Auggie Cordero: Our friendship was rather unusual

His clothes were not fashion statements so much as declarations of my brown, female and Pinay power

The author as young bride of Dan Schwartz, wearing an Auggie Cordero softly tailored bridal ivory dress with Chantilly lace.

The author, in Auggie Cordero cocktail dress, and Dan in Auggie Cordero barong, during their wedding vow renewal, with their children

BROOKLYN, NYC—I still have the first dress Auggie Cordero ever created for me when I was 20 years old. It is a color block shift in black, green, and fuchsia, with huge mutton sleeves and shoulder pads in keeping with the early ‘80s. Simple. Dramatic. It was my go-to dress and I wore it everywhere. Over the years, the pads and the sleeves came off when they stopped being fashionable but the original silhouette remained unchanged. After I gave birth to two children, Auggie loosened the dress, the better for me to wiggle my post-partum body into it without tearing the seams apart.  I can no longer wear the dress yet I can’t see myself parting with it.

The news of his passing came as a shock, the light turning into dark, never to return. We had spoken on the phone in May, one of our two-hour marathons, the two of us on either side of the Pacific. My day, his night.

I remember meeting him for the first time more than 40 years ago. He was already the Auggie Cordero. I was fresh out of college and had been recently hired as a staff writer for Mr.&Ms. magazine.  Fashion editor Cherie Querol Moreno was doing a cover shoot and she had invited me to come along. If memory serves me right, Dina Bonnevie and the late Alfie Anido were posing for the magazine cover, dressed by Auggie.

His atelier was on Alonzo street in Malate, a small, nondescript alley sandwiched between Bocobo and Adriatico, just wide enough for one car to park comfortably and accommodate the non-stop streams of tricycles going back and forth.  It was a stone’s throw away from Remedios Circle, the epicenter of Manila’s bohemian night life where cafes and bars stayed open until sunrise.

It was not easy to find unless you had specific directions. There were no flashy signs or fancy awnings announcing who exactly was in residence.  It was as if he didn’t want to be found, but was delighted when you did. Once you were inside, his salon was world’s away from the mundane and the banal, a veritable sanctuary for creativity and originality.

I had never seen a workspace like this, a living room filled with antique jars….

I had never seen a workspace like this, a living room filled with antique jars, an armoire filled with all kinds of fabric, silk floral arrangements. There was a large writing desk piled with blank white pads and fashion magazines, a small plate filled with his favorite Skyflakes, a glass of water, and a holder filled with sharpened #2 pencils. It was illuminated by a single lamp made from an old sewing machine, a gift from a client. When lit, it cast a soft glow on Auggie’s face.

In front of the desk was an ivory oversized sofa with a matching love seat. There I spent many afternoons taking naps, my body splayed along one length, cocooned by so many pillows I felt like a bird cozying up inside a nest. He (and his sister Neng) never shooed me away even when there were clients who came and left. I never noticed them and presumably, they didn’t notice me either. In Auggies’s space, you learned to speak in hushed tones.

Our friendship was rather unusual. I did not work in or write about fashion. I was not a society or political figure, as were many of his clients. In its ordinariness, the friendship was, for me, one of the most enduring. Yet what began as a transactional relationship turned into the personal as he became the milestone by which every important aspect of my life was marked and measured against. When I left the Philippines in 1986, our friendship remained unbroken, sustained by visits whenever I was home, and those phone calls where he frequently surprised me with things he knew about Brooklyn, where I lived, but which he knew more about than I did.

In 1987, newlyweds Dan and Sophia Schwartz in New York

He created my wedding gown in 1987, a modern confection in ivory and Chantilly lace. I didn’t want anything traditional. My father hand-carried the dress, two days before the wedding. Alterations were not necessary. When Dan and I renewed our vows 25 years later, he outdid himself and created another, a cocktail dress festooned with beads and ostrich feathers. He indulged my random fashion fantasies, from my Princess Diana phase, to Audrey Hepburn, to Frida Kahlo. I once sent him buttons from a favorite button store in New York, and he sent them back, this time attached to a new suit he had custom designed for me. When my father died in Manila, without being asked, a mourning dress was waiting upon my arrival.

My biggest thrill however was the yellow dress he created for my then 13-year-old daughter for her Bat Mitzvah in 2008. I got a big kick out of watching Auggie attend to her as if she was his most important client.  Amalya was so nervous she barely spoke as Auggie and his top seamstress Caring turned her this way and that. Watching them, I had this fantasy he would one day create her wedding gown, bringing full circle a friendship that began many years before.

He understood the context of my existence— as a person of color living in a predominantly white world

Auggie was special to me not because he made clothes that made me look good. He understood the context of my existence— as a person of color living in a predominantly white world—and what I faced on a daily basis without my ever telling him. His clothes were not  fashion statements so much as declarations of my brown, female, and Pinay power. They were transformative and empowering.

I ceased to be another warm body making her way through the scrum, invisible unless you walked into me. He lifted and shielded me from the objectifying, racist gaze that trailed people like me.  He gave me an arsenal of confidence so I could rise above the fray and walk with distinction.

Occasionally he would tease me, asking where I was going whenever I asked him to make me something new. Ball skirts, ball gowns, more feathers. I had no place to go, really, but liked the idea of having something of his to wear, if and when needed.

I am filled with sadness that there won’t be any new Auggie to add to my collection. I open my closet and run my fingers through the clothes he made for me, some of them so new and unworn, their labels with my name, still attached. I am grateful for them, each one a testament to a friendship that transcended time and trends.

As I run out of words to honor my friend, I think of the great Rabindanath Tagore whose thoughts on Death seem appropriate:

Say not in grief that she is no more,
but say in thankfulness that she was.
A death is not the extinguishing of a light,
but the putting out of the lamp
because the dawn has come.

About author


Based in New York, she wrote the novel ‘Always Hiding,’ one of the few Filipino novelists whose works have been published in the US.

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