The runway was a burst of graphic effects—black-and-white patterns in gowns, and beaded kaftans exploding in color. Then came the nods to tradition—terno done with exquisite draping, trajes de mestiza with elaborate layers of lace, outfits inspired by the Muslim Mindanao culture, and embroidered silk chiffon beaded saris.
As the melody of O Sole Mio wafted in the air, the bride walked down the ramp carrying a parasol of cascading fabric sampaguitas.
These were the signature looks— the sure-fire hits—in any show of designer Ben Farrales, which his long-time fashion director Orlando “Ogee” Atos remembers so distinctly to this day. Farrales was known for elegant wear that moved with the body like a breeze softly blowing through a curtain.
Farrales passed away last March 6 at age 89. In recent years he had been confined in the home due to ailing health that came with age, his proteges—the designers, models, fashion directors he had mentored—continued to visit him, trying to reminisce with him about the old times. He was confined in the hospital early this year and died surrounded by his beloved kin.
His death came at a time he was nominated for the National Artist Award (Fashion Design in Applied Arts), the highest award given the Filipino artist by a collegial body of artists, heads of culture institutions, culture scholars and the Philippine government.
In the ‘60s, Farrales was given the title “Dean of Philippine Fashion” by Conchita Sunico, a prominent culture and fashion benefactor in the ‘50s and on to the ‘70s, the woman behind the country’s pioneering fashion shows here and abroad and the mover behind the Metropolitan Theater. The title, which became appended to his name all his life, was well deserved for his guidance, uncompromising standards and leadership skills—through the decades he organized the fashion industry into various projects, from fundraising for victims of calamities and disasters to establishing a religious group. These were Fashion for a Cause, the Red Cross fundraising gala, the Congregacion del Santisimo Nombre del Niño Jesus, which is a group of devotees to the Sto. Niño.
Born in 1932 and raised in Manila, Benjamin Samio Farrales grew up in Balik-Balik, then a historic street in Sampaloc. After taking up fine arts at the University of Santo Tomas, he worked for a high-end department store and learned the ropes in dress making at Aurelia’s, a popular dress shop after World War II.
He started at the bottom rung, sorting out pins and doing odd jobs at Aurelia’s
According to designer Manuel “Noli’’ Hans, a close friend of Farrales, “Mang Ben”—as he was called with respect by the fashion community—started at the bottom rung, sorting out pins and doing odd jobs at Aurelia’s. His eye for fashion design and is determination to have a career as a couturier drove him to set up his atelier on Mabini Street in Manila in the ‘50s. In time he opened his elegant atelier on Adriatico street in Malate, a stone’s throw away from Remedios Circle— with an awning facade and finely-crafted iron-grill gate. The Ben Farrales atelier became a landmark of the district.
As a member of the Philippine Couture Association, the first group that aimed to professionalize the Filipino fashion industry, Farrales joined international shows such as Fashion on Wings which was staged aboard a Philippine Airlines flight—a milestone production in the ‘50s— and fashion-cultural events staged in Philippine trade pavilions abroad such as the 1962 Seattle’s World Fair.
There’s the oft-repeated story about a phase in his life—when his sister, Aida, married Salipada Pendatun, the early Muslim statesman, Farrales lived for a few years in Cotabato where he immersed himself in Maguindanao culture. He was inspired by the slender silhouettes of its traditional attire and the versatility of the malong, the woven tube. Seeing the richness of Muslim Mindanao design, he began incorporating its influences in his formal wear and bridal wear. Farrales’ beaded keyhole neckline, with rich trimmings, became one of his signature designs.
In the early ‘70s, the popular fashion director Gary Flores advised Farrales to contemporize the Muslim attire for the Hyatt luncheon fashion show series. An offshoot of that was one of his classic designs—the minimalist pantsuit with malong drape. The shorts-and-blouse ensemble with a geometric-pattern cape was a reference to the vinta, the Maranao sailboat.
Farrales belonged to the triumvirate of Philippine fashion, the most influential and prolific fashion designers whose reign spanned half a century, no less— with Jose “Pitoy” Moreno and Aureo Alonzo. The youngest of the three, Farrales was the only one given the honorific “Mang” or “Mang Ben.”
The story goes that when a young designer blurted out, “Ben Farrales,” the senior designer found it impudent
The story goes that when a young designer blurted out, “Ben Farrales,” the senior designer found it impudent. He demanded that he be addressed with respect. “Mang Ben” has since become his moniker even with VIPs.
Farrales, the Dean of Filipino Fashion that he was, would always give his two-cents’ worth to designers. Hans recalls that since he was a product of Madonna’s School of Fashion and Costume Design, Hans tended to be over eager in adorning his clothes. Farrales would counsel him that a garment was not a celebration of a hodgepodge of ideas. “He would tell me to practice restraint,’’ recalls Hans.
Shopping for fabrics with Farrales was an educational field trip. He would show Hans the qualities of the material and how its weight determined the fall on the body. Basing the design on the fabric’s qualities was something Farrales learned from experience.
Designer Reynaldo “Jing” Chua values what he learned foremost from the Dean—discipline and integrity. Farrales was a stickler for punctuality, be that for appointments or meeting deadlines of job orders. He showed the younger crop of designers how to manage their time so that clothes would be neatly constructed and ready for pick-up.
“Mang Ben would be riled by reports about designers who reneged on their duty to deliver on time,” recalls Chua. “Yet, he unselfishly shared his knowledge when he looked at your work. If he ignored your design, it meant that you were probably not that important to him.”
An example of financial prudence, Farrales spent only on necessities and saved the rest of his earnings.
“Whenever we went out after work, Mang Ben ate simply,” recalls Chua.
‘’Mang Ben always told me to save for the future and not depend on relatives,’’ says Atos.
“He could call us ‘mga pagong’ (turtles) when we were lackadaisical or showed no sense of urgency,” says Hans.
His biggest impact on fashion was his fusion of modern shapes with Filipino inspirations, particularly the Muslim influence
Designer Barge Ramos gave Farrales credit for giving him new ideas for his barong designs. “His biggest impact on fashion was his fusion of modern shapes with Filipino inspirations, particularly the Muslim influence,” he says.
In a collaboration with Batik Philippines in the early ‘70s, Farrales used ethnographic prints on modern silhouettes.
Ramos was so influenced by that collection that he himself experimented with ethnic patterns on the barong. Ramos then held his first barong tagalog exhibit in 1985 at Ayala Museum. Local miller, Fil-Fibers, provided 100 yards of synthetic fabric that mimicked the texture of jusi.
Farrales had mercurial temper—a reputation that sometimes preceded him. “Like his colleagues, Mang Ben had idiosyncrasies and was a disciplinarian, which others might have seen as crude and impertinent, loud and bossy. Yet, because of this very trait, he was able to mobilize so many designers for his fundraising series, Fashion for a Cause. Whenever calamity struck, designers would expect a call from Mang Ben,” says Ramos.
Farrales also stood up for the rights of designers. During a Miss Universe 1994 parade at Agrifina Circle, the designers were not paid for clothes commissioned or lent the contestants. Farrales stormed into the organizers’ office and demanded prompt payment.
Even given such volatility, Farrales was known for his piety and quiet religiosity. He was a devotee to the Sto. Niño and founded the Congregacion del Santisimo Nombre del Nino Jesus. The Congregacion is a lay group of Sto. Niño devotees which has been holding worship activities and the annual exhibit and procession of the images of the revered icon decades before the pandemic. It is the administrator of the Sto. Niño de Violago Chapel, which was donated by the Violago family to the Quezon City diocese.
Before the pandemic, the Sto. Niño Feast, held every second Sunday of January, was celebrated with a procession of the Sto. Nino images in Manila. An exhibit marked the procession, with the Congregacion overseeing as many as 200 exhibitors and 50 Ati-atihan groups for the procession or grand parade. An evaluation meeting would be held every first Monday of February at Manila Hotel.
Dom Martin Hizon Gomez OSB of the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Bukidnon, who was famous as the designer Gang Gomez before he entered the monastery, was active in the Congregacion, with Farrales. The two were good friends. Gomez recalls Farrales’ passion and intensity, “Mang Ben would get stressed out every January. He was blunt and exacting. He would go ballistic but after a while, he would calm down and act as if nothing happened. We don’t take it personally.’’
As the Sto. Niño January fiesta drew near, Farrales threatened to quit the event. “I’m not going to move!…”
There was a time Farrales became weary of what he perceived was the non-committal attitude of the designers. As the Sto. Niño January fiesta drew near, Farrales threatened to quit the event. “I’m not going to move! Do everything yourselves,” he blurted out.
Gomez replied, “We accept the challenge!’’ Farrales was stunned by the fact that someone had the courage to talk back. Gomez took a softer tone and said, “Mang Ben, you’ve been working so hard. It’s about time the other members began to move.”
Farrales’ religious devotion was deep—even if it couldn’t neutralize his temper. He once told Hans that even if he presented fashion shows in the US and Europe, he was left unimpressed by the sights. It was only when Farrales and the Congregacion members went to religious pilgrimage places in Europe that he felt fulfilled for the first time in his travels.
A Sto. Niño devotee himself, Atos met Farrales through the Congregacion upon its formation in 1979. Eventually, Atos directed Farrales’ fashion shows here and abroad, including his retrospectives series in the previous decade.
“Mang Ben was very organized. Every detail was itemized. He trusted me with garment selection and choosing the models—a mix of professionals and volunteers—for the foreign shows,” recalls Atos.
In Farrales’ presence, the production team would feel the jitters. He expected nothing less than perfection from his models. If one came in late or missed the runway cue, he would get worked up. In time Atos learned how to handle the designer’s volatile personality—he would remind Farrales that the Sto. Niño would be “displeased” with temper outbursts.
“Mang Ben was a control freak in fashion shows. I would tell him to relax in the audience and let me handle the models backstage,” recalls Atos. The calm diplomatic approach always worked with the designer.
“People think he was mataray (a termagant) but he could be very nurturing. That was why we call him ‘Black Mother’, given his dark skin. I would tell him to lighten up when he got too serious,” says Atos.
A member of the Bighani, the models’ group from the Hyatt fashion show series of the ‘70s directed by Gary Flores, Petty Benitez Johannot has fond memories of Farrales.
“He had a commanding presence and was very expressive. When something went wrong backstage, he would throw a tantrum. But when he was happy, it showed in his eyes and genuine smile. He liked to chitchat during our fittings. When he liked you, he would go all out for you,” she recalls.
One of Johannot’s favorite designs was his landmark batik kaftan collection. The prints were painstakingly hand-painted on delicate silk. “They flowed on the ramp. In photo shoots, his clothes were very expressive—much like his personality.”
Johanna Paula “JP” Abinuman-Cox modeled for Farrales through the years, from 2000 to his last show in 2016. “Your word is your honor,” she describes Farrales’ work ethic. She recalls the case of the model he fired after she reported late for the show because she did “double booking.” Nonetheless, that model was paid her professional fee.
“If you say ‘yes’ to a show, you are expected to come on time as a sign of respect and professionalism,” she says.
Cox vividly remembers the Muslim-inspired skirt and blouse with the trademark keyhole neckline. The blouse was embellished with rows of rick racks, suggesting the geometric patterns of the South. Her favorite was an off-the-shoulder draped blue gown which skimmed her post-natal figure.
“It was beautiful and forgiving on my body,” says the model-turned-yoga educator.
Fernando “Bong” Regala became Farrales’ photographer of choice. He started out modelling the Muslim-inspired suits—high-collar jackets with a malong slung on it and worn with a taquiyah (Muslim skullcap)—and geometric embroidered barong.
“Once you start working with him, you would understand why Mang Ben could be intimidating. He didn’t like us to smile. He was every exacting about how to emote on the ramp, but in truth, he was very warm,” he says.
Farrales dismissed the suggestion, saying that he was too old to seek validation by society
Regala shot for Farrales’ press releases and documented his fashion shows.
For many years, designers had urged Farrales to document his designs and write his memoirs so that the next generation could learn from him. Farrales dismissed the suggestion, saying that he was too old to seek validation by society. Instead in 2001 he spent over seven figures to commission journalist Abe Florendo and photographer George Tapan to produce the coffeetable book Santo Niño: The Devotion of the Holy Child in the Philippines, printed all the way in Hong Kong as Farrales insisted.
A few years ago, Farrales was diagnosed with prostrate cancer but had survived it. In late 2016, he met a life-changing accident. Farrales was puttering in his front garden when he tripped, his head hitting the concrete pavement. The brain surgery to remove the blood clots left him with impaired memory and speech. Over time, he grew weaker and became bedridden. Atos was one of the few people whom Farrales recognized in those years.
Seeing Farrales’ precarious state, relatives commissioned Regala to document Farrales’ entire collection for posterity. “We discovered clothes that had never been shown and were pleasantly surprised,” he says.
The clothes were evidence of Farrales’ talent: A yellow gown, made from a single piece of jersey, looked like a Greek costume with a swag falling from the shoulder knot. A mantle of black chiffon shrouded an inner gown with red beaded patterns. An orange gown with asymmetrical neckline, diagonal pleats, gave the wearer the illusion of height.
The clothes showcased the designer’s legacy of technique and concept—be it pleating, draping, embroidery, graphic patterns.
“His clothes billowed and sloped away from the body. Mang Ben is the champion of draping,” says colleague Christian Espiritu.