A Benny for our thoughts

Published July 11, 2021, 12:15 AM

by Philip Cu Unjieng


Philip Cu Unjieng

When Rustan’s founder and family patriarch Ambassador Bienvenido ‘Benny’ Tantoco passed away early Tuesday morning, July 6th, an era of Philippine luxury retail came to a sad close. For along with his late wife, Gliceria ‘Glecy’ Rustia-Tantoco (who passed away in 1994), the Tantoco’s, Rustan’s, and SSI, were the pioneers in luxury retail here in the Philippines. They set the standard, brought what was then only available for those who regularly travelled abroad, here to the Philippines – to be properly represented, purchased, and enjoyed locally.

While we can trace Rustan’s provenance back to 1952, when they first established their San Marcelino store; the iconic image for so many generations of Filipinos will be Rustan’s Makati, and it’s five glorious floors of retail heaven. If London has its Harrods, New York it’s Bergdorf Goodman, and there’s Takashimaya in Tokyo, Galeries LaFayette in Paris; Filipinos would proudly call Rustan’s our homegrown bastion of the finest global brands, and highest quality local products. The Rustan’s shopping bag and gift wrapping paper are status symbols in their own right. And the second and third generation Tantoco’s have carried on, expanded, and refreshed, all that this dynamic retail couple set in motion close to 70 years ago.

I’m sure all sorts of tributes and accolades will pour forth about his 100-year life; but I’d like to write about Benny Tantoco’s warmth, the fondness I had for him and why, and to try to understand why even if I’m not family, I’ll miss his presence at their future events.

The Manila Bulletin announcement of Tito Benny Tantoco leaving us.

I first met Tita Glecy and Tito Benny in the 1970’s, as they were friends of my parents. My younger sister, Rose Anne, is a close friend of Tokie T. Enriquez, and it was from her that I’d first hear about the Ferragamos, and Christian Louboutin, on a first name basis. Through the years, and thanks to my work, I’d attend a number of the Tantoco-led events, and each time I’d greet Tito Benny, I loved how his face would light up when he recognized me – and in the later years, realized who I was.

Up to four years ago, he’d often make me sit beside him for a bit, and he’d reminisce about my parents, and about how he’d remember them each time he’d pass the house where I grew up. And like it was some memory test he was showing off he could pass, to prove he knew what he was talking about, he’d correctly mention the precise street corner.

With a glean in his eye, he’d even joke about how my father was a naughty man after my mother passed away. When I once shot back with the comment that being ‘pilyo’ is one of the secrets for enjoying life, he smiled, tapping me on the knee, like we were colluding on some truth that we both knew – but it was best we kept it to ourselves. And I loved that we could talk like this and joke around, while everyone was deferring to him, or approaching him with extreme caution, like he was some fragile package.

Tito Benny, with grandson Donnie, pairing it for the photo op. (Photo courtesy of Donnie’s social media posts)

If I remember the year right, it was in 2015 that I approached him at a launch, and I asked him if he was already tired of having to attend all these Rustan’s and SSI events. I would notice how the moment he got there, the event would have to start, as quite rightly, they didn’t want him, at 94 years of age, getting exhausted. In fact, it was SOP to have him pose for some photos or the ribbon-cutting, then quietly allow him to disappear. I’m in fact notorious for my disappearing acts at these events, so I joked that we should trade vanishing secrets, or leave together.

To my surprise, and with a ‘pilyo’ twinkle in his eye, he said it depends on the event, and he regaled me with how he had attended a Women’s Underwear & Lingerie show the other week, and he was one of the last to leave the party. He started laughing, and even had a small coughing fit, so I got these dagger looks from his private nurse, who obviously thought I was some bad influence on her ward. Recovering, he gave me a sly grin, like he had let me in on a little secret. And I don’t know, but that very human side, how he could make light of his ‘for duty’ appearances, and still find pleasure in them, was an eye-opener to how Tito Benny was still embracing Life.