While European and American couturiers reigned as fashion dictators in the late 20th century, Augusto “Auggie” Cordero was at the forefront of the Philippine scene—the style guru of the baby boomers. For two decades, he reinterpreted French and Hollywood fashion that became trends here. Sometimes, his designs came even ahead of foreign designers.
By the ’90s, however, fashion became democratic as it emerged from the club scene and the streets. Still, Auggie was popular with the high society brides. The born mentor that he was, he advised young clients about decorum and other minute wedding details, such as adding drama to the wedding ensemble by using fresh flowers for their scent.
I was a tweener in the early ’70s when I first came across Auggie on a morning TV show. The hosts were gushing over his swirl skirts, panels of fabrics cut in the bias that produced all-out twirling. When Cordero came out with the Gatsby look—the front-pleat baggy pants with cuffed legs, the huge cabbage roses, and long pearl strands—it became the most popular look in social events. Eventually tailors and seamstresses copied that style.
In 1973, he was often interviewed after his “discovery” of Margie Moran, then the newly-minted Miss Universe. Margie, now president and artistic director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, recalls his advice to her for the pageant: Get a tan.
I first interviewed him for the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 1986, when Auggie was tapped by Plaza Fair for a RTW line, a department store at the Makati Cinema Square complex. He described his signature style as “pared-down.” His ready-to-wear line targeted the middle and lower-class market. Up close, the fabrics were beautiful and the construction was impeccable. I thought that these should have been at Rustan’s.
Meanwhile, his ward, top model Wanda Louwallien, was also inspired to come up with her own RTW. “Auggie was a details guy. He tried to do RTW, but it wasn’t him,” says Wanda.
Moving to BusinessWorld, I would interview him in his shop on Alonso Street in Malate. Any journalist who has visited his atelier would remember the stacks of books, magazines, and films that fueled his creativity. Auggie was one of the rare individuals whose literacy fostered his critical thinking. In hindsight, I realized why he requested for a well-informed reporter, and not a naïve one, to interview him.
Upon returning to Inquirer in the mid-’90s, I often heard about Auggie from Lifestyle editor Thelma San Juan, to whom Auggie was like family. He kept her on her toes, giving her feedback about the issues and the stories she ran, and sharing magazine clippings that would be useful for Lifestyle.
Designers looked up to Thelma for being knowledgeable and fair when she reviewed their shows. Anyone who was often in Auggie’s company would develop critical thinking skills.
His literacy fostered his critical thinking. In hindsight, I realized why he requested for a well-informed reporter, and not a naïve one, to interview him
Whenever former designer and Auggie’s ward Larry Leviste came to the office to submit his story, he told many anecdotes. Once Larry had to grab a wedding gown from Auggie’s collection for Anna Bayle’s wedding. The supermodel, Auggie’s discovery herself, was marrying a New Zealander at Villa Escudero on short notice.
“It was a duchesse satin bustled skirt with a long-sleeved beaded top,” he recalls.
After five years with Inquirer, Thelma left the newspaper world to become general manager of ABS-CBN Publishing. I was then tasked to handle the fashion and home sections of Inquirer Lifestyle. Despite Thelma’s absence, Auggie willingly made new clothes for our photo shoot for the fashion pages.
“I will help you,” he said.
He took the burden off me by requesting Patrick Rosas to do the make-up for all his fashion outings for Inquirer. Likewise, he introduced me to his latest discovery, Gorgette Nepomuceno, who was in the subtly sensual mold of his other famous discoveries, Menchu Menchaca (Soriano) and Joyce Oreña.
In late 1999, gallerist Albert Avellana was directing our pictorial of the home of designer Rusty Lopez. Rusty’s best friend, Joe Salazar, kept us company. The topic of the forthcoming launch of the Metrostar Express or the MRT Line 3 along Edsa cropped up. Albert had this idea that a fashion show should be held there with models alighting from different stations. Rusty, Joe, and Albert could not contain their excitement, such that I ended up talking to Albert Almendralejo of Apogee Productions to mount the show. With director Joey Espino, we chose Rusty, Joe, Rajo Laurel, Frederick Peralta, Barge Ramos, and Auggie to grace the finale.
On Dec. 14, 1999, the eve of the formal launch, the fashion show started at 9 pm at the North Edsa Station. Each designer was assigned to a specific platform. Auggie and his models, clad in white lace minis and gowns in taffeta, silk chiffon, and gazar, boarded at the Ortigas station. The show climaxed at the concourse of Shaw Boulevard.
Star City’s holiday attraction was the Circus de Ballet, a variety show of classic circus tricks and dancing at the then Star Theater. To challenge photographer Jun de Leon, we conceived a fashion shoot with a model (Joan Bitagcol) among the flame blowers, acrobats, contortionists, and stunt artists on stilts.
Designers always prepared a thematic collection even if their clothes would just be seen on newsprint. Though Auggie was known to be conservative, he created a flaming red silk crepe gown which exposed the back. In his trademark style of using overlays, a sarong was draped on top. He also had a penchant for blending sheer and opaque fabric, such as making a lace gown over a colored lining.
Auggie and his models, clad in white lace minis and gowns in taffeta, silk chiffon, and gazar, boarded at the Ortigas station
Knowing that I loved ballet, he later gave me the romantic tutu-inspired formal—a black lace camisole top and a pink tulle skirt with black beadwork that Joan wore while holding on to a trapeze.
The late Rina Veloso, executive assistant of Fred Elizalde, chairman of the FJE Group of Companies, booked the theater and mobilized the talents. Osias Barroso, the associate artistic director of Ballet Manila, directed them.
Although Auggie was known to be a recluse, he joined the photo shoot for Tatler Philippines in 2008 for our story on Malate. We gathered all the designers who established their careers in that district.
When he died at age 78 last Oct 21, 2022 of natural causes, those who were close to him grieved. To them, Auggie was the parent or best friend, the worldly-wise soul with a big heart.
Menchu Menchaca-Soriano, former muse
I am deeply saddened by his passing. Auggie was like my mother. I met him the summer after my high school graduation. I was on the dance floor at Where Else when Larry Leviste, his assistant, came up to me. He said Auggie wanted to meet me for his upcoming show, The Gatsby. We got to know each other in his atelier.
Auggie was the sweetest and kindest person I have worked with. Though he never raised his voice, you could tell from the change in his expression that he was upset.
As a mentor, he explained how things were done in fashion. He explained the number of stitches in jeans and other technicalities. If you weren’t into fashion, you wouldn’t find it interesting. My eye was trained just by being in his company. We would look at the magazines and have discussions. I picked up a lot of things from him, and wanted to learn more. I cultivated my taste in clothing from him. Auggie favored the classic look. But he also liked details–buttons, pillbox hats, feather boas.
Whenever there were upheavals and intrigues, he advised, “Don’t mind it. Just do what you do.”
He designed my wedding gown, which was made of silk satin with mutton sleeves, and a scoop neck with a pleated edge. The embroidery and beadwork of the bouffant skirt were diffused by a light silk overlay. Since I didn’t want to wear a long veil, my headdress was made of netting. He wanted gardenias for my hair and for the bouquet because they were in season. It was beautiful and timeless. The gown means so much to me.
Wanda Louwallien, former muse
Auggie gave me the opportunity to direct his show at the Philippine Plaza. It was a big event. I put two brides at the center, marching to the Star Wars theme.
Whenever I’d go to his shop, he’d be drinking coffee with Coffee Mate. I’m not into non-dairy creamer but in his company, the coffee with Coffee Mate tasted good.
Thelma San Juan, Lifestyle journalism maven
Auggie was generous. When I was at the Chronicle, our paste-up artist died and had nothing to wear in the coffin. (The paste-up artist was a production staffer who cut up the typeset stories and manually pasted them into newspaper columns, before the advent of digital lay-out.) He was the Presidential designer then, busy, but he sent a barong for the paste-up artist.
He taught many life lessons. Auggie said that in this “user-friendly” world, you could count the number of friends on one hand.
Lorenzo “Larry” Leviste, former designer and assistant
I was in high school in the early ’70s when I became Miss Philippines for the Miss U contest at Jade Vine restaurant. Auggie introduced himself and offered to dress me up. He designed a white halter, backless gown with a long front slit in jersey.
Oskar Peralta, designer
We helped each other. When Auggie started his shop in the late ’60s, I would arrange the flowers. He would ask me about couture techniques because he wanted to know more. He was a continuous learner.
Loretto, illustrator and designer
Auggie was an educator. I learned a lot about fabrication and colors from him. He gave me many fashion books. For his birthday last August 14, I sent his favorite hamonado and freshly-harvested green mangoes for his customary appetizer. In the last few years, he made clothes for mature clients. He was already thinking of retiring.