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Bid for National Artist Awards
for fashion heats up

Pitoy Moreno, Ben Farrales, Salvacion Lim Higgins, Joe Salazar, Inno Sotto—the industry pushes the nominations

Pitoy Moreno with fashion icon Imelda Cojuangco (Photo by Thelma San Juan)

Fifteen years after Ramon Valera became the only couturier to be conferred the National Artist Award for Fashion Design, the design community is making several bids for the National Artist 2021, and the campaign for the National Artist Awards heats up. There’s talk that the list of nominees has been whittled down to Jose “Pitoy” Moreno and Ben Farrales.

FAB (Fashion+Arts+Business) Creatives, an informal school and mentorship program, has been collecting signatures to endorse Marcelino “Inno” Sotto.   Slim’s Fashion and Arts School is putting forward its late founder, Salvacion Lim Higgins (a.k.a Slim).

The Philippine Fashion Coalition (PFC), an alliance of garment and accessories designers and manufacturers,  is endorsing Sotto, Higgins, the late Jose “Joe” Salazar and Jose “Pitoy” Moreno and  Benjamin “Mang Ben” Farrales. The PFC gathered materials on the bodies of work of the designers and endorsements by their peers.

Ben Farrales, in a relatively recent photo shared by his niece Leana Farrales-Carmona, was the last of his generation of designers.

Video: Cultural Center of the Philippines/Youtube

Managed by the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the National Artist Award (NAA) is the highest award given the Filipino artist in various culture disciplines, from visual arts to music and film. It is the  ultimate recognition given the Filipino artists whose extensive oeuvres are not only considered awe-inspiring by their colleagues and their compatriots, but also have defined the culture landscape. More important, these artists  created works that made us proud of our culture and of who we are. They  produced innovations that left a lasting impact. Their works have put the Philippines on the world map.

Valera merited the National Artist Award in 2006 for  the metamorphosis of the terno. He made over the traditional four-piece ensemble of the blouse, skirt, overskirt and scarf into a single garment with butterfly sleeves and a back zipper for the modern woman.   He likewise reconstructed the traje de mestiza into the maria clara wedding gown with bell sleeves.

 In 2009, then President Gloria Arroyo proclaimed Pitoy Moreno, theater artist Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, architect Francisco Mañosa and film director Carlo Caparas on the basis of “Presidential Prerogative.” However, the Supreme Court invalidated the conferment of the four recipients because they were not part of the list that was nominated by the NCCA and CCP.

After his death in 2018, Moreno’s family said in an interview that they would not appeal the National Artist Award.

We saw the need to be part of the conversation’

Asked why several groups have been coming out with their nominations and endorsements, Jackie Aquino, PFC president, replies, “We were all in same frame of mind: It’s about time that fashion be recognized again. We saw the need to be part of the conversation.”

To Mark Higgins, Slim’s administrator and son of the founder, the simultaneous nominations were coincidental and not a mad scramble.  “I would not call this a competition. As the highest honor given an artist, it should be prudently selected—based on merit, primarily.”

Jesus “Jojie” Lloren, FAB Creatives Inc. president,  learned recently that  art sectors  and artists’ colleagues could nominate the designers following the NCCA criteria and submitting documents and videos of their works.

Lloren has selected Sotto as candidate because of his familiarity with the latter’s work. “I can defend my stand,” he maintains. “We compiled all the NCCA’s requirements—documents such as newspaper and magazine clippings, pictures of his shows which are book bound videos and endorsement from peers.”

Inno Sotto (Photo from nominating group)

From Inno Sotto’s 1995 “Filipinno” shown in Paris, the Pintados segment, and Inno Sotto video in 1999 (Credits to Fashion Watch TV/Easiana Inc.)

Sotto promoted minimalism when Philippine fashion was over-the-top. He promoted upcoming designers and gave established designers a venue for creativity through the Fashion Watch series.  During the Ramos administration, he conceptualized the ASEAN Design Shows which were covered by the international media. He was instrumental in getting the Philippine design and crafts featured in CNN’s Style, anchored by fashion journalist Elsa Klensch.

He showed how Filipiniana should not be a literal interpretation of a costume but rather a garment for contemporary lifestyle that bears cultural influences. His Filipiniana collection was well applauded oversees for its integration of modernity and Filipino aesthetics.

For more than 20 years, Sotto has been sharing his knowledge with students and aspiring designers. He is best known as chief mentor to Ternocon, a terno making and convention/competition, guiding designers in creating innovative but wearable ternos.

It had been on Higgins’ bucket list to advance the nomination of his mother, Salvacion Lim-Higgins, after she was nominated by the late senator Helena Benitez in 2006. At that time Slim did not have substantial documentation.

When Higgins and his  late sister, Sandra, took over the Slim’s School of Fashion and Arts,  they  found a trove of information in  the archives. They produced a coffee table book, SLIM (Salvacion Lim Higgins): Philippine Haute Couture 1947-1990,  and their mother’s retrospective exhibit at the National Museum in  2009.

Slim is the only Filipino designer whose work is represented in two major museums abroad

Upon the prodding of a friend last year, Higgins felt it was his responsibility to nominate Slim, he being the only surviving heir.

A fine arts student, Slim began her career in fashion in 1947. She is the only Filipino designer whose work is represented in two major museums abroad. Two ternos are part of the Victoria & Albert Museum collection in London.    The Smithsonian Institution in Washington D. C. acquired Slim’s gown made for US First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. It was a gift from the then Philippine First Lady Leonila Garcia during the Eisenhowers’ state visit in Manila. The Slim’s gown was one of the 10 included in a traveling exhibit of First Ladies’ ensembles.

Salvacion Lim Higgins painting in vintage photo

Video: Slim’s Fashion and Arts School/YouTube

Slim and her sister, Purificacion Lim, founded the Slim’s Fashion & Arts School, which pioneered in the fashion design education in the country and has produced generations of fashion designers, many of whom had won in international competitions or have made names for themselves.

“This was a home-grown school.  They created a syllabus based on their experiences.  The curriculum has been tried and tested for 60 years. It’s a genuine technical school where students learn pattern-making and construction.  The alumni become one-man bands, ” says Higgins.

Higgins compiled clippings from the late ‘40s, films from her fashion shows and original photographs.  He also produced a 20-minute video Slim’s works which has been uploaded in YouTube.

When PFC received letters of endorsement for Slim and Sotto, the board decided to include Salazar, Moreno and Farrales whom they felt deserved the country’s highest artistic recognition.

“It involves a lot of paperwork that explains how their fashion was an art, their legacy to the industry, general acceptance and international recognition,” says Aquino.

Joe Salazar (Official photo submitted to NCCA)

On why Salazar deserved to be nominated, Aquino explains that he revived the interest in the terno in the years after the post-Edsa Revolution, with its negative association with the former First Lady Imelda Marcos.  Salazar dared to make an edgy interpretation of the terno for Miss Israel when the Philippines hosted the 1994 Miss Universe pageant. Salazar designed a terno made up of separate top and see-through hoop skirt with shorts underneath.  Today, three decades later, younger designers have adopted that experimental mindset.

Farrales, Aquino notes, was known for popularizing the  Mindanao influences in modern fashion, particularly his drapery, and his mentorship of young designers.

Moreno published Kasalan, a coffeetable on the cultural traditions of Philippine weddings and on his bridal gowns for his high-society clientele. He also published Philippine Costume,  a history of Philippine traditional costumes and its influences on his design. He promoted the Filipino culture abroad through his fashion shows.

The nominations have two deliberations. To avoid oversight, the NCCA formed a Special Research Group comprised of select connoisseurs to look into other candidates, adding to the nominations from the art sectors. The Council of Peers—scholars, experts, previous National Artists and art critics— examined the proposals.

Julius Caesar Buendia, PFC secretary, was part of the first  deliberation team for National Artist for Fashion Design in 2006.

“At the NCCA, we were given folders for each designer. Pitoy had the thickest. We ticked boxes on the quality of the work, contribution to the industry, to name a few,”  he recalls.

This time, Buendia was tasked to research on Sotto. “For me, Inno’s biggest contribution would be education. Our generation with Jojie (Lloren) and Joey Samson were influenced by his sensibilities: Less is more. When Filipino fashion was flamboyant, he brought restraint. As the chief mentor of Ternocon, he could articulate profound ideas to the young designers.”

Buendia was mentored by the late Salazar. “If Yves Saint Laurent perfected the tuxedo suit, Joe refined the proportions of the terno sleeve. His body of work is seen on real people.”

Lulu Tan-Gan was tapped  by NCCA  to join the second deliberation in 2006.  (The second deliberation whittles down the list of nominees which is sent to the NCCA and CCP boards for approval. The final list is given to the President for his selection.)

“We chose Valera not just because of his designs but for his innovation. Ramon’s designs were western but the exuded the Filipino soul,” she says.

‘He is Filipino at heart—not just in talent but in being of help to his colleagues and promote what is Filipino’

Lulu Tan-Gan, an adviser to PFC, was invited to nominate a designer.  Keeping mum about her NAA bet, she cites her criteria:  “First, he is able to influence the design community and this trickles down to the masses that it sets a trend. Second, he is Filipino at heart—not just in talent but also in being of help to his colleagues and promote what is Filipino.”

Ultimately, the nomination creates awareness that fashion is both a craft and an art form.

“The art is in the vision of the design, and the craft lies in the execution. Not every book or painting is great art or great literature. There is also a commercial side and a superficial side to everything, same goes for fashion,” wrote Higgins in an email.

“Like a great building, constructing a great dress begins with a vision. Then the choice must be made on the most suitable and superior materials. The technical genius to build on that vision happens by constructing the most skillful foundations or scaffolding to support that structure. Then comes the outer layer—be it cladding in stone or metal or in fabric on a human form. This is followed by surface treatment—architectural details of the building or the embellishment on the dress.”

All told, the same amount of artistic expression that goes into dance, music, theater, visual arts, literature, film and broadcast arts, architecture and allied arts also goes into fashion.

About author


She is a veteran journalist who’s covered the gamut of lifestyle subjects. Since this pandemic she has been giving free raja yoga meditation online.

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