Wasn’t it only a little over a year ago that designer Mark Tenchavez launched a shoe line under his Shandar brand? I mean, to me it feels like only yesterday that I photographed his muses (models Marjay Ramirez and Cielo Ramirez, pastry chef Gayle Urgello, and lawyer Christina Garcia-Frasco) for the catalog of his premiere collection—I still remember every minute of the fine frenzy that the stylist Meyen Baguio and I went through while working on that project. Yet when you look at Shandar Shoes’ resume (and the places that they’ve been to, figuratively speaking), it looks like they’ve been around since forever!
For one, they have managed to develop an impressive fan base, which includes local fashion mavens like designer/writer/philanthropist Tessa Prieto-Valdes (who flew in from Manila to host the shoe line’s grand launch middle of last year), and even lady political figures. No less staggering is how about 40% of Mark’s time is now spent doing commissioned works for local designers—if memory serves me right, I think it all started with doing a couple of platforms to accompany Arcy Gayatin’s 25th anniversary collection, and some for Project Runway Philippines season one first runner-up Philipp Tampus’s holiday 2011 collection, and then everyone else followed suit. The newest leaf added to his laurel? Creating multi-glitter lace-up wedge booties to accompany the electrifying pieces from Amato Haute Couture by Furne One during One’s homecoming gala held at the Rizal Memorial Library and Museum early last month! Mark has also become sort of like an official cobbler for local beauty pageants (only three weeks back I found myself in the studio of an Ormoc-based pageant organizer and there it was, a giant shelf full of Shandar “pageant heels”). But I think Shandar’s biggest achievement to date is penetrating the local bridal market: “It’s 10 to 15 brides per month, and that’s not counting the peak seasons!” he enthuses. (And I can attest to this, because my boss Malou Pages [of Shutterfairy Photography, where I have just been promoted, by the way, from apprentice to associate photographer/senior stylist] always shows me photos of the weddings she covers, and I guess it’s safe to deduce that about 80% of Shutterfairy’s clients over the past year have worn Shandar down the aisle.) Not bad for a shoe line that relies heavily on guerilla marketing and word-of-mouth—yes, save for the occasional magazine appearances (Preview, Metro Society, LOOK), their touchpoints are fairly uncomplicated.
I love how Mark’s design sense has evolved, too. Not to say, of course, that I didn’t find the pieces from his premiere collection beautiful (I wouldn’t have agreed to shoot that catalog if I didn’t like the shoes), but his more recent designs are more eye-catching, and more varied, too. You still get the ultra-feminine touches (pretty little bows, appliqué details, serpentine straps) that Mark is known for, but now you get to pair that with ingenious experimentation of textures, layering, and colors—as of late he’s been obsessed with giving unexpected twists to velveteen, playing with lace overlays, and toying with iridescents. “I am also starting to experiment with transparent material, like celluloid,” he shares. “I know people have seen a lot of heels made of transparent material, like Lucite, but that’s not the [route] that I’m taking—I’m thinking of using them for the shoe body and for the details, not the heels.”
Mark credits his growth to his day-to-day interactions with clients, and to his tendency to keep his eyes open to the littlest bits of inspiration. “Especially my bridal clientele,” he shares. “When you’re talking to a bride-to-be, the conversation becomes very intimate because it’s their wedding day we’re talking about here—the one day they’ve been waiting for all their lives! I get to learn about what women really want when I’m talking to these people. I’m lucky, too, that most of my brides-to-be happen to be very stylish ladies—I get a lot of inspiration by looking at what they’re wearing, what bag they’re carrying, etc.” The technical aspect of his job he gets to hone by building good relationships with his designer clients. It helps, too, that he hasn’t abandoned his first love, and that’s making jewelry (tiaras, necklaces, bracelets, rings)—as his skills in jewelry-making expand, so do his skills in infusing surprising details into his shoe creations.
I was lucky enough to be able to preview prototypes from what I think is going to be his spring/summer 2013 collection. We were having coffee one Sunday afternoon this past summer when out of the blue he laid them in front of me! Needless to say, I fell head over heels—quite literally, yes! I wasted no time asking if I could have the honor of photographing these babies—this time with sunny California as backdrop. It didn’t take a lot of convincing for him to say yes!
This shoot right here was kind of guerilla because I didn’t have a lot of time to plan it. Well, actually, I had quite some time—I was in L.A. for 6 or so weeks—but all that time was wasted going around the place looking for leg and foot models to sit for me. I was supposed to ask my sister because she did have some legs on her, plus the shoes were her size, but then she had just become a mother and all her time was devoted to taking care of the baby. A friend from Cerritos, who’d had some modeling experience, said she wanted to do it but just couldn’t find time off from work. And then there was someone from Lancaster who had all the time in the world, but then she was below 18, and I didn’t want to get into trouble with the parents. A friend had suggested browsing through the portfolios at ModelMayhem.com, but I just didn’t know my way around that Website (I think you have to be a registered user in order to send someone a message, no?). I was about to give up when someone suggested Elane Gica, a friend from back home, and this was literally at the eleventh hour, too—we did this whole thing on my second-to-the-last day in L.A.! I know! How crazy is that, right? Thank you, Elane, for letting me borrow your legs and your feet, and for helping me make this happen!
We never got to cover all the locations that I’d planned to shoot at (I’d wanted a couple of beach shots, and Santa Monica was on my list, but we were afraid we were going to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 10 W, so we had to call that off), but I was happy we got to do some of the ones that meant a lot to me, like the Griffith Observatory (ah, Rebel Without a Cause!), Urban Light at LACMA, and that palmed-line area of N New Hampshire just before it crosses Beverly (Wilshire Center). Of course, I had to make sure there was no missing the Hollywood Walk of Fame, too—that was, like, non-negotiable! These were Mark’s shoes that I was shooting—don’t you think they deserve a little star treatment? Elane asked why I picked Marvin Gaye’s Star (it’s in the east side of the 1500 block of Vine, in case you’re wondering). My answer was simple: “Look at these heels—if they could sing a song it would be Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing,’ don’t you think?” Am I a smart ass, or what?
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I have to mention that Elane doing this was extra special to me, not only because she went out on a limb for this, and not only because she knew the L.A. side streets like the back of her hand, making it easy for us to jump from one location to the next, which ultimately saved us a lot of time (can you believe we only did this for under three hours—from 11AM to 145PM—and so we still had time to hit the UCLA Jazz Reggae Festival after we wrapped?), but because of the fact that she is first cousins with one of my best friends Malou Gica, and working with her that day brought me back to the times that I’d worked with Malou.
Insiders will remember Malou Gica as one of Cebu fashion’s pioneering models, or, better yet, as Elite Model Look-Cebu 1996 winner. She was one of the few people who really supported me when I was starting out as a stylist more than a decade ago, and we worked on a couple of shoots together until we became really good friends. Safe to say I wouldn’t be half of who I am today if not for her.
Malou passed away just two months ago, after a long battle with terminal illness. She was only 34. It was a very heartbreaking time for us, her friends, and especially her family, including Elane here, who, all her life, had looked up to Malou as a big sister. If you are reading this and you knew Malou, please do me a favor and say a little prayer for her journey, and for the healing of those she left behind.
Rest in peace, Malou. You will be missed.
Shandar Shoes Spring/Summer 2013 | Photographed by Angelo Kangleon in Los Angeles, CA, on May 27, 2012 | Model: Elane Lourdes Gica | Special thanks to Janice Larrazabal
Not a planned shoot or anything—just me taking pictures of my fine homegirls Melanie and Michelle Ediza as they showed me around their new home, also known as New York City. So lucky that my travel dates coincided with the end of their spring term—with school out of their way (for a couple of days, at least), they had no excuse not to make time for me! “Come on, you’ve been to that place before—give those girls a break and show yourself around,” a common friend had quipped as I was booking my plane tickets. When will people understand that the point of going to a city like New York is to be with people who love the place as much as you do? I mean, it’s not called “the Big Apple” for nothing—small apple, knock yourself out and enjoy it on your own; but a big one is definitely meant for sharing. Besides, there was one part of the city that I never got to see during my first visit, and that’s Brooklyn—and these girls lived right by the Marcy Avenue station, which was just perfect! Funny thing, ’cause on the plane to JFK all that ever played in my head where those lines from that one Estelle song that goes: “Let’s go on the subway, take me to your hood/ I’ve never been to Brooklyn and I’d like to see what’s good…”
The hood in question being Williamsburg, and, boy, did I get to see what’s good! Fell in love with the quirky little storefronts down Bedford Ave., and the quaint little sidewalk and rooftop cafés that lent a deliciously eccentric touch to brunch hour. But, of course, none of these were as enthralling as the people that you bumped into on the streets—the guys looked like they were clones of a circa Midnite Vultures Beck, and like they were headed to some experimental rock jam session in some ultra-obscure basement; and the girls looked like they’d just stepped out of a Free People catalog! It was official: I had walked into hipster, grownup cool kid territory. And none of this bohemian coolness was contrived, too! If someone looked like an artist, there was a 99% chance he really was an artist. Yes, this was where paint-splattered jeans were authentic (it was in the early ‘90s that the area became publicly known as an “artists’ colony,” when about “an estimated 2,000” of them hightailed it here from Manhattan to eschew the hype and the perversely rising rents—as Brad Grooch wrote in the June 22, 1992 issue of New York, “Bohemia has always been 90 percent low-rent and 10 percent dream”). There was an obvious joke here that I tried so hard to restrain from making, and that was that, with their uptown girl style sense, Melanie and Michelle almost seemed like misfits in this part of town—I, however, had no trouble blending in, what with my acid wash denim vest with the insignia of the ‘70s horror punk band Misfits handpainted on the back (yes, the Misfits factor made me not a misfit!). Still, the girls couldn’t imagine settling anywhere else—why look further when they were digging the artsy, offbeat vibe (Melanie for one seemed to have gotten in touch with her muse, and she was getting her write stuff on now, not to mention she was also starting to get into painting), it was peaceful enough at night, and they were surrounded by good eats (one of their favorite places to take me for late dinner was this Dominican cuchifrito restaurant some 5 minutes away from their apartment that had something that tasted like our lechon kawali)? And even if it wasn’t their scene in terms of fashion, Michelle still knew where the cool consignment shops were, and she even took me to one where I got to buy boots that looked like they could’ve once belonged to Patti Smith (or Johnny Depp) for only $22!
Of course, we didn’t make it all about Brooklyn—70% of the time we spent taking Manhattan, too. I loved how there was a “division of labor” that took effect when it came to showing me around the island: Michelle was assigned to take me to the East Village, Gramercy, the Flatiron District, Korea Town, and Midtown, while Melanie took it upon herself to drag me to the Lower East Side, SoHo, Nolita, Bowery, Chelsea, the West Village, the Meatpacking District, Central Park, the Upper West Side, and the Upper East Side. So I’m writing this and making it sound like I was working them up pretty bad, but trust me when I say that they were very sprightly about the whole thing and approached their “tourist guide” duties with much gusto, and that it was me who nearly had a breakdown due to all that walking! I wouldn’t even wake up early—trust me to oversleep in the City that Never Sleeps—and they would tell me off for wasting time! Swear to God, there were times I felt like I was being punished, like when they’d insist I had to grab something to eat in every single neighborhood we stopped to see—normally I wouldn’t complain because, like them, I can eat everything in the world and gain only 1 pound, but it slows me down when I’m bloated, you see (of course I didn’t feel this way about when they introduced me the Halal guys down 53rd and 6th, and to Café Habana and Rice to Riches in Nolita—I would eat that stuff all day, everyday, if I had my way)! Still, I was grateful for their “iron hand” treatment—I mean, I’d probably end up seeing only 10% of the city if not for them!
Speaking of “iron hand,” did I mention that one Saturday evening found us at the Bowery Hotel’s Library Bar, with Zooey Deschanel just a maraschino cherry’s throw away from us? Yes, I legit foamed in the mouth, and was about to jump out of my seat to have my picture taken with the (500) Days of Summer and New Girl star, but Melanie shot me a glance that said, “Don’t even think about it,” so I had no choice but to sit my ass down and settle for my glass of Hemingway. But strictness aside, Melanie and I did get to enjoy a lot of lighthearted, LOL moments—like when we went to the Met together to check out the Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations exhibition at the Costume Institute (ongoing until August 19, so if you’re in New York right now do check it out while you still have the chance), only to find out that the style of dress that we loved was actually called “ugly chic!” Nothing was funnier, though, than when we were standing somewhere in Broadway and W 81st, and then I ducked because I thought I felt an earthquake, and then Melanie just cracked up and said, “That was the 1 train under your feet, my dear!” Thank God not a lot of people were around to witness my stupidity!
My most memorable Manhattan moments with them, though, were those that had to do with our favorite Sex and the City hotspots (yes, no need to spend $48 on the SATC tour package ‘cause these girls got me covered). Wasn’t it only a couple of years back when we’d all went to watch the Sex and the City movie and cry over it together? And now here we were, Michelle and I, inside the New York Public Library, standing on the very staircase where Carrie Bradshaw had dragged her fabulous Vivienne Westwood wedding dress in shame after finding out Mr. Big had decided to stand her up. “Don’t get too ‘Carrie-d’ away, love!” Michelle screamed laughingly, perhaps because she sensed that I was about to cry. Of course, the trophy went to Melanie when, after a sumptuous late lunch at Le Charlot (the “little Paris off Madison”—and, yes, their crab and avocado salad is to die for), she asked for us to pay a little visit to the Ladies’ Pavillion at the Hernshead over at Central Park West. I’m sure most of you have never heard of this place before, but it’s where Carrie and Miranda, approximately an hour and 56 minutes into the first movie, sat down with pretty little Granary bread sandwiches and juices from Pret A Manger (they’re yummy, by the way) to discuss the issue of forgiveness, of putting things behind them and letting the past be the past, with India.Arie’s cover of Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter” playing in the background. This was my second time here, since I’d made it a point to see the place during my first New York trip some three years ago, but I guess this was Melanie’s first time despite having lived here for over a year now. I just thought it was cute how, right before we stepped into the foothpath that led to the Pavillion, she yanked her iPhone out so she could play “The Heart of the Matter”—nothing like good old-fashioned background music to set the mood, right? Now it’s impossible for me to think of that place—or to listen to that song—without thinking of her!
I love visiting friends from home in their new cities. It reacquaints you with the part of them that you miss the most, and acquaints you with the part of them that’s brand spanking new. Most people are gonna say that’s a pretty sticky situation to be stuck in—i.e., when you’re face-to-face with who a person used to be, and who they’ve become or are about to become. I say it’s the ideal situation, though, because then you get to enjoy the best of both worlds (not to mention it’s a great way to ensure you don’t get dropped from the equation as they make the transition). It’s kind of like being caught between two places. Like when you find yourself smack in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, for example—you look at Brooklyn, and then you look at Manhattan, and you can’t decide which view is more captivating, and so you just smile dreamily and soak both up. I loved the Melanie and Michelle in Cebu—the diligent, dreamy-eyed family-oriented sweethearts—but I also happen to love the Melanie and Michelle in New York—fearless, adventure-loving and independent young women, who were not afraid to laugh at themselves, and who were easily inspired. Again, it’s like when you’re made to choose between Brooklyn and Manhattan: you just don’t.
Melanie and Michelle Ediza | Photographed by Angelo Kangleon in New York, NY, on May 8-16, 2012
There are those who let their so-called achievements, however insignificant, get to their heads. And then there are those who, no matter the high places their career has taken them, keep their feet firmly planted in the ground. Go ahead and count the model Fretzel Buenconsejo in the latter category. Modest to a fault—i.e., to a point of being self-deprecating—and never one to attract attention to herself, she would rather talk about her humble beginnings than, say, pull out her imposing portfolio, or joke about her flaws than brag about her good looks.
Such was what went down when she showed up for the casting call for the accessories design firm Gracie Q’s spring/summer 2012 catalog shoot. I kept nudging her so she would take her portfolio out of her tote and spread it out on the table, but she just sat there, beaming, and talking about her childhood. In my mind I was thinking, What is she so scared of? Why is she not sharing her book? Had I been in her place, the portfolio would’ve been slammed against the tabletop before I could even think of sitting down, the thickness of it enough to cause a thundering BOOM!, and so there would be no need for my mouth to do the talking. When I say she’s been to high places, you see, I really mean high places: After a 6-year stint in Cebu, she’d moved to Manila sometime in the mid-2000s, and that’s when she’d reached a really prolific peak, appearing in high-profile ad campaigns for the likes of Gatorade, McDonald’s, Paradise Mango Rum Liqueur, even Pampers. Perhaps her best-known appearance was for a campaign for instant coffee behemoth Nescafé—one of my favorite stories to tell was how, standing the in Buendia station one day a couple of years back, I’d broken into goosebumps when an MRT train with Fretzel’s face (holding up a cup of coffee) plastered on its side had pulled up in front of me. I had to pull this anecdote out of my pocket that evening of the casting call because Fretzel couldn’t bring herself to do it!
Well, as it turned out, my story proved to be near useless, because all the Gracie Q team had ears for were Fretzel’s stories about growing up in a small town (Dalaguete), and about the little-girl antics that gave her this one scar on her elbow and that one scar on her knee (other girls would go to great lengths to hide their imperfections, but this girl is proud of hers!), etc. Gracie Q proprietor/head designer Grace Querickiol-Nigel was completely blown away by her modesty and sense of humor, and wasted no time in declaring, “We have found our girl! I want her for my catalog!” (And Malou Pages [of Shutterfairy Photography, where I am currently apprenticing], who’d been commissioned to photograph the whole thing, would later recount that something about Fretzel had given her “a warm fuzzy feeling deep inside,” and that “she’s the kind of person who could tell me stories all day long while I chase her around with my camera!”) Just like that, the search was over, and the team didn’t even bother looking at the other names the list.
For what it’s worth, I knew right from the start that they were going to pick Fretzel—I just didn’t know they would pick her for her “backstory,” and that the looks factor would only come secondary. When Grace told me at the onset of this project, you see, that the collection we were shooting was “inspired by all things Cebu,” I immediately thought, They’re gonna need a very Filipina-, very Cebuana-looking model, and so I wasted no time in contacting Fretzel (perfect timing, too, ‘cause she’d just moved back to Cebu to start a new business venture with her boyfriend Jeff). It wouldn’t be until later on in the production process that I would understand the message that Grace wanted to convey via this collection: “I want to bring out the island girl in the wearer. That’s pretty much the effect I want this collection to achieve. I want the Gracie Q woman to wear these pieces and—WHAM!—she is transported to another place in time, [that place being] our beautiful island of Cebu.”
The Cebu in her mind being the Cebu she grew up in—the virgin beaches, the windy hills, the colorful “jeepneys” (and not the tall buildings that you see now). Which was why Fretzel’s stories of her childhood in a small beach town struck a chord with Grace—Fretzel’s Cebu echoed a lot of Grace’s Cebu, the Cebu that the Gracie Q team wanted the world to see. The more I think about it, now the more it makes sense to me: Of course, it was only natural that they would pick a down-to-earth girl to represent a truly down-to-earth collection. It’s a match made in heaven!
Already wrote about this a couple of months back, but it’s worth mentioning again that, yes, Fretzel did me proud on the day of the shoot, too! And I’m not just talking about how she surprised me by bringing a copy of the book Filipina: A Tribute to the Filipino Woman (2004), which included a photograph of her by the great Wig Tysmans from a shoot that I’d styled more than a decade ago (yes, I can now safely say that at least one of my works have made it into a bona fide book!). She displayed utmost professionalism, arriving 30 minutes before everybody else, moving at a bullet-like pace, helping with the styling, dispensing invaluable shooting advice (like only a seasoned model could), and just being a lynch pin—all this while winning everyone over with her sunny personality, and allotting the right amount of goofiness to keep the mood light. What we thought was going to take two days to shoot only took one day (7 hours to be exact), thanks to her!
But enough about Fretzel. Let’s talk about Gracie Q. One of the reasons this project was special to me was ‘cause it gave me the chance to work with a fashion brand “with a conscience”—not only do they teach skills and provide opportunities to people who need them the most, they are also making noble efforts to be responsible stewards of environmental conservation, taking other manufacturing firms’ scrap materials and turning them into beautiful little trinkets. It’s an admirable feat, really, and truly one worth emulating. But don’t just take my word for it. Below I have included the note that Grace wrote to accompany the catalog. Read on and you will see why Gracie Q is something you as a Cebuano can truly be proud of.
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The Gracie Q journey began five years ago when an accessories designer friend instilled a passion for craftsmanship in me. She had asked for a help and I obliged, not knowing that one afternoon in her table would spark a fire inside of me. What an exhilarating feeling to find out I could come up with things of beauty with my own bare hands! I would soon run into the need for help myself, and, as I was commissioned by an outdoor furniture manufacturing firm to conduct skills transference classes to indigents (yes, I was a livelihood coach in a past life), that was when I discovered the joy of reaching out—i.e., of teaching people some skills, and of rewarding them in the end by giving them the opportunity to make their lives better with their newfound craft. Safe to say that that was how this microenterprise was born—by marrying my thirst for creating beautiful things with my desire to help my brothers in need.
Halfway through our ride, my team and I became conscious that we were missing a very essential ingredient, and that’s when we decided to embrace a commitment to environmental sustainability. Partnering with the aforementioned outdoor furniture manufacturer, we found ways to take their scrap and leftover materials to help reinforce their zero-waste/zero-landfill policies, put these very pieces in our own depots and drawing tables, and incorporate them into our own design methodologies and end products. No easy feat, but came with a sense of gratification like no other knowing that, in our own little way, we were contributing to efforts to protect the environment and to make this planet a better place for generations to come.
After five years, and having fulfilled three very important goals—to immerse our hands in the thrills of craftsmanship, to provide meaningful opportunities to those who need it most, and to be responsible to the environment—you’d think that Gracie Q is pretty much where we want it to be, and that we could not ask for more. Tempting as it is to stop and rest on our laurels, we felt we owed it to Gracie Q to give it some semblance of a brand—in other words, to go back and zero in on our creative direction, now that our social responsibility objectives had been carried out and set in stone. We wanted Gracie Q to be more than just an “exporter” (if you come to think of it, “exporter” was no longer a fitting term, anyway, as we were starting to make our products available locally, too)—we wanted to turn it into a bona fide brand.
And so here we are today, with a new creative team at the helm. We now have people who help us make valuable branding and image decisions, forecast trends, study the market, generate design concepts, and inject a little creative discipline into our operations. Whereas for the past five years our creative process took a rather haphazard route, relying mainly on whim and hasty bursts of inspiration, we now have instruments to funnel and filter all these to make sure the resulting messages/concepts are stylish without being inconsistent, and enduring without being stagnant.
The collection that you are seeing now via the catalog that is in your hands—and, if we may add, the catalog itself—is a product of this new creative process, a process that, although very painstaking and rigid, no doubt takes Gracie Q to new heights, which is no less than the plateau that it deserves. I will admit that at first there were reservations in my part, and the whole thing proved to be too overwhelming at times, but I knew it was all worth it when I saw that it only elaborated on rather than disguised the Gracie Q aesthetic. Think of it as a makeover of sorts. The same old Gracie Q, only this time with more discipline, more structure, and, consequently, more substance! People ask me, “But isn’t it like you’re starting over again?” Which was precisely the point. The walls have been built—the skills, the dedication to help others, the commitment to protect the planet—and so now it was time to go back to the foundation and strengthen it. It really is like coming full circle. A lot like coming home!
Speaking of coming home, that was exactly what we had in mind when we were designing this new collection. In the past, you see, we’d looked literally everywhere for inspiration—e.g., a certain collection would evoke a bit of Paris here, a little New York there, etc., as a result of me trying to encapsulate all my travel memories into one receptacle—and that’s probably why we’d never had a “structured” collection, ‘cause our references were too varied! This time, though, we decided to look at just one place—and we decided for it to be a tropical island paradise. Why? How? Well, it all started when we were thinking of a muse. What type of woman did we want to see these pieces on? Who did we want to design for? The quirky cool London woman who lived for Glastonbury, like, say, Kate Moss? The sophisticated yet mischievous Manhattanite editor who loved to hit the shooting ranges during her downtime, like Helen Lee Schifter? The preternaturally leggy Czech whose, as the song goes, “hair was Harlow gold,” like Karolina Kurkova? It was tremendously difficult having to pick just one woman when we wanted to do them all! And then it struck us: What did all these women have in common? We recalled a series of photographs of Ms. Moss kicking it at a beach in Phuket. Dug up images of the regal Ms. Schifter unwinding at St. Barth’s. Paparazzi shots of Ms. Kurkova in Ipanema. All of which led to the conclusion that, no matter what type of woman you were, and wherever in the world you were from, you were always going to be an island girl at heart. That’s how we came up with the idea of island-inspired pieces. And where better to look for inspiration than in our own backyard? Yes, to those of you who are not aware, Gracie Q was born and raised in an island paradise—that’s the island of Cebu to you.
Dubbed “Paradiso,” this collection boasts of hues inspired by our cool blue waters and, well, some of their creatures (the neon damselfish of Sumilon had a shade of blue that proved too irresistible), gradients that evoke breathtaking sunsets seen from a Lapu-Lapu beachfront, and textures that recall, say, afternoon hikes up the bucolic flower-growing hills of Busay. We have chandelier neckpieces that allude to Sinulog festival costumes, patterns borrowed from hand-painted native guitars, finishes that pay proper tribute the ever-vibrant “jeepneys” that roam our streets. But perhaps the most Cebuano of the bunch—our pièces de résistance, so to speak—are those pieces with accents inspired by the pusô, a native dish in which rice is cooked in a diamond-shaped packet made of woven coconut leaves. Really, when these little accents jingle-jangle around your wrists or against your collar, what other place on earth comes to mind? (What’s more, they are made from scraps of the material used to create hand-woven chairs—stylish and sustainable!)
Of course, there is one thing more Cebuano than even the pusô. 10 years ago I read a passage in a local magazine that said something to the effect of: “Few things are as redolent of that classic Cebu charm as…the Cebuana smile.” How very true! When I am in a different city or country and I see a Filipina woman smile in a way that makes my heart skip a beat, I immediately think, “This woman is Cebuana”—and almost always I am proven right! That was exactly what I had in mind when we were scouting for a face to represent this collection and grace this catalog. When the model Fretzel Buenconsejo stepped into our offices for the casting call, with a smile as warm as an island breeze, we knew right then and there she was exactly who we were looking for. Fretzel is the quintessential island girl—grew up riding bikes along the coastal roads of Dalaguete (a beachfront town some 50 miles southwest of Cebu City), a sucker for seafood and tropical fruit, and proud of her skin, which happens to be the color of brown sugar. She’s the kind of girl whose laughter tells stories of endless summers, whose laid-back, unassuming nature reminds you of sweet little siestas, and whose zest for life has that characteristic tang of a tropical fruit juice. In other words, she’s the kind of girl we hope every woman transforms into once they slip on a piece or two from this collection.
On behalf of the Gracie Q team, allow me welcome you to our island home. As one famous line from a movie goes, “Trust me, it’s paradise.” And we’re glad we have the chance to bring out the island girl in you and make you look the part.
Fretzel Buenconsejo for Gracie Q | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon for Shutterfairy in Lapu-Lapu, Cebu, on November 19, 2011 | Main photographers: Malou Pages-Solomon for Shutterfairy, Charisse Darlene Calo for Calography (click here to view some of Malou’s photos) | Hair and makeup by Joe Branzuela | Special thanks to Jeff Enecio and Vanity Salinana | Maya blue/grey unishoulder drape goddess dress, Lotte Delima-Edwards | Orange red/sienna/carrot striped top, Forever 21 | White jersey multi-way dress, EJ Relampagos | Persian green/lime floral-print silk chiffon kaftan with Indian silk trimming, Kate Torralba | Cyan/chartreuse zebra-print cotton/jersey blend keyhole-neck floor-length kaftan, Lotte Delima-Edwards | Black strapless corset minidress, EJ Relampagos | Strapped wooden wedge sandals, Shandar
Could she be the most beautiful girl in, well, this part of the world?
That was all that kept ringing in my head the whole time I was behind the camera shooting Cielo Ramirez, the final of four muses that local accessories design house Shandar had handpicked to grace the catalog of their shoe line’s premier collection.
I’d never met the girl before, only read about her in Kate Torralba’s (now-defunct) StyleBible.ph-hosted blog, when the ever-effervescent designer/musician had proceeded to declare Cielo one of her “girl crushes.” Now, if Kate were a man, it would’ve been a totally different story—it wouldn’t have sparked the slightest bit of interest in me, or, quite possibly, in anyone. Something about girls admiring other girls for their sheer beauty, though, that gives it an exquisite, almost numinous kind of allure. It’s a kind of allure that’s meant to be esoteric at first, and then it snowballs into something bigger as more and more people take heed in an attempt to demystify it. (And I’m not even making all this up: historically speaking, it was when the legendary Diana Vreeland fell in love with Penelope Tree at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball that catapulted Tree’s career, and it was when Corrine Day fixatedly took photos of a gangly 14- or 15-year-old Kate Moss that elevated the latter from, um, plain Croydoner to crown princess of modeldom.) So it should be no surprise, then, that when Shandar’s Mark Tenchavez had brought up Cielo’s name, I’d felt a certain kind of thrill, and that here I was now on the day of the shoot, all sorts of enthralled and entranced. I couldn’t stop pressing my shutter-release button. Could it be that I was developing a little “girl crush” of my own here?
I mean, come on, look at that face. Eyes the shape of Caroline Trentini’s, a dainty little nose, and supple button-shaped lips perch on a delicately angular face. It’s the kind of face that makes you want to question, well, your genes. The makeup artist Hans Ferrer was on cloud nine: he didn’t have to spend so much time working his magic on this canvas as it was already a masterpiece by itself. Even if you took photos of her with her back facing the camera you’d still know she was beautiful. It made me ask: How was it possible that I was only seeing this girl for the first time?
Well, turned out it was my fault ‘cause I’d pretty much been living under a rock up to that day. The stylist Meyen Baguio was quick to point out that this wasn’t, for example, the first time Cielo was endorsing a shoe line—her appearance in the runway at the launch of Jandrick “Jumbo” Climaco’s Fushu brand a couple of months back was what had charmed Meyen and pushed her to pass a viva voce recommendation to the Shandar team. I would also learn that this wasn’t going to be her first catalog appearance, as she’d appeared in a couple of them in the recent past, most notably for the What A Girl Wants (WAGW) Pre-Fall 2010 collection catalog (shot by the talented Raleene Cabrera and styled by the fabulous Kryz Uy). I thought, OK, the girl had been around, which was good—it would be a shame to put a face like this to waste!
I could go on and on about her face, but I must not overlook the body. I think the reason why Cielo is so appealing to other girls (like Kate and Meyen) is because, while her face is that of a girl, her body is very much of a woman. (I think it’s the exciting contrast that does it, no?) During the days leading to the shoot I’d pictured her to be stick-thin or something like that (not that I have a problem with that), so imagine my surprise when I finally met her in person and it turned out she wasn’t what I’d expected her to be. I mean, sure, she was tiny, and this made her fit perfectly into sample sizes, but with curves in all the right places, you know what I mean? Needless to say, Meyen and the rest of the team had so much fun taking turns in dressing her up, like she was a dress up doll! (This is me trying to debunk the myth that only the gawky, tendril-thin girls are fun to dress up—it’s a little bit of sinuous curves that actually bring more life to an outfit.)
What was most amazing, though, was her attitude towards the work at hand. She was so polite and soft-spoken, and never complained. It was sweltering the whole time we were shooting—midmorning sun, the apex of summer (I think it was about 92 degrees out at the time)—but she was such a trouper, never asked for a break, tried so hard not to squint, even graciously declined our offers to fan her. The board had only called for three outfits, but when we decided the last minute to squeeze in a fourth one (because it was just so much fun dressing her up!) she gladly indulged our whims. It was her first time to meet most of us in the team, but never for one minute did she choose to alienate herself, or ask for her friends to visit her on set. How very different this girl was from most of the girls her age these days that I’d worked with, who were scared to stand one minute under the sun, would complain about having to do one more change of clothes, wouldn’t let go of, say, their cell phones, or liked to be surrounded by handlers or hangers-on! Of the four muses Shandar had picked she was the youngest—the team had reeled her in to make the product appeal to a younger audience—but this certainly didn’t mean she was the least professional. What we’d expected to run for five or so hours only took three, thanks to her dedication and hard work.
After we’d wrapped up she’d talked to us a little about her life, how she liked to travel (in a few weeks she was going to be in L.A. to visit family), her boyfriend. I can’t recall if we ever talked about her future plans, although I do remember Hans sweet-talking her into joining a beauty pageant. “You could be the next Miss Cebu!” Hans exclaimed, to which Cielo just laughed gleefully. Who could tell if that laugh meant a yes or a no? Whatever her plans are, I just know that great things are bound to happen to this girl.
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To think I almost said no to this session.
It was Meyen who’d come up with the idea of shooting at an airfield/hangar, and at first I’d had reservations about the whole thing, arguing that it had been done so many different times by so many different people. But she’d remained relentless, arguing back that she’d put together a really good mood board, and had already pulled some strings to secure the location. The long and short of it was that I let her have her way, in the interest of saving time, and was smacked by a complete reversal of opinion as she weaved her concept into life before my eyes.
For one, I was floored by the styling. This was the session I gave her pretty much the free hand and chose not to meddle with her business. Turned out she wasn’t kidding when she’d said she’d had a strong mood board. She’d wanted to portray Cielo as a jetsetter, perhaps taking a cue from the girl’s love of travel, and proceeded to assemble outfits that were ready to take flight, pun intended. I hadn’t seen the actual mood board, but it looked to me like she was aiming for a twisted kind of Catch Me if You Can—like, this was what Frank Abagnale Jr. would look like had he been a woman. Mostly flight attendant silhouettes, without being too uniform-y. Nonchalant luxury, that’s how I would define the look. I particularly loved the ‘60s Carnaby Street-style brocade crop jacket in cosmic latte and apricot, and how she paired such a dainty little thing with Mark’s rather wild animal-print peep-toe wedges. Also loved how she paired a black-and-white polka dot maillot with a tulip skirt and topped it all off with a sequin beret. Those were not the only brave combos she pulled off that day—I also remember gasping as she took out a TSENG by Noreen Tseng armlet and handed it to the model. What’s so shocking about this? Well, nothing, really, except a few pundits would say never use an item from another brand when shooting one brand’s catalog. But Meyen is never one to care about rules—“If it gives the outfit more flavor, why hold back?” Of course, it helps that she’s close personal friends with Noreen, and that the competition between Noreen’s brand and Mark’s has always been healthy. A word to startup stylists, though: This kind of thing is not for the faint of heart, so think long and hard before trying it at home.
This has always been Meyen’s strength—the ability to put together unexpected combinations. It should be noted, too, that when the two of us were only starting out more than a decade ago, as two thirds of a trinity of stylists that included Clarissa Ouano, Meyen was the first to make the bold move of mixing high and low, of ready-to-wear/street/retail pieces with designer. I’d always been the scaredy-cat, you see, watching my every move and afraid to step out of my comfort zone, so if it was me doing a shoot I’d stick with one retailer, one brand, or one designer. It was Meyen who first broke that convention, and her act of courage inspired me and Clarissa to follow suit.
What was most special about this one job right here, though, was that Meyen assembled these outfits not just with the sleight of her hand, but also with a little help from her 14-year-old niece Mickey. I talked about Mickey in a previous post—about how she’s an aspiring makeup artist and how she likes to tag along whenever we have shoots so she can talk to the makeup artists and observe them in action. Well, looks like she’s starting to take an interest in clothes, too! Kudos to Meyen for passing the torch, so to speak, this early! I intend to do the same, too, you know, when my nieces hit early teenagerhood—maybe hand down my old books and my Vogues, encourage them to always tote a camera, take them shopping. This is something I always talk about during dinner conversations, and more often than not I get flak from people who think starting kids early is “kind of cruel.” Well, it’s not like it’s child labor or anything. I simply joke, you know, that, “Hey, you won’t always have youth, but you’ll always have the clothes!” Seriously, though, it’s not even about the clothes. It’s teaching them the value of figuring out what you love most and looking for ways to do it for a living. Now, as for where to get the funds to send them to FIDM or Parsons, that’s a different story altogether.
Cielo Ramirez for Shandar | Photographed by Angelo Kangleon in Lapu-Lapu City on April 17, 2011 | Styled by Meyen Baguio | Hair and makeup by Hans Ferrer (to book Hans, click here) | Special thanks to Nestor Castillano, Claire Elardo, Maria Elena Gabaya and the Aviatour team | Wisteria/thistle/rose quartz unishoulder bodycon cocktail dress with puff sleeve and Swarovski and tonal flower adornments, Ronald Enrico
We go way back, this girl and I. She was only 13 or 14 when Elite Model Look-Philippines 1996 winner Charity Lagahid and I met her at a coffee shop one Saturday afternoon a little over a decade ago, a peppy high school athlete who, up to that point, had wanted nothing else but to follow in her parents’ footsteps (both of them lived and breathed sports—her father a basketball player, at one point for the MBA and at another for the PBA, and her mom a volleyball player). A few days later I would chaperone her to her very first casting (for a Levi’s fashion show), and that was when I introduced her to Valeriano “Chicoy” Tomol III, founder of the indefatigable institution Models’ Association of Cebu (MAC). Chicoy would take her under his wing, and the rest, as they say, was history. Under Chicoy’s skillful tutelage she would graduate from ingénue to spitfire supermodel faster than one could go through, say, high school, bag the Ford Models Supermodel of the World-Philippines title in 2001, make it to the top 10 at internationals in Miami later that same year, and then take the Asian fashion worlds by storm. Marjay Ramirez was unstoppable.
So unstoppable, in fact, that I would lose touch with her for quite a while—once she got it rolling, that was it, she was all over the place, and it became fiendishly difficult to pin her down! Funny thing, really, ‘cause I’d known her literally since the beginning, but I never got the chance to work with her, not once. Well, not until now.
She was home for an extended vacation early this year (she is now based in Calgary, AB, where she works for a telecommunications company and part-times as, well, a model, represented by I Model Management), and we would bump into each other while carousing in the streets on Sinulog day. I must’ve hugged her about fifty times that day. She asked what I was up to these days, and I told her I was sort of into photography now—but I must’ve been really wasted ‘cause I forgot to ask her what I’d been meaning to ask her for a long time, which was for a chance to get to work with her! Luckily, about a month later, she would chance upon my very first solo work (the grunge/’90s-themed engagement shoot I did for an Ormoc-based couple), and then she hit me up asking if I wanted her to sit for me. Of course, I did! Now more than ever, I said, that I was only starting out and could use all the help I could get to build a portfolio, not to mention I was leveraging the long-lost art of grunge as launch pad—and you couldn’t get any grungier than this girl, right, what with her air of insouciance and her current penchant for tastefully tattered shirts in Alexander Wang-like silhouettes (i.e., oversize, with asymmetrical hems), tomboy denims and work boots. My head was racing with ideas on where to shoot, what the styling would be like, etc. Time wasn’t on our side, though, and we would soon run into scheduling conflicts—I was only available to shoot on Sundays, but with only two Sundays left before she was to board the plane that was to take her back to Canada, she said she’d rather spend them on the beach with her family. I had to give it to her—I knew how important quality time with her mom was for her.
My lucky stars would shine on me once again, though, when, a few days later, I got a call from Mark Tenchavez, head designer of the local fashion accessories house Shandar, telling me about the shoe line he was about to launch under the same Shandar brand, and commissioning me to do the photos for the premier collection catalog. I was stoked—not only was this my first commercial job as a photographer, I was also going to be working with an A-team that included my stylist friend Meyen Baguio and, well, Marjay! The concept was rather simple: the shoes were to be donned by four of Mark’s muses of the moment, and that included Marjay (it would turn out she was going to be the only legit model in the roster, as the rest would be “real women”). True to form, she had given an availability of a Monday. This time I had to say yes—I figured, if this was my only chance to work with her, I had to compromise, and, boy, am I glad I did!
On the day of the shoot Marjay arrived in her ultracool uniform of the moment—oversize ripped tank top, harem-style sweatpants—and I kept thinking, you know, that this was the Marjay I wanted to shoot so bad. But Mark’s shoes were glam—bejeweled patent leather strappies in fire engine red, snakeskin stilettos, etc.—and so there was no way it could’ve worked. So much for the grunge concept that had been dancing around in my head for days! But that was alright. The beauty of it all was that you knew that whatever Marjay slipped into, and whatever theme or concept you threw at her, you were still going to end up with a perfect picture no matter what. Mark couldn’t have put it more dead-on when he said that she was the “ultimate chameleon…an amalgamation of everything her jetset life throws her way.” Her profile pictures in Facebook is testimony to this: one moment she’s thrift-store garage rock (à la everyday Kate Moss) in Romania, the next she’s laid-back tomboy in the streets of Kathmandu, the next she’s geeky/sleuthy cool in Berlin, the next she’s biker chic in the Canadian Rockies. And then there’s that photo of her sashaying in a cobalt blue décolletage cutout bodycon dress from a Vania Romoff lookbook, taken by her good friend Vito Selma, that just proves that she can take glam to the next level, too! And so, you see, I had absolutely nothing to worry about! When Meyen ushered in the rack of cocktail pieces from Ronald Enrico’s Holiday ‘10/’11 collection, that’s when I knew I was in for a real treat.
I don’t think I’d ever enjoyed shooting someone like I did that day. I was reminded of how far more special it was to work with a bona fide model (and take note I’m using this term to differentiate them from the, um, B-list models, for lack of a better term, not as opposed to real people, because real people are a different story altogether). Not only was Marjay a champ at utilizing a bit of method acting on set, she also demonstrated unmistakable cooperation. She had a hand in every aspect of the shoot. She talked to the makeup artist about what shades/blending techniques worked best on her face, oiled her own legs, helped in picking/rearranging the sets and in looking for good lighting, folded and pinned extra fabric herself so the clothes would fit perfectly. Even talked to me about some of the best photographers she’d worked with, and dispensed some really helpful tips! In other words, no sitting around and merely waiting for instructions, and no diva-like behavior. She considered herself a part of the creative process, a part of the team, so she worked to contribute whatever she could, and in doing so made the job easier for everyone else, and reduced the shooting time by 40-50%! What I’d expected to run for six or so hours only took three!
She would leave for Calgary five days after the shoot. I don’t know when she’ll be back for a visit, but one thing is for sure: I’m already gearing up for an action-packed shoot (or, a series of them) for when she does! Finally I’ve caught on what a lot of people have been buzzing about for years: There’s just no getting enough of this girl!
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People have been asking me how we came up with the concept for the catalog cover—guy in bathtub filled with rose petals, shoe cradled between shoulder and chin like a violin, or like a vampire. I am tempted to say, oh, you know what, it just hit us like lightning right then and there, but the truth is that it took an awful lot of hard work and logistics—and a little dose of wicked inspiration. Mark and Meyen had wanted something striking and unpredictable—sensual, if you will, but without being overly so. I had to choose between five or so shoes to feature in the cover shot, and easily my favorite was that one pair Mark had named after Marjay—the Ramirez, which were taupe grey/Payne’s grey python skin-pattern leather peep-toe slingbacks with gunmetal glitter-encrusted heels. How to anchor snakeskin in a sensual context? My first impulse was to slap John Collier’s painting Lilith against the mood board—naked woman, hair down, serpent coiled around her body—but then I realized that would be going to far. Then I read about Lilith being the first rumored vampire, and that’s when it hit me. In no time I was watching Queen of the Damned from 2002, replaying my favorite scene—Akasha (played by Aaliyah) and Lestat (Stuart Townsend) making love in a tub filled with rose petals, with Deftone’s “Change (In the House of Flies)” playing in the background—over and over again. For years I’d been itching to recreate that scene, and finally here was a chance to do it! Poor Mark had to go to the night market to obtain dozens upon dozens of roses, and it took everyone a good thirty minutes to fill the tub with their petals. Of course, I didn’t ask for plastic vampire fangs; we were thinking more on the lines of the shoe as the vampire temptress. We almost witnessed an actual bite, though, when a little creepy-crawly that came with the petals surfaced for some air—good thing the model was quick to whisk it away. Marjay had to endure some 20 minutes of sitting at the edge of the tub, in the most awkward of positions, extending her legs to a point they threatened to cramp, all while trying hard not to slip. But I can’t say all our hard work didn’t pay off. I don’t normally blow my own horn because I’m terribly self-deprecating and you know it, but the pictures came out beautiful (even the unedited ones). I have never been prouder of me.
Marjay Ramirez for Shandar | Photographed by Angelo Kangleon in Cebu City on March 28, 2011 | Styled by Meyen Baguio | Hair and makeup by Hans Ferrer (to book Hans, click here) | Special thanks to Nestor Castillano | Black unishoulder bodycon cocktail dress and white Swarovski-encrusted bodycon cocktail dress, Ronald Enrico