Criselda Lontok, the real woman
who designed for real women

Once a top model, one of the beautiful Filipinas, she didn’t stop at glamour but with passion, built one of the strongest fashion brands

Criselda Lontok during the Tatler Ball a few years ago: She understood the Filipina’s urge to wear figure-flattering clothes, then adapted to the life demands of the pandemic. (Photo by Thelma San Juan)

Criselda during her 35th anniversary gala show at the Peninsula Manila in 2018: She kept her cool amid backstage pressures. (Photo by Thelma San Juan)

Criselda Lontok as a young beautiful Filipina captured in a portrait by Tropicana Malabon, the famous photography studio of the ’50s (Contributed photo)

Interviewing Criselda Lontok was one of my first fashion assignments for the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s newly-minted Lifestyle section in 1986. Inquirer had repositioned itself from an opposition newspaper to a middle-of-the-road publication after the 1986 People Power Revolution.

I remember meeting this well-dressed woman in her office who talked about her fashion influences, such as Valentino. She had been separated from Anthony Fernandez, the son of former Sen. Estanislao Fernandez and a consultant for government golf courses. The designer politely underscored her maiden name— Lontok.

The Criselda Lontok brand was the first local ready-to-wear brand to carry sizes 8 to 18. Since its inception in 1983, her namesake collection has been the consistent top seller in Rustan’s private label category. The figure-flattering silhouettes cater to the underserved market that also had the spending power. Criselda also indulged the Filipina’s penchant for bright colors and bold prints.

In the ’50s and ’60s, she was a leading fashion model for the Philippines’ foremost designers such as Pitoy Moreno and Salvacion Lim Higgins. She then ran several dress shops until she joined Rustan’s in 1974.  She started as merchandising manager for foreign fashion labels introduced by Rustan’s in the growing Philippine market, until Rustan’s co-founder Gliceria “Glecy” Tantoco asked her to produce a collection for fuller figures.

“Say Criselda Lontok—it’s synonymous with glamour. It’s an aspirational brand. Women want to look gorgeous,” says Criselda’s former merchandising manager, Meca Penson Prieto.

She recalls how her former boss was devoted to her mother, Isabel Lontok. The designer’s label originally spelled out Criselda’s married initials, CLF, for Rustan’s. The designer asked her mother’s permission to use Lontok for her label. Criselda took care of her mother until the matriarch passed away in 1997.

Looking at Isabel Lontok’s photograph in her office, she told Prieto, “Always love your mother.”

Prieto now has an online fashion brand, Nena, named after her own mother. “I learned from Criselda that the brand was her name. That’s why she took good care of it.”

Last September 22, Criselda passed away after cardiac arrest at Makati Medical Center.

John Anthony Fernandez, 55, her youngest son, is an entrepreneur and a barangay council member. He lived in the same Makati condominium as his mother. He has two older siblings—the twins Mari and Carla.

Balancing career, social life, and motherhood, she would be home before dinner to be with her children

“That (his mother’s death) was the most harrowing experience for me. Every time I spoke with someone close to her, I wasn’t prepared to answer. I would start crying. My two siblings cried as much,” says Fernandez.

Believed to be closest to his mother, Fernandez says it was just by virtue of being the youngest. “My parents have been separated since our early teens. Our mom raised us, but our dad was there when we needed him. When they split up, she was forced to take a job. Before Rustan’s, she had Pink Elephant, a small boutique which sold RTW, but it wasn’t stable. She applied at Rustan’s. My late grandmother was a good friend of Glecy Tantoco. Mom became the breadwinner,” says Fernandez.

She used to punish us by making us kneel on mungo beans. She said she could make it worse with salt

Balancing career, social life, and motherhood, she would be home before dinner to be with her children. Criselda was charming to people, but with her children, she was the disciplinarian. “We felt she was a terror,” says Fernandez. “She used to punish us by making us kneel on mungo beans that hurt our knees. She said she could make it worse with salt. That’s how we developed our inner strength.”

Yet, he has fond memories of his mother’s affection. “I would squeeze her arm and she would squeeze me right back. That’s our love language. We don’t express ourselves in words, so we are touchy-feely. When I was a child, Mom would let me tag along especially to Rustan’s. I’d make lambing. She’d give me a peso to go to the game room below at Rustan’s Cubao, or another peso for donuts,” says Fernandez.

Prieto recalls that being with Criselda was more fun than work. Prieto was assigned to Rustan’s children’s department, then left. When Prieto returned in 2014, Criselda asked the human resources department to assign Prieto to her brand. “Her sales were at a plateau. For many years, Criselda had only a staff of merchandisers. She was division manager of ladies’ wear and manager of her own brand. It was difficult for Criselda to focus on her label. She needed someone to manage the brand and plan events.

“Every Monday, suppliers came with fabrics. She’d look at the fabric, drape it over her shoulders before the mirror, then she’d start sketching.  She knew if a neckline looked flattering on a woman or not. ‘Let’s make it sabrina or make this kind of neckline so she can show off her jewelry,’ she would say,” recalls Prieto. “The design had to be bongga—the bigger the sleeves, the bigger the skirts, the better. She loved ball skirts.”

If there was a detail such as a big flower, Criselda would move it somewhere on the dress to hide the little bulge or draw attention away from a figure flaw.

“She’s a big loss to Rustan’s. There’s no other local brand that comes close to her concept.  People would go to her boutique almost every day where she’d give advice to shoppers. She had a big pull for the crowd for her events,” says Prieto.

Everybody who knew her admired her style and poise, as she was never dowdy nor showed a trace of aging gray hair. Even in her own office wardrobe, her taste was bold, like aqua pants with a purple-orange top. She would be shod in purple shoes and accessorized with her favorite aquamarine.

Criselda (left) with Nedy Tantoco before a portrait of Glecy Tantoco (Contributed photo)

Nedy Tantoco, chairperson of Rustan’s, tells about Criselda, “We are deeply saddened by the passing of our dear Criselda. Her design legacy and long collaboration with Rustan is truly appreciated and treasured. You cannot help but use the cliche ‘she is a beautiful woman inside out,’ because she is! She will be greatly missed and will be a hard act to follow. Thank you, Criselda, for all the great and wonderful years!”

Rustan’s co-designer Pia Hebron observes how Criselda quickly adapted to the needs of the times. “She toned down her style during the pandemic. Early on, her collections highlighted jacquards and brocades. Now she has more casual and looser styles, but still elegant. I would see a rack full of prints and bright colors inside her office.  She was into more subdued and solid colors lately,” says Hebron.

She notes that despite Lontok’s achievements and seniority, she was humble and  open to learning new things, and accepted feedback on her collection. “Criselda was genuine, caring, and very generous with her compliments,” says Hebron.

All her colleagues commended her  dedication to work.  Says Hebron, “She would come early to work on Monday, then spend the rest of the week in the boutique at Rustan’s Makati to meet her customers. When we traveled together, we worked late. She’d stay in warehouses, picking the styles for shoes and supplies for her collection. That’s why she was so successful. You felt her passion. She’d invite me to her room and  show what’s coming out in her line. She’d be excited to show a particular fabric or dress. She was more of a friend. The people in the store say she was approachable, and she didn’t judge anybody.”

She slept without air conditioning because it dried up her skin. To avoid wrinkles, she slept with her head between two pillows

Aside from being hardworking, Criselda was loved for her nurturing instincts. Maritess Tantoco-Enriquez, director of Rustan’s Group of Companies, says Criselda would give her tips on what customers wanted, since the designer frequently interacted with them. As a traveling companion on buying trips in the late ’80s and ’90s, Criselda was jolly and enjoyed good food.

In a Rustan’s event a few years back, Criselda (far left) with Ambassador Bienvenido Tantoco, Maritess Tantoco-Enriquez (standing) and Ching Montinola (Photo from Tokie Enriquez’s FB)

Enriquez adds, “Criselda was vain. I was a high school freshman when she told me she slept without air conditioning because it dried up her skin. To avoid wrinkles, she slept with her head between two pillows to keep from turning to the side.” For three decades, Enriquez followed the advice of sleeping without the air conditioning, until she got hot flushes.

Jackie Aquino was her long-time director for her fashion shows—from mini-presentations with no budget in San Francisco to her 35th anniversary gala at Peninsula Manila in 2018 and her regular fashion shows at Rustan’s Makati.  He recalls how she remained cool amid the backstage pressures. “She’s hands-on. Criselda loved Italian music. She never lost her temper. She took things in stride, especially in shows with many ‘divas’. All the señoras (veteran models) could not say no to her. Criselda wanted to use fuller women because her sizing was for a different market. We had to use professional models of a certain age, such as Tweetie Gonzalez and Melanie Marquez.”

Criselda with Jackie Aquino in her San Francisco show directed by Aquino in 2014 (Photo from Jackie Aquino)

One loyal customer was Mariliese Evaristo, who, despite the popularity of her own boutique of foreign labels, Colecciones New York, in the ’70s, wore Criselda Lontok. “I’ve known Criselda since childhood. We called her Ida. She’s older than me. I’m 76 now. Whether she wore casual or cocktail clothes, she matched them with the right accessories. We prodded her to open a boutique. There’s no other designer in the Philippines who makes her kind of clothes. The fabrics are different and of good quality. People thought my clothes came from Paris. Criselda had the eye for beautiful things and the passion.”

Evaristo is grateful that Lontok gave her son Carlo, the accessories designer, the opportunity to style her fashion shows.

Aside from being chic and ladylike, Criselda was prayerful. Fortune Ledesma, honorary consul to Monaco, says the late designer was active in Mary’s Way, a Catholic women’s organization. “We met via Zoom every Monday afternoon. She was always present to pray the rosary and the chaplet and attend the Mass.”

Criselda (right), Fortune Ledesma—both August-born—celebrating their birthdays together (Photo from Fortune Ledesma)

Her last message on a Viber group, a funny video, was sent on Sunday, Sept. 19

Throughout the pandemic, publicist Susan Joven never lost touch with former Rustan’s colleagues. Their Viber chat group, Rustan Rebels, included former models-turned-managers Susan Reyes and Vicky Pimentel and designers Vicky Lopez, Larrie Silva, and Criselda. Joven says Criselda sent one or two messages a day, whether it was about health or a joke. “Her last message, a funny video, was sent on Sunday, Sept. 19. She didn’t say that she was feeling bad.”

Criselda (seated, right) with former colleagues from Rustan’s, who had their own fashion labels or managed brands in the ‘80s:
Vicky Lopez (seated left), standing, from left, Susan Reyes, Larrie Silva, Susan Joven (ex-Rustan’s PR who started her own PR agency) and Vicky Pimentel (who opened a restaurant chain). (Photo from Susan Joven)

Asked about her activities during quarantine, Criselda told Joven that she prayed, exercised around her condominium, and made rare visits to the Legazpi Sunday Market (before the COVID surges) and was vaccinated last May. She entertained herself with such teleseryes as Ang Probinsiyano.

“We never talked about her boutique,” says Joven. Before the lockdown in July this year, their chat group organized lunch in a Chinese restaurant. Criselda was the only one who declined.

They talked about everything except her age, which was a taboo subject. Recalls Joven, “She was sensitive about it. I asked how she applied for a visa, and she answered that she didn’t put the year.”

That was typical Criselda humor, says Joven. “She was very positive and she loved to laugh. Criselda was a beautiful woman with a beautiful heart.”

Read more:

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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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