The Life And Times Of Salvacion Lim Higgins
This feature story was originally titled as The Life And Times Of Slim's, published in the December 2003 issue of Tatler Philippines.
Before the word "cool" became popular, Salvacion Lim Higgins was already a proponent of it. Besides being an innovator in couture, she defied conventions which, by today's standards, are considered chic. She got married at 40 in an era when a woman was deemed a spinster by 27. Her expatriate husband, Hubert Higgins, was seven years her junior. When the generation gap between parents and children was the norm, the couple treated their children, Sandra and Mark, like their peers. Slim (she signed her name S. Lim) was the original FV (fashion victim) who was always captivated by the novelty of garment, accessory or product and would certainly get them by hordes. Before anybody heard of Shu Uemura cosmetics, she would ask her children, who were then studying abroad, to look for the brand in some little-known boutique. Before boomers invented "downaging," Slim, who was already in her late '50s, was a Hot Mama in short skirts and tight clothes. Yet, for all her iconoclasm, her vision and flamboyance led to the establishment of Slim's, a pioneering school in fashion design and dressmaking, that has shaped the careers of generations of Filipino designers.
Slim was born on 28 January 1920, to Luis Samson Lim Katiam, a Chinese émigré, and Margarita Diaz. Her father was involved in the ship chandler business while her mother remained a homemaker. The Lims has seven children—the four girls eventually ventured into fashion. They were trained by their mother to follow a disciplined life and to be independent. The virtues of diligence and punctuality later became known in the clan as the Lim work ethic.
As a child, Slim was unusually bright and sometimes she liked to create her own world. In their home in Legaspi, she would retreat into her private space and scribble on her table. As time went on, her mind got "curioser and curioser" like Alice in Wonderland. She'd pick up an image from a periodical or magazine and let her imaginative mind soar far above the earth even until her adulthood.
Slim studied fine arts at the University of Santo Tomas and dreamed of becoming a painter. After the war, the most logical career for a woman was to venture into practical arts such as fashion design. In 1948 Slim and her elders sister Purificacion set up Slim's shop on Taft Avenue, then a tony street.
Manila was strongly influenced by the Hollywood glamour of the '50s and '60s. Slim spent time in Europe and New York, watching the fashion collections and acquiring new techniques. A clothes-horse, she bought designer brands and analyzed their construction. Using her ingenuity, Slim developed her own style.
Unlike many designers today, Slim mastered the cardinal rule in making a garment: using the appropriate fabric for a design and knowing its properties. She also had a keen eye for proportion. "She taught me the more esoteric things. To execute the design, you need to know your vocabulary just as a painter knows what supplies to use and pigments that would work so that when you can pick up a piece of fabric, you can mould and construct it," says her son, the painter-designer Mark Higgins.
She mounted a fabric on a mannequin or a model and created beautiful clothes without a flat pattern. Slim would always encase the dress form or client in fabric in front of the mirror. She looked at clothes from the perspective of the wearer instead of an observer. Along with Ramon Valera, Slim was famous for her drapery. "If you don't know how to drape and know the grain line of the fabric, it would come out bulky and you'd look fat. My mother knew how to do it very well from years of experience," says Higgins.
Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga, the couturiers of her time, were her influenced. Slim's clothes would be architectural in relation to the female form. Her ball gowns took off from Dior's New Look, characterized by the wasp waist and crinolined, voluminous long skirt.
Like Dior she was famous was famous for an entire look that marked the froufrou and drama of the '50s. She was popular for her strapless dresses with dramatic cover-ups, ballerina skirts, cartwheel shawls, ballooning sashes, hobble skirts, exagerrated bustles and her own version of Dior's Belle Epoque.
Old clients commented on how Slim's clothes were structurally complex, yet they flattered the figure with the use of gathered waistlines; rows of slanted ruching and beadwork running in opposite directions and emphasis of the hips using stiff fabrics manipulated by cut, draping and gathers. Like Dior's Zigzag collection, Slim made clothes that vitalized the woman's curves by demanding that the eyes follow the lines of folds that stuck out away from the body.
Like Balenciaga, she made circular, flowerlike shawls to allow women to be coquettish. Higgins says his mother was inspired by a photograph of a Spanish farmer in a raincoat made of hay. "It's figuratively a wheel in pleated fabric that stands out," says Higgins.
An evening dress of note had an asymmetrical composition of a pouf on one side and a train coming out of the other side of the hip. To add whimsy to the perfect construction, corded loops and clusters of handmade flower petals sprouted from the architectural details. "This is how she used to dress people up," says Higgins.
Slim's clients, including herself, always looked theatrical. Although her clothes were flirtatious, they were always refined. To top off the architecture bravura of her designs, she made prodigious use of ornamentation, which ran the gamut from Swiss and corded lace to passementerie, appliqués and beadwork. The adornments were complex constructions on their own, made from scratch that drove her suppliers crazy.
"In those days they would embroider the flowers and stuff them so they looked embossed. My mother would pin the appliqué and motifs onto the gown to create the composition," says Higgins. Many of Slim's wedding gowns had an overskirt that split in the back and swelled into a bow, with wisps of tulle coming out of it. One of Slim's masterpieces was the wedding gown of First Daughter Linda Garcia. The terno itself would be difficult to replicate. "The sleeves of the terno were pleated, which they don't do anymore," says Higgins. The train was 14 metres long, made of transparent, iridescent fabric with Swiss lace and straw embroidery. It took seven people several months just to apply the pearls, make the floral and lead embroideries and corded lace. Besides Slim's genius came the discipline. "She went to a cocktail and suffered food poisoning from the bad food. She still had to finish a wedding gown. She delivered it, went to the wedding gown and then was confined in the hospital. That's our training: Finish what you promise. No excuses," says Higgins.
Sandra adds, "It's the Lim work ethic. My mom would tell me, 'Rise above the chaos and focus on what you're doing.' At the end of the day she had her family and no intrigues."
Slim's clients prodded her to teach sewing techniques to their daughters. Both Purificacion and Slim established the school named after Slim. It taught them the basics of pattern making, sewing, cutting and terno making. What started out as a recreational school for the elite evolved into a vocational school for aspiring designers. One of its achievements was to produce the generation of designers in the second golden age of fashion in the '70s, training the likes of Cesar Gaupo, now the chief designer for Shanghai Tang, the late Carlos Badidoy, a forerunner in ready-to-wear.
Slim savoured her career so that when she reached 40, she was ready to settle down. When Hubert told his future father-in-law about his wedding plans, the only thing Lim asked was if he could handle his daughter's short fuse.
An extreme perfectionist, Slim would explode when a garment did not meet her uncompromising standards. Once she tore the bustier of a gown because it was not sewn correctly. She threw it in the waste can, stamped on it and screamed. The sewer had to repeat the work. When the elder Higgins would pick her up on a date, she was never dressed on time. He'd suddenly see a jar of cold cream flying out of the bedroom door or hear shoes crashing on the floor. Yet he waited patiently for her.
Hubert and Slim were married in 1960. Her shop was closed for two months so that she could make her bridal trousseau and her gown, which had an 18-inch waistline. In 1961 she gave birth to Sandra and in 1963 to Mark.
In the Chinese tradition, Slim's father urged her to be a full-time homemaker since she already had a fulfilling occupation. She stayed at home, enjoying her magazines, travelled with her husband and children, and indulged herself with her fashion fetishes. She loved to experiment with hairstyles and to collect costume jewellery, unusual bags and shoes. Her taste in clothes varied. In the '50s she looked exotic in Suzie Wong attire. In the '70s she wore cutwork, canary pantsuits with a sheer top that had linen breast pockets for modesty and power suits in the '80s. For a 10-day trip to Hong Kong, she had 16 new suits tailored.
Sandra recalls that on her first birthday, party, Slim dressed her up three times like a little doll. Her daughter, growing up in the '70s, belonged to the jeans generation. Slim always disapproved of denims that Sandra recalled would mysteriously disappear from her closet.
Slim never thought of herself as old. She was like a best friend to her children and a peer to their friends. Once Sandra was reprimanded for wearing short skirts with a high slit at International School. Slim was called to the vice-principal's office, also wearing a short slitted skirt. "I can't believe I was called here for you to tell me that. I don't dress up my daughter to look cheap. You're wasting my time!" she stood up and left.
In the mid-'70s Slim came back from retirement. Sandra recalls her fearlessness. Slim financed the show herself from the venue to the collection. She called up her friends and clients such as Imelda Cojuangco, Chona Kasten, Elvira Manahan, Mary Prieto, Chito Madrigal, Carlyn Manning to model for her show.
Self-assured, Slim did what she pleased and never doubted herself. "She had a real sense of self. Her measure of success was on her own merit, not what other people thought or said," says Higgins.
Sandra says Slim never believed or read half of what was written about her. She was not a publicity hound or a product marketing unlike some of today's designers. In fact, she was media-shy. She entertained the press because she loved their company, not because she wanted exposure.
Sometimes she would tell journalists, "Aren't you tired writing about me? You should meet my niece who studied and worked in New York." Her niece was Jeanne Margaret Lim Goulbourn, the model-turned-fashion editor-turned-RTW pioneer.
Slim's second shop was on Amorsolo Street. From the late '70s to the '80s her designs went with the times. They were safer, albeit less elaborate. In the mid-'80s Slim was diagnosed with lung cancer although she never smoked. The family stayed in California for treatment. When she suffered hair loss due to the chemotherapy, Slim would design several adorned turbans. In 1990 a local glossy magazine was to give her a lifetime achievement award. She was supposed to prepare a mini collection for the awards. The trademarks were still there. One such design was a pouf dress with cabbage roses underneath and a train coming from one side of the skirt and draped over the velvet beaded sash. It was topped by an Italian silk wrap in iridescent taffeta that changed colours with the light. Another dress was a black skirt moulded with drapes. "It's just one piece of fabric but the rule of thumb from the Old School was never to put a seam unless it was necessary. The less you cut the fabric, the better. It's like origami," says Higgins.
Slim never made it to the show. She died that year at the age of 70. Higgins, who majored in painting at the Ontario School of Art and fashion design from Parson's New York, finished the collection.
On her deathbed, the whole family and a priest sent her off to her next destination on her journey. "Until the end my mother was fearless," recalls Sandra. "I asked her, 'Are you scared? She calmly said no. She never intimidated by anything or anyone. That was something she taught us."
Slim set the example of living with a clean heart and a connection with the divine that built the courage to face.