Baby Araneta Forés: The Legendary Philippine Style Icon
This feature story was originally titled as Timeless..., and was published in the November 2002 issue of Tatler Philippines
"I grew up," Baby Araneta Forés simply says. I am at the Araneta White House, named because it was always painted white and not because it was a copy of the other house on Pennsylvania Avenue. I am seated on a sofa with her. I had asked why the change in her life? Why did the party girl become a recluse?
"I grew up. I have grandchildren now and I enjoy their company and look forward to seeing them. I am aging and I find other things interesting."
Baby speaks in declarative sentences indicative of a strong-willed person who mostly got her way through much of her life. There are no added frills, no circumlocution. If it were any other person saying what she said, we'd all simply nod our heads. But I'm hearing it from Baby Forés, the harbinger of style before anyone in Manila had a clue that style existed.
The habitué of Manhattan's party circuit in the '70s hasn't exactly surrendered to the aging process. Her face remains unchanged. One privilege of wealth is never having to be subjected to worry lines keeping the sheen of youth longer than the rest. Her hands remain exquisite as she lounges in a silk red robe with a cheongsan collar. Her hair is pulled back tight with her signature little chignon on the back of her head recalling to mind her favourite Claudio Bravo portrait of her. She may have accepted the passage of time, but she has refused, if not cheated, its physical dictates.
I had half-expected shadow plays and smart answers to the question. Society pages and whispers from past Baby groupies have invented a persona so different from who I was facing. Yes, she's seen it and done it all but she has survived unscathed and is now thankful for little moments of real affection, such as the simple embrace of a grandchild.
It's a family tradition. She remembers her father, Amado Araneta, who gave her everything she wanted. But she appreciates and loves her mother too, who was the disciplinarian and a sober balance to a carefree childhood. Her father was the greatest influence in her life but she admits that in recent years, she has taken on the worry characteristics of her mother Ester.
Post-war Philippines was, despite the rubble, a place to rebuild and bring back the gaiety of the past. Those who had real estate to build on, did so, and reclaimed lost fortunes. The Araneta family's extensive land holdings in the grassy fields of Quezon City became the first in the country to be transformed into a commercial and retail establishment with a new upscale department store. Late, inspired by Rome's Colosseum, Amado Araneta would build the then largest domed building in the world and making it the premiere entertainment centre for many years.
They were the boom years and fashion would not be far behind. Of all the Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines has had the historical edge. If the splendour of indigenous colours and designs by tribal groups weren't impressive enough, then add the assimilation of colonial fashion, send your elite abroad to gestate European and American couture, throw in a bounding '50s and '60s economy for good measure, and you have a very sophisticated, style conscious people. Once, you could spot among a gaggle of Asians in an airport who the Filipina would be. They were always the ones who had the best fitting suit on.
Our vintage sense of couture plus a family empire was what Baby was born into and she can truthfully say "I was born with a sense of style. I didn't pick it up from anyone. I knew what was becoming to me."
Fitting, fitting, fitting was what Baby stressed most when we segued into talking about style. Besides the look, besides the fabric, it seemed the fit was most important to her.
"I am finicky during a fitting," she softly asserts "for I have a sharp eye for lines. My dresses have to be well fitted and finely finished. I can then carry a dress well. A dress must not carry you." She reminisces about a shop in Malate called Leslie's and a Spanish lady named Maria Esteban who were excellent at fitting clothes for young ladies. Later, Ramon Valera further sharpened her mania for fitting.
Despite the fact that she has designer clothes in her closet and pays homage to the best of them, she has, in pursuit of a perfect fit, designed her very own clothes. She is also a lady who thinks out of the box. For her favourite portrait, the one by Claudio Bravo, she wrapped herself in a large piece of cloth. Clutching a made up flounce and posed to one side, she looks like an Egyptian queen entering a party in a ball gown.
Fond memories of style swirl around a peak period in one's life. Baby utters the names of her favourites who she calls "the originals" in a reverent tone: Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, and Ramon Valera. And she adds after a pause, as if for emphasis, Halston.
Today's designers? "Too avant-garde," she quickly replies. "I won't touch them." Gaultier? "I can't wear those clothes anymore. They're too way out and my age doesn't allow me. And they're not my type of clothes. I won't just wear anything." Baby does make an exception though for Inno Sotto and Roy Gonzales whom she feels carries on the tradition of the "originals."
The society pages have always had a voracious appetite for best dressed women, or there wouldn't be such a section. In the process, myths are spawned about how these women have dressed only to gain attention. That is the furthest in Baby's mind. She dresses for herself and public attention is incidental. It's rooted in upbringing, the sense of looking good when you leave your house.
Being grilled excessively on fashion and style, Baby makes a declaration. "Fashion never overcame me. I don't think of style 24 hours of the day. I don't dwell on it. I know what I want when I see something, the brand doesn't matter as long as I like it. I don't spend the day thinking of clothes or live my life trying to make myself a best dressed woman."
In New York it was a different matter. The city thrives on fashion and when Baby lived there in the seventies, she would get attention if only to show that she too was another different person, like the hundreds of different nationalities and ethnicities that make up the city. In a country-obsessed, often ignominiously, with racial colour, Baby had her mind-bending revenge. She'd tan as dark as can be yet reveal through her sleeveless blouses the fair lines left by her bathing suit. She wore socks during a tan which would later cause people to goggle upon revealing her white feet.
She's had her share of silly antics too and one, almost at her expense. She decided to go ethnic one summer day, wrapped herself in Batik and strolled down Madison Avenue. To her horror, the skirt started to undo and fall down, and she had to grab it and tie it very, very fast.
Her twelve year existence in New York, the Park Avenue flat and the upstate farm are legendary and talked about and didn't seem appropriate any longer for this interview. Years have passed, life has changed and certainly that of Baby Forés. An unexpurgated autobiography would be the only justice to the life she led or bruited about.
For now, I see a reflective self-content woman who points at a favourite Felix Hidalgo painting. It's a woman, dressed in sheer white crouched on the ground, a tropical wind blowing about. She covers her face from the wind. One can feel the serenity within despite the turbulence surrounding her. Baby feels a strong kinship with this painting.
She casts an eye at a nearby grandchild watching television and smiles broadly. She has "graduated" she calls it, from doing on her children. Her attention is now transformed to her grandchildren. She prays, something she says has been a constant in her life, but much more now. She remembers forgoing a debut and, instead, giving what would have been spent to charity. Today, she gives her time and resources to an organisation helping streetchildren.
I asked her to grade herself from 1-10 on how she's fared with life. She wisely answers that the numbers would vary, "float" to be exact, depending which period of her life she remembers. She has no regrets because even if there were any, "I learned something about life and learning is never a setback."
There was a long pause. Her eyes reflected a second review of her life. "I'll give myself a '10' though for being truthful. In living my life, there were no rules, I only followed my passion."
- Photography Jun De Leon
- Styling Anton R, Mendoza
- Hair Patrick Rosas
- Make-Up Patrick Rosas