When you walk into the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde’s exhibit on Ben Farrales, you are greeted by a section on the designer’s life and a photo wall of dresses inspired by the Philippines’ eminent fashion designer and couturier. For an exhibit on a Filipino fashion icon, anyone would think that there would be more to it. But as you walk past the first portion of the exhibit, you see the next area that is only a primer on what is yet to come.
As far as the eye can see is the exhibit room filled with all manner of womenswear designed by “Mang Ben”, as the pillar of Filipino fashion design was called by his peers and high society— all of which were generously donated by his family to the College for future designers to learn from.
The exhibit also consisted of pictures, article excerpts, and pieces of fabric from Mang Ben. But there was another layer that architect Gerry Torres, curator of the exhibit and director of the Center for Campus Art at Saint Benilde, wanted to showcase. In the exhibit hall, observers could look at miniatures of Farrales-inspired designs created by the students using fabrics from the late designer’s studio—all done during the COVID lockdowns in 2021. The students couldn’t procure fabrics in the lockdown and Farrales’ family was gracious enough to give them access to Farrales’ fabric inventory.
“One of our mandates was always to include the students in our exhibits, and the way to go about this was to let them react to whatever exhibit will come to the school,” Torres explained when asked why he wanted to include student designs in the exhibit.
Torres stressed the vision: “There were two objectives for the show. The first was to exhibit the gift of the donation. But I’m also very conscious that there is a need to introduce the young generation to Ben Farrales, especially because we are educating upcoming fashion designers. So I think they should get to know Mang Ben and his work. So those were the two objectives of the show. That’s why with their participation now we have a generation of sophomores, now incoming juniors, who are fashion designers who are now aware of Mang Ben’s work. It’s a multi-generational show. Not just a looking back but also a looking forward.”
Beyond being a beautiful tribute to the late designer, the exhibit felt like a furthering of his legacy in the Philippine fashion scene when I examined the designs of the students. It was inspiring seeing their different takes. The pieces ranged from modern renditions of classic Farrales pieces, to designs based on his traditional techniques and beadwork; some students even applied his work ethic and design philosophy.
The exhibit is more than just a static show of works; it was a beautiful way to display the merging of the past and future in the present.
We interviewed 10 designers for this article, whose miniature dresses are on display: Angelica Yabut, Jolo Fernandez, Zui Masilungan, Ashley Jade Castro, Raya Pineda, Elijah R. Mananghaya, Reinjamin Riodique, Gabriel Sarmiento, Gayle Belvis, Ulysses Caragayan.
Asked about their knowledge of Mang Ben prior to the exhibit, all said how they had very little or no knowledge about the late designer. Those who had said they learned about him from older relatives who talked about his work.
Gayle Belvis recalled the first time: “I first heard of Mang Ben from my mom. My mom really loved pageants, and she mentioned Ben Farrales since Mang Ben was a frequent designer for beauty pageants. Mang Ben was also featured in one of Lino Brocka’s films.”
“I first heard about him from my lola,” said Jade Castro. “When I mentioned that I was taking up Fashion Design, she said that I might be as iconic as Ben Farrales. I guess she knew about him from their time. I learned more about him through this course.”
Something about the students not knowing much about Ben Farrales broke my heart, and reminded me of my younger self. Before going to university, I had prided myself in being someone who wanted to know more about the movies, and I believed I was quite well versed. But when asked about local filmmakers, I realized I had overestimated myself. How heartbreaking was it that I had little knowledge of local filmmakers? I could name 10 international directors and talk extensively about their creative process, but nothing about anyone in my country. All I had ever known were movies for the masses—cheesy romcoms, melodramatic plots of mistresses and hidden children, and not much else.
But just like in my case, I could see the students’ desire to learn more as they opened their eyes to the genius of Filipino creatives.
Mang Ben listened to the fabrics’
Gabriel Sarmiento told us about how Mang Ben’s masterful use and understanding of his fabrics inspires him. “I can relate to how he tried to understand the fabrics. He listened to the fabrics. It’s not like the fabrics were waiting only to be cut by Mang Ben. Mang Ben understood the fabric: its quality, its weight, and how it would drape on the body. You better learn how to apply these fabrics to your style.”
“Something that’s noteworthy to me is that Mang Ben’s work was dedication materialized,” pointed out Zui Masilungan. “Because when you look into each of his works, the intricacy, the timelessness, and the tastefulness were there in every inch of the garment. I think it’s very admirable—you see the passion of the artist.”
Zui’s point was something I got to see up close. Every work, no matter how simple it was at a glance, had an element of intricate delicacy that transcended time. Many of the clothes I would love to see worn today. Like truly exceptional art, each piece had a beauty not weathered with time. Despite fashion trends coming and going, Mang Ben’s designs proved that by going past chasing trends and by honing your craft, only then can you truly become a master of your craft.
There was something truly inspiring about listening to the wide-eyed, passionate students who were happy to talk about their work and what they studied. Beyond their love of fashion as form of expression, to them and evidently to Mang Ben as well, fashion was an art form worth taking seriously. The late designer’s influence on women’s fashion, his vision not just to follow trends but also to create his own, was something every student wanted to emulate.
Many of the students noted how some of his design choices and philosophy were surprisingly modern to them. He had looked into the rich culture around him that many young people didn’t know the Philippines had or hadn’t seen utilized the way Mang Ben did. His choice to highlight Muslim garb and create Muslim-inspired dresses using Filipino textiles and materials, like raffia, is something these students want to apply in their designs.
To many aspiring fashion designers, this is the principle of inclusivity and respect they want to see in Philippine fashion, and Mang Ben was doing it long before they were born.
We always tend to look outside our borders, not inward, whether it is because of our complicated colonial mentality or our underappreciation of Filipino artists and creatives. It’s as if Filipino creatives have to earn accolade abroad before we can appreciate them. There is something inspirational in seeing an art form, which has been underappreciated, but which is being valued and studied today. Ben Farrales’ impact on these students will hopefully continue the rest of their lifetime, and my hope is that they enjoy the appreciation and celebration they deserve as young fashion designers of the Philippines.
Farrales@Benilde is ongoing until September 10, 2022, at the 12F Main Gallery, School of Design and Arts at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde. The exhibit is open from Monday to Friday, from 10 am to 6 pm.