcos was impressed with the designer's flair for the baroque. No other designer could outshine Salazar's pointillist beadwork and embroidery that looked as if they were organic. Marcos proudly showed off Philippine artistry to the world by wearing Salazar's ternos to state visits and for her appearances at the United Nations General Assembly.
An extremely demanding client, Marcos insisted that Salazar make for her a minimum of 10 fully-decked ternos a month. He had to turn away other customers—a disastrous business move. During the first EDSA Revolution, Mrs Marcos fled the country in style, clad in a Salazar off-white terno in his favourite fabric, silk chiffon. After the fall of the Marcos regime, the designer was shattered, having lost his business.
His untimely passing is a great loss to all the fans and followers of his unparalleled couture genius, a rare gem whose talent may never be unmatched.
During this downtime, his best friend, designer Rusty Lopez, tried to prop him up. After his recovery, another close friend, entrepreneur Ben Chan, gave him capital to help him back on his feet.
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Entering mid-life in the '90s, Salazar drew attention anew via the wedding gowns of socialite Christina Hagedorn, former model and TV executive Gina Leviste, scion Emilia Roxas and Mia Concio. Salazar slowly re-established his clientele through these high-profile events.
When the Vice President Joseph Estrada made his bid for the presidency, his wife Dr Luisa Ejercito and daughter Jackie, became friends of Salazar. During Estrada's presidential inauguration, Salazar reinstated himself at the top, as the designer for the new administration.
Salazar's perfectionism was legendary—and costly. While couturiers abroad started with toile, a muslin prototype of the design, Salazar went straight into making the gown. If he was dissatisfied with the outcome, he would throw it away and start all over again. He was unhappy with then first daughter Jackie Lopez's wedding gown, so he discarded the first version and made a new one from scratch.
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The result turned out to be one of his best gowns: the 10-metre train featured beadwork and embroidery of the tree of life which, said Salazar, symbolized Jackie's new phase—the family life. Crystal beads that emitted subtle hues of pinks and blues accentuated the piece.
Salazar's collaboration with Tatler Philippines re-established the power of couture in the country. The pictorials portrayed the Filipina patrician—decked in Salazar confections—as strong, yet unabashedly feminine. Those editorials spurred society women to brandish his clothes like a medal of honour in special events.
The pictorials also depicted characteristics that ran through most of Salazar's work: tiers of silk chiffon and subtle sparklers on Jackie Lopez's gown for Tatler Philippines' maiden issue; the silk organza detail in art patron / Inquirer columnist Bea Zobel Jr's black and white gown; silk chiffon gracefully draping over civic leader Gina de Venecia's seductively fitted sheath; pink tulle underlays that enriched presidential daughter-in-law Angela Arroyo's pleated purple taffeta skirt. A trail of sculptural ruffles emphasized Representative Imee Marcos' voluptuous torso, encased in a column of fuchsia Thai silk. Luxurious details such as Swarovski stones snuggled on the shoulder and balanced by a nice bow in ostrich feathers on the hips of international model Sarah Meier's haltered gown were not added just for décor's sake, but to make the design come alive.
Since the '80s, Salazar had dished out variations of the sheer blouse with diagonal beadwork, resembling a constellation of stars. On celebrity Kris Aquino's cover, that black tulle top with beads on strategic parts revealed her 36-B bosom in high style.
Salazar did not design only elaborate formals. For the controversial cover featuring President Arroyo and her Cabinet in black suits and shades (a la Men in Black), he showed his mettle in tailoring by making the President a Mao-collared suit simply accentuated by a vertical flap. For his last cover assignment, he ingeniously created a modern terno for congressional spouse Nikki Teodoro—a strapless sheath topped with a bolero jacket with his trademark perfectly-pleated butterfly sleeves.
His reign was disrupted by throat cancer. His untimely passing is a great loss to all the fans and followers of his unparalleled couture genius, a rare gem whose talent may never be matched. Death has conferred prestige on the Salazar trademark and added more value to his designs.