Pitoy Moreno: The Fashion Czar Of Asia
This feature story was originally titled as The Man with a Golden Touch, and was published in the April 2009 issue of Tatler Philippines. Pitoy Moreno passed away last 15 January 2018.
Pitoy Moreno wanted to enter the University of the Philippines Law School but enrolment had closed. Only the Fine Arts department was open so he enrolled, thinking he would stay only for the semester. But he ended up enjoying it. He had a group of friends who included Araceli Dans, Corito Araneta, Celia Diaz, Doy Laurel, Gerry Roxas, Josie Trinidad, Lenny Vergara, and teachers Amorsolo, Tolentino, the sculptor Abueva and the artist Miranda, who were sources of inspiration. As a member of the Upsilon fraternity, he had as friends the former President Ferdinand Marcos and Ninoy Aquino and other famous people.
“I was just playing around when I started,” he says. Before the war, he recalls having two brothers as neighbours. After doing household chores assigned to him, such as cleaning the living room and supervising the household help, he would run next door and watch the boys pattern and sew. One of them would later become a policeman; the other continued sewing.
His sister Virgie recalls that during the Japanese Occupation, the women were forbidden to go out of the house. Only Moreno was allowed to go out with the houseboy to market and run errands. Part of the boys’ chores was to bring material, like pillowcases and curtains, to a neighbour whose mother embroidered and daughter sewed. Their mother, Felicidad, would also send her long silk dresses and beautiful ternos (Philippine formal gowns) and have these recycled into short dresses for Virgie and her younger sister Milagros.
As the courier, Moreno had to pass on instructions on what was to be done with the clothes or fabric he was carrying for his mother. Virgie says their father Jose was a captain of a ship, which travelled to other countries, thus her mother’s supply of fine clothing material.
Moreno learnt sewing, draping, and designing. He learnt to make the panuelo (scarf) from his mother who, like other women, designed their own ensembles and directed modistas (dressmakers) to do them. He bought material and designed dresses first for his mother, who was a very well-dressed woman.
Later, friends took an interest in his work and word got around. He began designing for the UP Cadena de Amor balls, corps sponsors and sorority and fraternity functions.
Moreno’s first clientele were from UP Diliman, which he remembers was like a community. He designed clothes for classmates, other students and eventually students from other schools. By word of mouth his clientele grew.
He lived in Gagalangin, Tondo, and would often take the family car to school. If the car was not available, he would take the jeepney to Quiapo, then the bus to Diliman, carrying clothes ordered in a box. He would take these to the dorm and deliver to those who ordered, or did fittings on others. Before long, he was doing wedding ensembles.
Ask Moreno how long he has been in the business and he will respond with a story.
Last year he was invited to the party of a classmate. The air conditioning was hitting him and made him uncomfortable so he decided to slip out. As he was leaving, the emcee announced that it was his classmate and the spouse’s golden wedding anniversary. It dawned on him that he had been 50 years in the business, since he had sewn the wedding dress!
Moreno’s first shop was off Taft Avenue near the Philippine Women’s University. He would hitch a ride with his friends from the UP Law School, who would drop him off there on the way home. The place was occupied by Slims, run by Salvacion Lim Higgins who, together with Ramon Valera were among the fashion figures at the time. They were, however, so much older than Moreno; he was just a kid compared to them.
When Higgins transferred her shop, his friends prevailed on Moreno to take over the place. He did, and that started the ball rolling. He believes the place was lucky for him. He started designing for the Bayanihan dance troupe and began researching on Filipino clothing traditions.
A high period in his life was the Fashion on Wings show in the early sixties and the Kahirup balls. The fashion show was sponsored by The Manila Times and toured to eight cities including Cebu, Davao, and Baguio. The last of these shows was staged at the newly-opened Araneta Coliseum. The eight designers took their bows and people clapped. When it was Moreno’s turn during the finale, he came onstage with Conchitina Sevilla Bernardo and received a standing ovation. When he looks back on that night, the elation he felt then still overwhelms him now.
Soon after, another door opened. The flag carrier Philippine Airlines invited Moreno to do three shows in Hong Kong, followed by more PAL-sponsored shows in Hawaii. Thereafter, similar came from Korean Airlines and Scandinavian Airlines System to present in Europe, Paris, Italy, Monaco, Russia, China, and Honolulu. In the end, he totalled 25 foreign shows.
By then, it was clear Moreno had broken through the foreign market. Fashion editors called him the “Fashion Czar of Asia.” He also has been described as the “greatest Filipino couturier” by the Honolulu Star Bulletin, “Asia’s high priest of fashion” by Asia Magazine and “The Fashion Czar of Asia Comes To Paris to be Crowned” by Le Figaro.
Photos at his home show him with very famous people: Lyndon Johnson, Barbara Bush, Princess Margaret, Queen Sophia, Margot Fonteyn, Queen Sirikit, Rita Moreno, Princess Suga of Japan, Christiana Ford, Deeda Blair and Mamie Eisenhower. He also did barong (Filipino male top) and suits for Pierre Cardin, Van Cliburn, the Emperor of Japan, the King of Morocco, and the King of Malaysia, who invited him to do a fashion show during his coronation.
Moreno has made it to the top fashion magazines: Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Holiday, and Women’s Wear Daily, to name some. In his salon, curiously, no magazines are in sight. One these fashion pages Moreno introduced Philippine textile like jusi, piña, and lepanto to world fashion. He came to be noted for his unsurpassed beadwork, embroidery, and hard painting. A Pito Moreno wedding ensemble became the centre spread in the pictorial history of Philippine fashion.
Moreno popularised Filipino design and costume going back through the centuries. His career reads like a significant chapter in the history of local fashion. He is one of the early exponents of the Maria Clara, inspired by the paintings of artists like Juan Luna, Damian Domingo, Fabian de la Rosa, Felix Resurrección Hidalgo, whose works he studied at the UP and which would influence his future work. They depicted women wearing the traditional Filipina dresses like the Maria Clara, the terno, traje de mestizo, balintawak, and kimono. He set himself to become known for creating Filipino costumes and traditions. He stood out with his intricate sleeves and beadwork. Moreno believes that the Philippine fashion industry is inspired and at a high, going back to the Filipino retrospective.
He works with a staff of 20 who normally panic when swamped with orders. Asked about the famous people he has created designes for, he ticks off these names: Imelda Cojuangco, Nene Quimson, Corito Kalaw, Araceli Dans, Stella Marquez Araneta, Linda Garcia Campos, Nelly Gonzalez, Chona Kasten, Chloe Romulo, Armida Siguion Reyna, Mary Prieto, Chito Madrigal Collantes, and First Ladies Trining Roxas, Luz Magsaysay, Eva Macapagal, Leonila Garcia, Imelda Marcos, Ming Ramos, and President Cory Aquino. He has also dressed up carnival queens and beauties: Pacita de los Reyes Phillips. Nelly Lovina, Susan Magalona, Edith Nakpil, Margie Moran, Gloria Diaz, and Aurora Pijuan.
His family of businessmen and artists, and his strict schooling at UP trained him well for all the applause and powers he commanded. His sister Virgie muses that despite his fame and all the years, Moreno has never left or lost contact with their family friends. They both keep in touch with their friends and have even continued caring for the next generation. Moreno regularly hosts lunches at his home, where he gathers friends for his favourite Filipino fare of chicken binakol, relleno bangus, kare kare, green mango with bagoong and buko salad.
He feels that the task at hand is to help the Philippine fashion style get recognised all over the world.
He has contributed to uplifting the image of Philippine designers in various ways, some of which include being an organiser and the first president of the Philippine Couture Association, the founder of Karilagan as well as through his exhibits abroad. He brought Philippine fashion to the Seattle’s World Fair, the New York World Fair and to many cities around the globe: Paris, Rome, Madrid, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Sweden, Vienna, Monaco, Chicago, Washington DC, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tehran, Tokyo, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore.
Moreno’s contribution extends to the publication of two books: Kasalan and Philippine Costumes of Various Ethnolinguistic Groups. These books are valuable material for research, giving historical chronology, information on fibre and fabric, costume and culture, interweaving the Occident and the Orient, period and national costumes.
Moreno believes “costume is culture manifested in clothing.” He says: “Filipino dress traditions sum up, in every stitch and seam, the elements of local culture, past and present. The compilation gives tribute to the flair, elegance, and terrific sense of body and material of my fellow Filipinos.
“After 50 years, I am happy that I am recognised as a Filipino designer. I have been able to represent my creation all over. I have had 25 shows abroad, including one at the Royal Palace in London made possible by Princess Margaret. You couldn’t ask for more. From a simple design, doors opened.
I have been putting up shows all over the world. They are not about me, they’re about the best of Philippine fashion, the best Filipino models, and the best Philippine material. Everywhere I go I try to promote our culture.
Today Moreno sees many good, young designers on the fashion industry horizon. Many young designers are inspired to revive the Filipina style and promote local weaves that are rich in design. The outlook is bright.