Pepito Albert is, was, the “king of deadma” when it came to his design talent. In a fashion industry that thrives on hype and in-your-face branding, he simply couldn’t care less—that genuine nonchalance manifested with a shrug of his shoulders, or in really serious cases, just a dead glare and raised eyebrow.
And yet Pepito was a Filipino design genius, one of the best late-generation Filipino fashion designers, if not the best, as many in the local fashion scene would say. So it was no surprise that Philippine fashion was one in grief over the news of his passing Saturday, May 27, 2023, after battling cancer the past two years. He was 63. (I distinctly remember that he was born in 1960 because he’d remind me that he and PNoy were classmates at the Ateneo de Manila University in college, and likewise PNoy would tell me that his only link to Philippine fashion was former classmate Pepito.)
Indeed, Philippine design fashion suffered an irreplaceable loss.
And to think Pepito, as far as I can remember, never granted long interviews. The only sitdown—if you could call trailing him around our shoot “sitdown”—interview he gave was when we announced his return to the Manila scene in the ‘90s after a celebrated career in Los Angeles.
Pepito’s reputation and career weren’t built on hype even in an industry that remains anchored on marketing. His design genius—and taste—became known because of the select women and men who wore a Pepito Albert, and it was they who spread the word around. What must have been among his last designs was the barong for the newly elect President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.
Yet even with distinguished clientele, Pepito didn’t issue press releases. In truth, he didn’t have to. At a glance, even an untrained eye could spot a Pepito Albert—clean minimalist line, very sleek, just the right structure and volume that never overpowered the wearer, the correct silhouette and proportion, judicious use of accents and embellishment, the use of color or absence of it, the respectful and informed use and manipulation of fabrics.
A Pepito Albert was no cookie-cutter design. He didn’t copy, not even the works of fashion legends like Yves Saint Laurent or Chanel. In fact, he was copied.
Another designer I have in mind who came closest to Pepito’s minimalist identity and mastery of structure was the late Bubum Melgar, he of the monastic chic. But unlike Bubum whose works veered away from the body, Pepito could skim the body and show off its feminine shape. He knew what to hide—and what to show off.
I cannot forget what Irene Marcos Araneta told me about a Pepito Albert design, and I rephrase—“Such talent for (body) architecture. Only Pepito could construct (referring to her upper torso) it the way it should and I’d feel confident about.”
Irene was and is Pepito’s best calling card. She has been not only a faithful client of Pepito, but also his bosom friend who was at his side even through his battle with cancer. After Joe Salazar died, as far as we know, there has been no other designer for Irene but Pepito. Theirs has been both professional and personal compatibility.
‘His dresses elevate the woman wearing them—they are literally armor’
Kaye Tinga, one of the country’s best dressed women who has the unerring eye for sporting a fashion design talent, says: “Pepito is one of the rare designers who is more concerned about how a woman looks in a dress he made, rather than merely how the dress looks. It’s hard not to feel confident and prettier when you wear something he’s made—the detail can be so subtle but somehow it makes the wearer look better. Yes, his dresses are beautiful and chic, but more importantly they elevate the woman wearing them—they are literally armor, and what you see is the wearer not the dress, which is what the most elegant dresses should accomplish.”
His peers in the industry spent time with him in his last years. RTW and SM designer, who became known as the “kaftan king” because of how he popularized kaftan wear during the pandemic, Anthony “Tonichi” Nocom, would gather Pepito and his colleagues at Sunday lunches in his home. Tonichi told us: “For the most of 2022 we had our Sunday Sizzlers beginning March 2022, and every Sunday, from noon to midnight here in my house. I truly believe that our only group of designers has given him the best time together (we suggested to invite other designer whom we feel he would like to be with, and you are my no.1 to join us…and he would say ok…). We as a group created a bond of friendship which we will always remember.”
In Los Angeles where Pepito built a fashion design career, Pepito became the only Filipino designer, as far as we know, to have been featured in the global fashion bible, W.
That global fame preceded Pepito’s return to the Philippines. As soon as he came home, my fashion and style network that included designer/stylist Larry Leviste facilitated our interview and shoots with Pepito. Among the most memorable was his design for our Metro Magazine annual style calendar (I was editor in chief and founding editor of Metro Magazine) in the ‘90s. While other designers showed off dazzlers and blinding beadwork, Pepito created only one piece, a camel-color long unembellished dress that skimmed the body curve—it must have been crepe de chine, no accent, just the sinuous flow that projected the model’s body. Photographer Jun de Leon, who was doing the shoot, was amazed at the sight of this solitary contribution. And where was Pepito during the shoot, while other designers fixed their respective designs for the shoot?
In an industry full of egos, he didn’t show self-conceit
He was at a mahjong session with friends which he couldn’t skip—“Thelma, bahala ka na dyan,” he told a panicky me on the phone, and he was even half-amused that he was making the editor in chief “babysit” his shoot; he was confident that his long columnar dress would photograph well and he trusted us and the photographer. Indeed, I’ve never seen a designer more indifferent about his creation than Pepito. In an industry full of egos, he didn’t show self-conceit.
Since those early years, Pepito had always known he could get away with anything with me. I let him, gladly, because his talent was indispensable to my career as lifestyle editor and magazine editor/editorial director, indeed as journalist.
He dressed the hottest star then, Gretchen Barretto, for our Metro covers and inside pages, with Patrick Rosas introducing the nude makeup on Gretchen’s beautiful face, a makeup style that would spur a trend among brides. Pepito, for a time, was Gretchen’s favorite designer. And Gretchen on the cover, dressed by Pepito, sold our magazines.
Beyond our magazines, Pepito was always there supporting me. Even as he hardly socialized or attended fashion events, even if he was hardly socially visible, he joined all the fashion shows we produced—Metrowear, Metro Weddings, Face-Offs, name it. He always showed his support of and trust in me, there regularly by my side, even as he didn’t like to be photographed. We respected each other’s professional dos and don’ts.
When he helped mount a ready-to-wear line, I was there, visiting him in the showroom. And he would even show me his art collection. He would also share with me his bag designs.
Pepito was not only a fashion designer; he was an art connoisseur. He had exquisite taste—be it in fashion design, accessories, art, home, jewelry.
Now you understand why the niche he left in fashion, design—indeed in people’s lives— will never be filled.