“Creative people are critical: they don’t stop with the given and the (supposedly) “obvious.” They are imaginative. They make a habit of thinking in more open and simple ways, keeping their minds two steps ahead of things as they are. They are inventive. They consciously seek to devise new ways of thinking. And creative people are disciplined and persistent – creativity can require a certain kind of playfulness – but it does not mean just letting go. Creativity takes work.” –Anthony Weston, Creativity for Critical Thinkers, 2007.
“I thought I was on top of the world,” proclaims designer Alan Del Rosario after seeing the gown he made on a mannequin perched on the house’s rooftop in Hollywood.
Speaking of the world, our creative spirits were frozen from a million plus deaths of coronavirus in America, Dec. 4, 2021, and worldwide, more than six million perished.
That was enough to scare folks into hibernation, but not the brave ones, like Janet Susan R. Nepales. Little was going on in terms of public events, schools, offices, Broadway shows, movie houses, and school activities, except meetings on Zoom.
Janet Susan R. Nepales launched ‘FASHION. Filipino. Hollywood. The World,’ on Dec. 3, 2021, while hundreds braved to join her outdoors, in compliance with COVID-19 protocols.
Janet envisioned a museum to house all these finest gowns made by fifteen Filipino designers around the world: Manila, Dubai, Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas and San Diego. Wondering how she would do it, two folks rose to the occasion.
Without any footsteps to follow, Lisa Lew and David Tupaz actualized her vision. Mannequins were shipped from Las Vegas, dressed with Janet’s haute couture gowns, and placed in the host’s home.
In keeping with the atmospheric plan of the author, even cookies were imprinted with Janet’s logo and artistry was predominant. She referred to Lisa and David as her “creative geniuses and her angels.”
Still my overthinking brain asks, “What is there to celebrate from single bolts of fabric? Is this my subconscious bias?”
Recall how 10 ruffled yards of a light blue gown with a lavish train wrapped Lady Gaga’s body with such elegance?
Much like her song, excerpted here:
“Step into the room like it’s catwalk
Singing to the tune, just to keep talking
Walk into the light
Display your diamonds and pearls in sight
Married to the night
I own the world, we own the world
Are these scholastic or subversive products from the imaginative minds of irrepressible spirits drawn to create, worldwide?
Is this what Bessie Badilla’s definition of fashion is? A composite of three elemental C’s: character – do I choose age appropriate or my mood for the moment?; confident – how I want to feel for a party, wedding or event; comfort – her first criterion in looking for in trying out clothes. Or a fourth C, did it connect?
I was still looking for a writing muse until I attended the bridal shower of my niece, Jessica, who used the fourth element of fashion, the concept of being connected to the dress.
‘Connected’ was the descriptor Jessica used, how it made her feel. Jessica Del Rosario was dressed in a long dress with intricate lace and daisy flowered designs, with spaghetti straps, with her well-kept hair, untousled, and tidy. She told us in a bridal shower that she tried on 50 dresses in three dress shops, to which I quipped silently, she had that patience? As she was about to give up, a darling bridal gown ‘connected to her.’ Even more meaningful was that her mom, Rachel, also got her bridal gown from the same shop, three decades ago.
She was raised as an artist with free-flowing imagination. During childhood, she was drawing with crayons and pentel pens. Her creativity was visible in a ‘DIY’ bridal shower, save the date cards, invitations, flower arrangements with stems wrapped with lemon slices, and choices of registry gifts. Every little detail reflected her sensibilities and quality standards, including twenty-four framed photos of the bride and groom’s nine years journey.
My query continued, reaching down to recall memories of my mother.
Was that fashion that I saw from my mother, Asuncion, daily? She was confident, composed, and happy when she donned her street clothes, coordinated in patterns, colors from dress, bag and shoes. She was a diligent science and math teacher who commuted in Manila, and took three buses from Cerritos to Los Angeles to teach for four decades in Catholic private schools, public schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Artesia, Bellflower, and Cerritos School District.
I am seeing more connectedness. Might this be my divine push to write about what Janet’s book has achieved?
Jessica’s excited response: “How cool of a book that showcases Filipino designers!”
It is a collection of 15 fashion designers’ work in a coffee table book: Alan del Rosario, Alexis “Bong” Monsanto, David Tupaz, Ezra Santos, Francis Libiran, Furne One Amato, Josie Natori, Kenneth Barlis, Michael Cinco, Monique Lhuiller, Oliver Tolentino, Puey Quiñones, Rajo Laurel, RC Caylan and Rocky Gathercole. They hail from Manila, Dubai, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Diego.
The thematical categories are: Roots, Home, Imagination, Hollywood, Tradition, Culture, Femininity, Architecture and Beauty of God’s work in what we do.
‘Connected’ to a lifestyle is a criterion used by Alan Del Rosario, who reportedly can just sight see a woman as an example, Janet Nepales, a world-traveled journalist. From looking at her, he can design her fabulous clothes.
Colleagues at the Cannes Film Festival wondered how big Janet’s suitcase is. She showed them how small it is. Del Rosario’s gowns are packable, and unwrinkled, a fundamental for traveling public figures like Janet.
She wore an original Tiffany-blue colored dress, embossed with flowers and a cape by Del Rosario when she accepted her multiple awards this year from the Los Angeles Press Club. Instead of Janet asking celebrities who made their dresses, she reversed this trend unwittingly when KCAL news anchor Pat Harvey stopped her to ask who designed her dress.
Did Alan create them with specific geometry of architectural forms, shapes, and synchronicity of shifted proportions, given his background on civil engineering? Imagine how that mannequin, if an actual person, felt while perched on that rooftop? Secretly, I wish to have a dress made by this designer.
Ten years ago, Oliver Tolentino designed for my sister Sion and her daughter Jennifer’s bridal gown. Both felt confidently beautiful, as I did. Oliver designed for me an off-shouldered muted red gown. I had broad smiles wearing the gown.
Tolentino will be the first Filipino American designer to join Austria’s fashion week in September 2022, held in Vienna, the site of 400 balls every year.
Novel or novelty awaits Austrians. In the meantime, let’s find out more about this uplifting passion project.
Immersion in social creativity and diversity: The process
Social creativity is a process of drawing in people, a rich set of interconnections, contacts and initiating many layers of dialogues. It is drawing in diversity, a multiplicity of perspectives to usher new ideas from and to receive them with cultural humility, a stance that I don’t have all the answers to.
With diversity and openness to various ethnic perspectives, where in Los Angeles alone, 220 distinct languages are spoken, how do you do it when you are in Dubai, Italy, France and Hollywood?
How do you combine social creativity and diversity, I asked Janet in a one-on-one interview in Dec. 2021?
PD: Given this passion project of a coffee table book, from its conception to planning to execution, please describe the creative process you took.
JRN: ”You are the first one to know that. You are the first one I told even before you published your own book. Now, I am happy to share with you my book.”
Janet preselected the designers based on her interviews, and identified the fashion icon images she wanted to include from decades of covering Hollywood celebrities, as an officer of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. She then had to contact all the designers and secure their permission, including all their photographers. The work was laborious. She chose her team, an editor, her husband Ruben V. Nepales, and her friend, Bessie Badilla as the curator and digital artist. In a few months, they were ready to publish the book.
Bessie has a reputational title of supermodel, earned from being on global magazine covers, as a Balenciaga asset. She is treasured by photographers for her ability to work with many cultures, easy-going personality, a sense of humor, and camaraderie. I experienced that, while with her, taking photographs of the fog-covered Golden Gate Bridge at sunrise years ago.
I was curious as to the transition from supermodel to photographer and now a digital artist and her creative design process.
On her creative design process as a digital artist/curator: “After a successful first coffee table book for Sir Ruben, I took some months off from layout designing and publishing. The adrenaline high and excitement of actually completing an ambitious project like, ‘Through a Writer’s Lens’ needed to calm down before I could start my next publication. I told Lady Jane to continue to mold her ideas of a red carpet book while I took a short break. I needed to clear my mind so I could start fresh on the book. In less than two months, I asked Lady Jane if she had a title for her tome, she responded: ‘FASHION. Filipino. Hollywood. The World.’ I immediately went to work! If there were any low points, it was having to reject [hundreds of photos] that were too small that the program I was using (Adobe InDesign) would not accept.”
Not only did Bessie take the time to learn digital software to work with, but she also had a work ethic.
On her work process: “I worked on the book after dinner when our household quieted down. I would work until 3-4 in the morning in case I had any questions for Lady Jane, then she would be awake in Los Angeles. I enjoyed doing the layout and design of this book because the topic was easy for me. I understood the aesthetics of a good red carpet photo wherein both celebrity and dress complemented each other. I know fashion. It was my life and I was successful in it.”
Note her confidence. Still, I was curious about the designers featured in this book. I asked Janet to share the first thing that comes to mind about each of them.
Alan is very structured — a person who followed his heart to become a fashion designer, after majoring in civil engineering. It is a dream come true to see him dressing up Michele Pfeiffer, Paula Abdul, Paris Hilton and Lea Michele.
Michael Cinco has dressed up five beauty queens in the latest Miss Universe pageant. He is the ‘go to’ designer of beauty queens. “Everybody feels like a princess when they go to the red carpet. He has dressed up Hollywood stars like Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, Sofia Vergara, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé. He is bold,” Janet asserted.
Oliver Tolentino exhibited his gowns in LA Fashion Week. Janet affirmed his creativity and said, “He surprised me, he went over and beyond,” it is as if his creativity stepped up to higher levels.” He has dressed up Pia Wurtzbach, Jennifer Lee, Debbie Reynolds, and Carrie Fisher.
This coming Sept. 14, Tolentino will showcase 30 Fall/Winter outfits in Vienna, Austria Fashion Week.
Janet on Rocky Gathercole, “I was the last journalist to interview him before he passed away. Including him is a tribute to his work. He is an avant garde. He dressed me up for a New York event, one of the fashion shows with Renee Salud.”
On Kenneth Barlis: “This is what the future will be. His work is being copied too.”
Alexis “Bong” Monsanto – “His works are out of this world, [it] should be fantasy. Something you will want to wear if you want to be somebody else, daring, can stand out.”
RC Caylan – “He is daring, not scared of his critics, was on the Dubai runway and [he] showed his creativity and originality.”
Furne One Amato – “Think of fantasy, think out of this world, futuristic and spectacular.”
Monique Lhuillier – “You think of a princess on the red carpet. She started it all. She even dressed up Former First Lady Michelle Obama.”
Ezra Santos – “He is part of the respected trilogy, the top three designers in Dubai, all in Vogue. Yet, he is humble, soft spoken, simple and his works speak for himself.”
Puey Quiñones – “He recently got married and came out with a shoe line. He dressed me up, my daughter Bianca, the bride, my younger daughter Ella, the Maid of Honor for Bianca’s wedding. He created simple, feminine dresses perfect for the occasion, a garden wedding.”
Rajo Laurel – “Pia Clemente, the first Filipina American Oscar nominee in 2005, was dressed by Rajo Laurel and David Tupaz. Rajo is a pioneer, meticulous and a perfectionist. He creates simple, daring and classic dresses.”
Francis Libiran – “He supports Philippine fabric weavers and uses a lot of indigenous textiles from different parts of the archipelago. His favorite is jusi, a mixture of pineapple threads and silk; piña made from pineapple fibers and abaca made of banana tree fibers and abaca plant fibers. He has dressed up Darren Criss, Billie Porter, Tyra Banks, Gwen Stefani, among others. He has also dressed up Pia Wurtzbach and Catriona Gray who are both Miss Universe holders and Megan Young, Miss World title holder.”
Josie Natori – “She was the first to bring fashion to the lingerie world.” Janet said that Natori shared: “After the Grammys. in 2019, you can see from our website, Lady Gaga came out with our bra…literally; she was just wearing a panty hose, a coat and a bra. Amazing.”
David Tupaz – “He was already dressing up Hollywood stars like Cris Jenner, Lisa Rinna and Christine Baranski and the like as early as I can remember. They were even walking the runway for David even before it became a trend.”
Confidence begets confidence, the feeling one is home. And in being home to oneself, one can confidently be fashionable.
On being on the red carpet, Janet described that when she puts on the gown, “Being myself, but also a different persona is being expressed, the gown brings out something in you. You end up giving life to the dresses. It is like hidden personalities, the little Janets, the Miss Janets, putting on the elegant dress and you become yourself plus more.”
Janet described how Bessie Badilla captures the impact of walking the red carpet. She becomes a different Bessie on the runway. “She knows what would move folks, as she has the eye, the innate creative aesthetics, just like how she picked out Rita Moreno wearing an original Pitoy Moreno gown, a classic to be included in my book,” she added.
Thelma Sioson-San Juan, a lifestyle editor based in the Philippines, considered this fashion book as piercing the invisibility veil. She writes, “there is no pigeon-holing the Filipino fashion design, not even on the red carpet. It is minimalism one moment, maximalist next (without visual breathing space), restrained now, flamboyant next, classic now and cutting edge next.”
To me, this book was a brave shout-out to the world-class artistry of Filipino designers from Manila, New York, Dubai, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Diego. It gave folks upliftment, a source of connecting with friends from the community, and also for Hollywood mainstream producers to get a taste of sisterhood and coming together for Janet’s book.
It is also the first book to assemble the finest works of Filipino designers, with Janet and Bessie as critics with good eyes, capturing icons’ images taken mostly by Sthanlee B. Mirador, about who is leading the culture.
It is also a book that illustrated what’s functional and what’s beautiful, but also the embedded creativity, and hard work behind fashion, where sewn beads, crystals, sequins, lace, buttons, and sashes are crying out to be seen as beautiful and appreciated as more than just the stereotypical debauchery of the rich.
Fashion is wearable art, a canvas where each designer left their valuable imprint and signature in stitches.
I have now come to terms with what I experienced with Jessica, my niece; Asuncion, my mom; and Janet’s beautiful book for Filipino designers. I look forward to her next book about her interviews with these designers and how their creative instincts were nurtured from home or nature.
Within a few weeks in December 2021, all hardbound copies sold out. There are paperbound copies now available on Amazon. Don’t miss taking this book home, if to just enjoy the colors, textures, fabrics and the icons of Hollywood and their insights and humble beginnings against all odds.
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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 12 years. She also contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the U.S., in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.