The Legacy Of Ramon Valera, The Father Of Philippine Fashion
This feature story was originally titled as A Cut Above The Rest, published in the August 2003 issue of Tatler Philippines.This story was copied as is, changes were made only on the lead paragraph above. Three years after this article was published, Ramon Valera was conferred the title of National Artist for Fashion Design.
He was celebrated for his ingenuity and craftsmanship, for revolutionizing the national costume, for his masterly embroidery and beadwork and for translating Philippine motifs into contemporary terms. The greatest of all was his manipulation by cut—he would sew a dress to perfection without using a pattern. Ramon Valera was the Dean of Philippine Fashion as he was a creative innovator.
He was born on August 31, 1912, to a well-to-do family. His father, Melecio, was a partner of the tycoon Vicente Madrigal. Since his youth, Valera had been a natural in fashion design. His mother, Pilar Oswald, noticed that the dolls displayed on the piano would suddenly have new clothes. Did he study or was he self-taught as his relatives claimed? In an essay for the terno exhibit at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines, Cris Almario wrote that Valera studied under Mina Roa, who made ternos for the elite before World War II. She taught him European construction and draping techniques. In his teens he made Sunday clothes for his sisters, who would be noticed by the churchgoers. An early attempt was making a yellow and purple dress, a combination unheard of in those days, for his sister to wear on College Day.
Valera studied at La Salle and was one semester short of completing a commerce course at the Far Eastern University. When his father died, the lawyer cheated on the will since Valera's widow didn't understand English. This left the family in an unstable financial condition. Valera quit school and started to work.
Valera's early innovation was modernizing the terno in 1939. He revived the traje de mestiza (what we know as the Maria Clara), traditionally a four-piece ensemble consisting of a blouse, skirt, overskirt, and scarf. He exaggerated the bell sleeves, which were copied by many. Then the terno became a one-piece silhouette, fastened with a zipper instead of hooks. He shocked the public when he removed the panuelo or scarf which covered the woman's bosom. At first the public thought the style was immodest, but a few political wives, such as Mrs. Claro M Recto and Mrs Primitivo Lovina, were open-minded enough to show off the new look.
After the war, Valera's reputation grew. His home and atelier on Mayon Street, Quezon City, remained for several decades of creativity. He recognized the offshoots of the postwar boom. He set his imagination to adapt to the needs of high society, which was running in full gear. As a designer, Valera purveyed luxury manifested by the then progressive economy.
No designer like Valera mastered the art of constructing sleeves. In the 1950s Valera reworked the butterfly sleeves of the national costume by using a stiff but hidden built-in support that became the basis of today's terno. The ternos he created for the annual Kahirup ball became the dominant silhouette the following year. One of the classic designs was a tentlike terno with detachable butterfly sleeves that became an asymmetric neckline gown.
Valera's faultless construction was an art in its own right. He simply measured the client and cut on the fabric, disregarding the toile or pattern. The clothes never changed the woman's figure or forced her to look rail-thin. They celebrated the shape without mirroring it.
Valera was also famous for his surprise element, called the "close-open technique". The wearer would be shrouded in mystery and when she removed the covering, it would reveal a wonder. For the Philippine fashion show at the Seattle's World Fair in 1962, Valera created a coat terno which, when the coat was removed, showed a short dress made of closely stitched bugle beads in a diagonal design and in contrasting colours of black, orange and white. He drew inspiration from the Philippine waters such as a sea-blue gown with an embroidered shell pattern and Osmeña pearls and another gown encrusted with real coral in authentic coral sprays. For the finale, he presented a Muslim wedding gown with a headdress fashioned from garlands of artificial sampaguitas. The garlands were repeated around the waist and fell graciously over a classic skirt.
For American Vogue, he created a tunic version of the Philippine blouse called the kimona. His competitors knocked the Filipino tunic and other Valera designs such as the sheath wedding dress made for his niece. He bristled at an attempt to copy his works, particularly by another designer whom he called a copione, or plagiarist.
A highlight of Valera's career was the back-to-back fashion show with the Japanese designer George Oca at the Manila Hotel during the Garcia administration. Valera's niece and sister flew to Hong Kong to source the fabrics and notions. Valera was said to have upstaged Oca as he indulged in all-out drama with his exaggerated silhouettes, colours, embroidery and beadwork. He tore out chunky necklaces and sewed the stones onto the gowns to create beautiful patterns.
Valera designed the inaugural gowns of all the first ladies from Aurora Quezon to Imelda Marcos, except for Evangelina Macapagal, although he did make the debutante gown of her daughter, President Gloria Arroyo. One of his most publicized designs was a gown worn by Imelda Marcos on a state visit to Iran. He followed the pattern of an elaborate necklace and repeated it on her gown.
Valera also made clothes for Queen Sirikit of Thailand, Anita Bryant and Ladybird Johnson. In a handwritten card, the American first lady expressed her gratitude to the designer: "You were kind to send extra beads for my dress. It never fails to receive compliments at official functions. Now I enjoy wearing it more. Ladybird."
Among his muses were Elvira Manahan, whom he dressed for free in her vaudeville days, and Imelda Marcos when she was still a model. He also favoured Chito Madrigal, Gloria Romero, Barbara Perez, Vicky Quirino, Chona Kasten, Nena Vargas, Susan Magalona and Rose Osmeña.
Valera was selective about his clientele and insisted on doing things his way. "If you were a client and told him what to do, he would drop you," said his niece and former model Pilar Zulueta-Gomez. If the client didn't fit his ideal, he would show disinterest. Sampaguita Pictures had to persuade him to dress up Nora Aunor. When the petite singer visited him for measurement, he muttered in Spanish, "I thought she was sitting down. I didn't know she was standing."
His friends were the tycoon Luis Araneta, the architect Gabby Formoso and the businessman Jesus del Rosario. Del Rosario offered Valera a factory to start up a ready-to-wear business, but the designer declined. "I don't want to be popular. I want to be famous!" He wanted only to produce originals. The biggest compliment he received was to be asked by Cristobal Balenciaga to head his atelier if the Spanish couturier were to do business in Asia.
Valera was known for his off-the-cuff remarks. "I have pet peeves, but no pets." "Purple in the morning makes me see red!" "Glitter for show dresses is right!" "Don't go by what magazines say is style." "Most women don't know what is best for them."
In 1971 Philippine Panorama quoted Valera as describing the peasant look as "dirty gypsy". He was appalled to see fat ladies who lunched in peasant dresses and wide belts. He believed it was just a fad and insisted on subtle Oriental elegance. Thirty years later, that fashion re-emerged as Bohemian chic.
Valera's obsession with order and precision was as famous as his designs. He couldn't resist a comment when something wasn't right—by his standards. Zulueta-Gomez recalled how her uncle hated the combination of red, white and blue. "I wore a red, white and blue outfit with matching shoes and bag. When my uncle saw me, he took out the flag and waved, 'You can now sing the national anthem!'" When another niece walked around with curlers in her hair, Valera remarked, "There goes Marie Antoinette!"
A niece, Pilar Valera-Jimenez, recalled that when she was going to a party wearing a dress sewn by her mother, Valera was incensed by the superfluous details. "He took them out and made pockets. While I was dancing, I was pricked by pins!"
"More than his talent, it was his graciousness as a person that was more important. When he saw something ugly, he would make it beautiful," said Francisco Zulueta. He added that Valera was sponsored by the government, Valera was supposed to bring home 20 pieces of luggage. He could have taken advantage of the diplomatic immunity from the Customs by filling them up with smuggled goods. "When we opened the suitcases, they were empty. He didn't want to take advantage. He was a good man."
Valera's life centered on work and his relatives. He was once engaged to Luz Puyat and later to Bading Eraña. He chose to remain a bachelor, and adopted his nephew Francisco Zulueta. He would have his meals in his sister's house, which was next to his home-atelier, or take his dinner at the Escolta with his chauffeur and valet who had been with him since childhood.
Valera was happiest when order was around him and everything was in its right place. The former columnist Virginia Benitez-Licuanan once wrote about how Valera redecorated his living room to suit an antique gilt mirror bought in Europe.
"If he should ever get tired of dress designing, Valera would be as successful as an interior decorator," she wrote. "The only thing we had against the Valera house is that it is so perfect that it leaves one completely dissatisfied with one's own decorating efforts." White and gold dominated with touches of greens and blues. The chairs and divan looked luxurious although they were in leatherette. Valera considered the practicality in upkeep. The banquette and tabletops were covered in marble. The place was adorned with classic draperies, crystals and a marble statuary. In the kitchen, every item, including fish paste, was stored in apothecary jars or tiered trays that were neatly. Arranged on the shelves were flower patterns from Hong Kong. He used fine silver for everyday dining.
For the birthday of the style arbiter Pilar Romack of New Yorker, Valera created a centrepiece made from gold-sprayed driftwood, from which sprouted gilt leaves dripping with glass prisms and poses of red African daisies. Valera took to work as easily as he took to drink, especially when pressures of work mounted. When he was extremely stressed, he sought psychiatric help. In a routine examination, it was discovered that he had the IQ of a genius.
The years of gin and hard work took their toll months before his 60th birthday. "He went for a check-up in the hospital. They were detoxifying him, forgetting that he was hypertensive. He was given the wrong medication. He suffered massive cerebral hemorrhage and went into a coma for most of the week," said Valera-Jimenez.
Valera died in 1972 at the age of 59. The country lost the only designer who could claim the innovation of a certain silhouette or the advent of a style evolution.