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ONE of my first-ever fashion shows was a 2013 retrospective of the work of the late Benjamin Farrales, dubbed by the press as The Dean of Philippine Fashion. He was still alive then, and he was wheeled to the end of the runway to the strains of “O Sole Mio.” Two outfits, culled from his archive, struck me the most. There was a dress with a shawl made of purple orchids, some of the petals dropping off the model’s shoulder as she walked down the runway. The finale dress was a traje de mestiza of white lace and gold, seemingly made for a goddess, reflecting the light from the photographers’ flashbulbs. One can imagine how beautiful this dress must have been, to make an impression even to those in the nosebleed seats of fashion shows (which was anything beyond the fourth row).
I saw this dress, and many other masterpieces of Ben Farrales, up close at an exhibit at the De la Salle College of St. Benilde titled “Farrales X FDM: Benilde Fashion Design Students meet Ben Farrales”.
While the highlight of the exhibit were the dresses by this late master, who passed away last year at the age of 89, miniature dresses inspired by the master and made by students of the AB Fashion Design and Merchandising Program of the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde (DLSU-CSB) also shared the limelight.
The exhibit showcases 41 dresses from Mr. Farrales’ own archive, from fashion shows and other activities, donated by his family to the DLSU-CSB.
The oldest dress in the collection, as pointed out by the exhibit’s curator and Director for the Center for Campus Art, architect Gerry Torres, was a gown made of raffia, sinamay, and a banig trim, worn by writer and socialite Bambi Lammoglia Harper at a Malacañang Palace ball during the 1957 to 1961 tenure of President Carlos P. Garcia. During an interview with BusinessWorld, Mr. Torres said that the clothes are maintained by keeping them in a room that is air-conditioned 24/7, wrapped in acid-free paper and kept in boxes of the same material. “These exhibits of vintage clothing, they would not always be around. The clothes are so fragile. Every time you handle it for an exhibit, there’s always that chance of them being destroyed.”
While silk taffeta and satin may have been the fabric du jour of couture in the 1950s and ’60s, Mr. Farrales was one of the first to champion the use of local Filipino textiles. Growing up in Mindanao, he sought inspiration from the colorful fabrics of the indigenous people around him. For example, there’s a dress in black, covered all over with little paillettes, which turned out to be little capiz discs.
Getting the purest expression of the Filipino spirit got him the honor of exhibiting around the world, himself holding the distinction of being the first Filipino designer to exhibit at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in 1984.
“He found inspiration in beauty. He found inspiration in everything around him. He would study people. He was just a true person,” said his great-niece, Leana Farrales-Carmona, who was present at the event. In an interview with BusinessWorld, she said, “I think it’s in that understanding of people and cultures that he finds a way to express that in fashion. It was a time when that was never done.”
She remembers a story from her younger days, when her Tio Ben (as she called him; his clients called him Mang Ben), made her a pantsuit from a roll of fabric he got from somewhere, mindful that she was going to move around while wearing it. Asked if she enjoyed some special access to him, when other women would have to line up to see him, she said, “No! No. Tio Ben’s life was pretty compartmentalized.”
She pointed out his devotion to the Sto. Nino. A Sto. Nino’s robes are the first thing one sees at the DLSU-CSB exhibit, embroidered in gold and silver. Plastered along the walls of the exhibit are his life story, pieced together from the various interviews he had done from his heyday in the ’50s and ’60s, as well as magazine covers which showed his designs worn by the it-girls of their day.
“He was just a normal guy,” said Ms. Farrales-Carmona. “To me, he was just Tio Ben…. he didn’t have any airs, and anything like that.”
In Ben Farrales, Fifty Years in My Fashion, a book by the late Abe Florendo, Mr. Farrales was quoted as saying that during the height of haute couture, “Back then, women had money to spend. There were endless parties. Women nonchalantly changed clothes twice or three times a day. Rich families vied with one another for the grandest weddings, birthdays, and debutante balls. They knew what they wanted and they could talk endlessly about clothes.”
“Tio Ben was haute couture, when haute couture was Paris, New York, and all. I think that age is gone now,” said Ms. Farrales-Carmona. She said that with the entry of ready-to-wear pieces and the arrival of the shopping mall, her great-uncle could have chosen to put his name on a clothing line. “He wasn’t into that,” she said. “He was about the relationship with his customers, and really getting to understand their life; getting to know what they wanted out of that occasion where he would dress them up.”
Since she points out that the way of life that once wore Ben Farrales has since faded away, would there still be room for another designer to willingly and lovingly create clothes made with such detail and precision? “Absolutely. We have wonderful artists, all over the world,” she said.
“Tio Ben made the Filipino open up to the world stage. He was the Dean of Asian Fashion. Now, with the internet and borders becoming invisible with our digital world, the Filipino creativity and meticulousness for detail – it’s there for the world to see. That’s Tio Ben’s legacy.”
“Sure. If they are as committed, as passionate, as hardworking, as talented,” said Mr. Torres when asked if another Filipino designer with that eye for detail can rise again.
“Madami tayong talent eh (we have a lot of talent). But Mang Ben’s stamp was really his work ethic,’ he said, pointing out that Farrales stayed in his Malate atelier from Monday to Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. “I think it’s a lesson for our young people, that you should be committed to work. Fashion is not just the fun stuff, and the shows and the models. It’s also the hard work behind it. Mang Ben was ready to commit to the hard work.” He mentioned that Mr. Farrales would admonish young designers, “‘Magtrabaho kayo ng tama! (Work right!) And don’t party too much.’”
“There’s work to be done,” said Mr. Torres. “To have a career as long as his: you have to put in the hard work.”
The exhibit is open for viewing until Sept. 10 at the College of St. Benilde School of Design and Arts, 950 Pablo Ocampo Ave., Malate, Manila. — Joseph L. Garcia