Why is it important to have a new National Artist for Fashion Design?

As we wait for the official list of nominees for the Order of the National Artist of the Philippines, let's get to know some of the Filipino designers the local fashion industry endorsed.

Pitoy Moreno's terno (Photo from Pitoy's Facebook page)

Being a master craftsman, having a keen eye to spot inspirations, and demonstrating great taste are among the many things that make a fashion designer a true artist. While the clothes' primary purpose is to cover the body, we cannot deny that a "designer's touch," from the way the fabric is cut to the selection of prints and colors and more, takes an article of clothing to a masterpiece level that ultimately celebrates the wearer and, of course, beauty.

Locally, seeing a fashion designer as an artist has been solidified in many ways. But the most remarkable one of all happened in 2006 when the late Ramon Valera was bestowed with the National Artist of the Philippines distinction, the highest award Filipino artists can get in the country. 

As years had passed, the honor has been elusive for the esteemed fashion creators. But this time, the fashion industry is rallying to have a new addition to join Valera in the list of National Artist for Fashion Design.

Having a new champion

Among the many local fashion organizations that endorsed names to be included as nominees for the order is the newly established Philippine Fashion Coalition (PFC). Representing more than 500 fashion professionals, the PFC submitted five names for consideration: Ben Farrales, Salvacion Lim Higgins, Pitoy Moreno, Joe Salazar, and Inno Sotto.

"Their bodies of work and contributions to the growth of fashion as an art form in the Philippines are important to be recognized," PFC's Jackie Aquino tells Manila Bulletin Lifestyle. 

Salvacion Lim Higgins

While Balenciaga and Dior revolutionized fashion in the '50s, in the Philippines, it was Salvacion Lim Higgins that was breaking away from tradition by introducing experimental design details and silhouettes. Famously known as Slim, she was among the many Filipinos credited for making the terno a work of art.

"Her designs could rival the haute couture coming out of Paris in the ’50s and ’60s," CITEM executive director Pauline Juan said in a past Manila Bulletin Lifestyle story. "Slim was a designer in the truest sense, who drew the most exquisite clothes and knew exactly how to cut and construct them."

Slim's influence in Philippine fashion still lives on through the Slims Fashion and Arts School. According to Jackie, she is the only Filipino designer whose dresses are part of the collections of the Smithsonian and Victoria & Albert museums.

Ben Farrales

Also endorsed by the Designer Circle Philippines is the late Ben Farrales, who championed Minadanao silhouettes and made the malong a fashion staple. Mang Ben, as he was humbly called by his peers, created over 200 runway shows here and abroad, one of which was The Manila Hotel's first-ever fashion show in 1959. 

Also called the "Dean of Philippine Fashion," Mang Ben mentored numerous fashion designers, such as Danilo Franco and Gouilee Gorospe, and featured true Filipina beauty with Melanie Marquez, Marina Benipayo, and Tweetie de Leon modelling his shows. In 2015, he was given an award by the Cultural Center of the Philippines for his work with arts and design.

Pitoy Moreno (Photo from Pitoy's Facebook page)

Pitoy Moreno

Being featured by international magazines like Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Holiday, Jose "Pitoy" Moreno Jr. has introduced the words "jusi," "piña," and "lepanto" into the world's fashion vocabulary. Dubbed as the Fashion Czar of Asia, Pitoy was among the early advocates of the Maria Clara dress, showcasing local fabrics in his fashion shows and foreign presentations.

Pitoy's works have been the favorite of many Filipina political leaders. His dresses have also been worn by international royalties such as Queen Sirikit of Thailand, Queen Sophia of Greece, and Britain's Princess Margaret.

Joe Salazar's contemporary traje de mestiza (Photo from Salazar: A Retrospective Exhibit/ source: @fashionable_filipinas)

Joe Salazar

Timeless and romantic, that is how women would describe the work of Joe Salazar. From botanical-inspired pieces to columnar gowns, his couture pieces have cemented his name as one of Filipino fashion's greatest design leaders. A Valera awardee in 1975, his clientele included superstar Nora Aunor and the ever fashionable Imelda Marcos.

"Joe Salazar's ternos, specifically the ensembles he created during his lifetime, made a recognized fashion silhouette," Jackie said. "Salazar particularly became known for reinventing traditional Filipino fashion forms and fabrics."

Inno Sotto

Inno Sotto first started his journey in the industry under the wings of fashion designer Christian Espiritu, working as his assistant. Throughout the years, he had made a name for himself, setting the bar high when it came to workmanship, intelligent design, and modern minimalism.

“When you are in fashion, you have to be resilient and open-minded,” Inno told Manila Bulletin Lifestyle, pondering on his four-decade experience in the industry. “I did this at first because it was a learning experience for me. I learned so much from my clients and the people I work with."

Now, the designer continues to share his knowledge in fashion and terno-making to new breeds of designers through local clothing brand Bench and the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Ternocon.

"I also learn a lot from the people I mentor. I doubt I will ever give up designing. Not now, not ever,” Inno said.

Fashion as a form of art

Having a new National Artist for Fashion Design is sure to bring joy to the fashion industry. Apart from having an icon to celebrate, it is also worth noting that there is an aspirational sense that comes from the order that would help inspire new designers to explore the craft and be more creative with their work. As Fashion Design Council of the Philippines JC Buendia said, "I believe this recognition is important because it will inspire the next generation to do better for themselves and others."

But topping it all is the recognition of fashion as a form of art, and beyond just dressmaking. "Fashion is one of the many visual representations of cultures," Jackie said. "If you look at the history of all civilizations, the art forms that are prominent and have defined each era are architecture, the visual arts (painting, sculpture as examples), literature, music, and fashion. Fashion remains relevant as it continues to evolve. It continues to be defined by how the economy behaves and how we react. It is what you see every day."