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
My own personal PJ Harvey. That’s what I’d used to call singer/songwriter Cattski Espina, back when I’d immersed myself in the local music radar as part of my duties as editor-in-chief of the now-defunct alternative culture e-zine Neoground.com (where I’d worked with Sonic Boom Philippines founder Alex “Phat Boy” Lim, Urbandub’s Gabby Alipe, and former NU107 anchorwomen Hazel Montederamos and Krissi Banzon, among others). And she remembered this—the woman has an astonishing recall of detail, testament that she is a compelling storyteller. No doubt she remembered, too, that I’d been an avid follower of her live appearances in shows like Intimate Acoustics (a series of sitting room only unplugged shows held at the then happening Padi’s Point, which ran popular throughout ’99) and its subsequent all-girls spin-off Siren Souls, the latter her eponymous band had top-billed along with the Kate Torralba-fronted Hard Candy, and the then female-fronted Cueshé (yes, Dhee Evangelista, now of Pandora). At the time, of course, the comparison between her and the divine Ms. Harvey had sprouted from—and ended at—the impassioned singing, the deeply sonorous vocals, the gender-bending songwriting. Certainly I had not meant for it to be a prediction of sorts. So you could imagine my surprise upon finding out firsthand that her musical career had somewhat ended up treading the same path as Ms. Harvey’s—i.e., her group had disbanded, and she was now on her own (the only difference was that the PJ Harvey trio had dissolved after two albums, while Cattski the band had managed to make it to three albums before breaking up).
Balmy early evening in late August, and I was having coffee—well, frappé, really—with Cattski. “The Cat Lady” (as I fondly call her these days, borrowing from the name of her weekly column from back when she was resident rock critic at the local daily SunStar) had just finished titling and tracklisting her forthcoming album, and with only four or five tracks left to fine-tune, it was now time to get down and dirty for the album cover. “Other [musicians] opt for artwork,” she would later declare, “but in my case, I like having my face in the CD sleeve. I mean, you gotta put a face to the name and to the music at some point, right?” Choosing a photographer to bring her vision into life had not been a daunting task—even prior to beginning work on this album, already she’d had Malou “Mai” Pages-Solomon of Shutterfairy Photography on top of her list (she’d worked with Mai before, for a couple of promotional material, and she’d liked the outcome so much that she’d decided no other photographer would do for this new recording). Which was what had brought me here—having just jumpstarted my apprenticeship at Shutterfairy a couple of weeks back, I had been commissioned by Mai to style Cattski for this one very important shoot. And what a way to be reunited, right? I had not seen this woman in seven or so years! But breaking the ice didn’t prove to be tricky. All she had to do was tell me about how Cattski the band was no more, and that this upcoming album, although technically her fourth (fifth, if you count her tenth anniversary compilation, released early last year), was really the first from Cattski the solo artist. Of course, the news came to me as a shocker, not so much because I’d come here expecting to style a quartet, but because I’d become so used to thinking of Cattski as a group. I couldn’t bring myself to imagine Cattski as a non-group without losing a bit of composure. I mean, sure, this woman right here had always been that band’s focal point, but all I could think of was that amazing, formidable chemistry that the group had had, you know? But, oh well, as Cattski now put it, “Life happened” (exactly the reason she and I had lost touch for seven years in the first place). Guitarist Anne Muntuerto had had to leave for Washington, DC, to pursue a Master’s Degree in Nurse Anesthesia—definitely a relief to hear it had had nothing to do with “creative differences” or anything like that, and that the two of them remained really good friends, and that Anne was now turning out to be not only Cattski’s but Cebu music’s biggest ambassador/promoter overseas, sharing our goods with whatever musical circuit she was able to penetrate (including the big leagues such as singer/producer Brian Larsen, for whom she became touring guitarist). As for the rest of the band members, well, I decided it was no longer my business to ask about them. Especially when Cattski began to make it clear that there was nothing else she wanted to do at this point but to move forward.
Or move further back, as the case would be. “[The reason] why I’ve decided to call [this new album] Zero,” she revealed, “[is] because it’s like I’ve gone back to zero!” As of the time we spoke she was still undecided on whether to label it Zero, spelled out like that, or 0:00:00, like “how your [digital] music player [timer] looks like right before you [hit the] play [button].” But whatever she ends up going with, the premise remains the same: starting from nothing. I know it sounds frightening, but turns out it’s not so bad after all. When you come from nothing, “you have this kind of independence, this freedom to do whatever you feel like doing, and it becomes a [prolific] exploration,” she explained. “Back when I was still in a group, I had all this music in me, just waiting to explode, but then I would put it forward for the rest [of the band members] to hear—because that’s what being in a band is all about, you have to get the others’ opinion—but then they’d be, like, ‘That’s too Barbie’s Cradle!’ or ‘That’s not hardcore enough.’” She went on about how, in the eight or nine years of being in a group, there had always been this unspoken rule that “you have to stick with a formula when trying to come up with new material, and so you always have to [reference] all the things you’ve already done.” But now she no longer needed to do that. “Now I can start with nothing—with silence—and then go with whatever hits me from out of the blue!”
Silence being the operative word. She proceeded to tell the story of how, one day at twilight, couple of weeks before beginning work on new material, she’d found herself standing on the vast balcony of a local hotel perched atop the hills, and she’d just stood there, stunned by how the city sprawled before her had changed its face as dusk had settled—and by the silence and stillness that had come with it. A silence so piercing that it had laid itself out like a stark blank canvas, awakening the music and words from deep inside her that she’d thought she’d long forgotten, and causing them to detonate like firecrackers. Just like that, what could possibly be her peak artistic period had gotten a jumpstart. Out of nothing, Zero had been born.
Said differently: By taking a step back, she had moved on.
In no other picture was this logic clearer to me than in “Monsters,” one of the 11 new tracks to be included in Zero, and a strong contender for carrier single. In her deeply soulful contralto, Cattski croons: “I feel I’m braver now to face my demons/ I’ve finally learned to use my angels, too/ I think I’m finally ready to live my truth/ ‘Cause right now that I’m without you there’s just nothing to lose.” Odds and ends of emotions in her words and in her voice, kind of like that closet where you’d kept your skeletons for so long, and now that the bones had been cleaned out you were seeing for the very first time all the other stuff that had been there with them all along (I won’t take credit for that simile; that’s an extended version of an imagery that she uses in the song’s refrain). But one emotion you weren’t gonna find no matter how hard you tried was bitterness. It hadn’t been disguised—it just simply wasn’t there to begin with. Definitely a feat—well, to me, at least—because very few storytellers succeed in looking past the pain, in just walking away from it. This was a huge change for Cattski, who, when she’d broken into the scene a little over a decade back, had embraced the exquisite anguish of hanging on to an offhandedly ambivalent partner (“High and Low,” 2001), and who, some five years ago, had made a big deal about holding on to someone who clearly was no longer there (“Your Ghost,” 2006). And who, only a year ago, had been “too emotionally unstable—disturbed would be an accurate description,” for whatever reason. In fact, change was starting to look like a recurring theme in Zero. In “New,” another solid candidate for first single, she spits out, in brisk cadences: “This is not you/ I guess I like the old you/ But then you like the new.” At first my brows raised, ‘cause it sounded to me like she was contradicting herself here by lamenting a friend’s resolve to change. If I hadn’t known better, though, I would have stuck to that first impression; but after rereading the lyrics more than a dozen times I was now confident enough to declare that that one line was really a sort of reverse message for her fans—like, “I know you liked the old me, but I promise you you’re gonna like the new me even more.” I could say that I made that up. But it would be very remiss of me not to insinuate that Cattski here was clever like that.
And so here she was with her brand new take on life. And, as they say, a new outlook required a new, well, look, and that was exactly what I was here for. Always I’d been cautious about styling musicians (as public figures, you see, they are ultimately responsible for the way they are seen, and so they have to be the custodian of their own image), saying yes only to those who’d asked for a helping hand (like to Urbandub bassist Lalay Lim, for example, who’d asked for my help some four years back before stepping in front of photographer Charles Buencosejo’s camera for the CD jacket of and promotional posters for their fourth album Under Southern Lights). Cattski here had not exactly asked for help, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t open to others’ ideas. So many things that needed to be done in the studio, so she wasn’t exactly in a position to turn down anyone offering to relieve her of non-studio work. Just like that, I got to work.
Taking a cue from her stories of how the Zero creative process had begun—i.e., “from nothing”—I proceeded to assemble a mood board that was pared down and very basic. No convoluted palettes, for one: I was quick to throw in some black, just ‘cause the RGB triplet for black was (0, 0, 0), just two zeroes shy of her 0:00:00 idea. I had to make room for one more color, and was tempted to go for a primary like a red or a blue, but in the end I decided to go with white. Black and white. Or, as Cattski liked to put it, ebony and ivory, like the keys of a piano. That was it. You couldn’t get any more pared down than that. It was perfect ‘cause I’d just finished reading excerpts from Just Kids, punk rocker Patti Smith’s tender and captivating memoir of her charmed friendship with the black-and-white photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and for weeks I’d been looking for ways to translate some of that enigmatic Smith/Mapplethorpe chemistry into my own work. I wasted no time mentally updating my board with the cover photograph of Smith’s debut album Horses—the singer in a white men’s dress shirt, tight jeans, black suspenders, with a black men’s blazer nonchalantly flung over her left shoulder, and scruffy hair—which Mapplethorpe had taken using natural afternoon light “in a penthouse in Greenwich Village.” Like how I liked my burgers, though, with one patty never being enough, one reference to Patti wasn’t sufficient, so I went ahead and slapped another photo of hers against the board: An older Patti this time, circa 2010, no longer punk’s princess but very much its doyenne, shot by the fashion photographer Ruven Afanador for the February 2010 issue of O: The Oprah Magazine—reclining against a wooden table, in a black smoking jacket and a white dress shirt so supersized they allude Martin Margiela’s all-oversize collection from A/W 2000/2001, and what looked like sweatpants tucked into buckle-strapped biker boots. Cattski liked these references, just like I’d thought. It was a look that was meant for her—with her newfound air of insouciance, she could well be on her way to becoming my own personal Patti Smith (yes, no more PJ Harvey).
We brainstormed for a couple of more looks, and she proposed that, since we were doing black and white, she wanted to use this, well, black-and-white star-print sweater she’d bought from a recent trip to the Lion City, to which I said why the hell not. If we had to go with patterns, stars were the right way to go—huge for Fall (as evidenced in Dolce & Gabbana Fall 2011 Ready-to-Wear), and had kind of a grunge subtext, to people like me who remembered the teeny weeny asterisk in Billy Corgan’s infamous ZERO shirts of yore. (I swear, the uncanny correlations just kept on coming: Here I was styling an artist for her album called Zero, and Corgan’s ZERO shirt just had to come to mind.) That being said, we decided to make room for just a little bit more of neo-grunge, and that’s how actress Zoë Kravitz got into the picture, more specifically her character in the TV series Californication, a reckless Venice Beach teen and frontwoman of an all-girl band who called themselves Queens of Dogtown, whose badass (albeit scripted) Whisky a Go Go performance of Alice in Chains’s “Would” (for the fifth episode of the fourth season) and whose penchant for boy’s tanks and exposed brassieres had gotten me falling head over heels—or, wool beanie over combat boots, if you will.
Speaking of combats, Cattski forgot to bring hers on the day of the shoot, so my own Bed Stü “Artillery Boots” had to make a special guest appearance in one of the sets (I swear to God, wherever my boots go they manage to steal the show). That wasn’t the only thing I was happy about. I was also glad that the black smoking jacket I got from local menswear genius Protacio didn’t turn out to be too oversize on her (and so the silhouette came out more Demeulemeester than Margiela), and that the star-spangled sweater didn’t come out too fancy (originally we’d intended to have her wear black leggings with the said sweater, but we ditched it so we could show off the tattoo in her leg). Androgyny was a very good look on this woman, I must say. Although I was happy that she wasn’t afraid to get in touch with her girly side, too, putting on every single chain and chandelier necklace I flung her way—even agreeing, after only a moment’s hesitation, to “lose the dress shirt and just stand there in your brassiere!” (Such a trouper, I know—never even complained about the lack of a dressing room, and that she had to undress and dress in front of all of us!) Ecstatic, too, that my friend Nikki Paden had agreed to assist me with the styling, because a helping hand was always a treat, and no one knew the black and white palette better than that girl. What I was most happy about, though, was the hair and makeup. I’d never met, much less worked, with the hairstylist and makeup artist (and erstwhile model) Justine Gloria before, and had not even had the chance to talk to her before this shoot, but then she got to work and it was like magic. At the outset, you see, I’d wanted, say, Cattski’s eye makeup to be a bit glam, and her hair in some pompadour à la Gwen Stefani—but Justine had envisioned something else, and it came out perfect. It was a look that was mature yet not at all contrived, edgy but not sinister, and had that elusive quality of being at turns disheveled and flawless (think circa mid-‘90s Chrissie Hynde and you’ll begin to come close). And it went really well with the clothes! I was in awe: Cattski like I’d never seen her before.
But more important than the new outlook, and infinitely more important than the new look, was the new sound. In front of the cameras now I asked her to move around, pretend like she was performing onstage, in front of hundreds (the mic stand had been my idea, after she’d refused to be photographed cradling a guitar ‘cause it had been done so many times over the last couple of years), and so she asked for music she could swing to, and luckily for me it was a demo version of the aforementioned new song “New” that her assistant chose to play. At first I couldn’t place the song as hers, thought it was a mid-‘90s Jill Sobule, what with its rhythmic uptempo, tragicomic wordplay, and sing-songy chorus, so imagine my surprise when her assistant told me this was actually the song “New” that Cattski had been telling me about! The intro starts with a faint kick drum beat that is very characteristic of house, and then slowly intermingles with some synth and mellow guitar plucking, before it crescendos into an a capella, and then a bang. (The transitions would follow this same pattern.) It’s the kind of song that’s hard to put in a box. She would admit later on that, yes, the underlying beat was a “generic house beat,” at 140 bpm, but then throw in all the other elements and it becomes something else altogether. A hundred different things, if you will, because, I swear, every time I am ready to dismiss it as pop rock, I hear a little bit of riot grrrl pop-punk here and there, and some elements of symphonic rock. “In the past, [whenever] people asked me what kind of music I made, without [skipping a beat] I would say, ‘Rock!’” she would later recount. “Now when I meet new people and they ask me the same question, I stammer and I can’t give a straight answer.” And there is no formula, too; no two songs are ever the same. The abovementioned “Monsters,” for example, is a languid, organic ballad set against an irresistible concoction of trip-hop, ambient, and dream pop—even a tinge of country pop! “Defying genres,” that’s how she calls the whole thing. So this is what happens when you “start from nothing” with every song (and when you micromanage every single step in the production process, if I may jokingly add—I don’t think I’ve ever met the brand of control freak that this woman has on!). Although this early on Cattski is in anticipation being critiqued by the pundits: “[They’re] most likely [going to] say…that [the album] has an identity crisis, for not having a consistent sound. But I’m no longer afraid of that. I trust myself enough [now]. My intuition [is] my ultimate guide. Everything will have to be on the premise of what sounds and feels right for me.” But I don’t think it’s ever going to get to that point—the pundits part, I mean. If anything, peers and fans alike are going to appreciate the bold step she’s taking, her kind of game-changing, and I predict this album is going to be her biggest contribution yet to Cebu music. Yes, by sidestepping a niche, Cattski has found her, well, niche—that is, as renaissance woman of Cebu music.
I am tempted to talk about all of the other songs, but that would be doing a great deal of disservice to the artist. My job is to build up excitement, not to do an album review, so I’m gonna have to stop right here. For right now, go ahead and take your time reveling at the woman that you see here—Cattski like you’ve never seen her before. Although I can’t exactly guarantee all this is ever going to prepare you for the Cattski you’ve never heard before.
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Cattski Espina | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon for Shutterfairy in Cebu City on September 3, 2011 | Main photographers: Malou “Mai” Pages-Solomon for Shutterfairy, Paul Armand Calo for Calography (click here to view Mai’s photos, and here for Paul’s) | Hair and makeup by Justine Gloria | Stylist’s assistant: Nikki Paden | Sittings assistants: Manna Alcaraz and Gwen Reyes | Special thanks to: The PR and Communications Department of Marco Polo Plaza Cebu | Black men’s smoking jacket, Protacio | White men’s dress shirt, Memo | Solid black men’s silk tie, Springfield UP by Springfield | Black women’s leather biker jacket, Bershka | Black women’s skinny suit jacket, Divided by H&M | Chandelier necklace, Forever 21 | Chain necklace, Mango | Crucifix necklace, Divided by H&M
In my mood board (see below, clockwise from left): Stills of Zoë Kravitz as her Californication character Pearl, with her band Queens of Dogtown, performing a cover of Alice in Chains’s “Would” onstage at West Hollywood’s Whisky a Go Go (for the fifth episode of the show’s fourth season, originally aired February 6, 2011); still of a star-spangled sweater from Wildfox Couture, photographed by Pete Deevakul for TeenVogue.com; looks from Dolce & Gabbana Fall 2011 Ready-to-Wear, on models Isabeli Fontana and Anna Selezneva, photographed by Yannis Vlamos for GoRunway.com; Patti Smith, photographed by Ruven Afanador for the February 2010 issue of O: The Oprah Magazine; the album cover of Patti Smith’s debut record Horses, photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, circa 1975.
Behind-the-Scenes Instagrams Top row, L-R: Makeup artist/hairstylist Justine Gloria giving quick touch-ups to Cattski between sets while Mai looks on; Cattski’s assistants Gwen and Manna were asked to document the shoot and keep her in check (“I could go crazy, you know,” Cattski rationalized); Cattski literally rolling on the floor laughing when she thought we were done, only to be snapped out of it when she remembered she’d asked for night shots. Middle row, L-R: Mai with Paul (of Calography) waiting for the shoot to commence; Cattski wouldn’t stop singing, even while being photographed; Cattski forgot to bring her boots, so she had to borrow my Bed Stü “Artillery Boots”(which meant I had to go barefoot half of the time); Mai fixing Cattski’s hair. Bottom row, L-R: My assistant for the day Nikki checking out my mood boards before getting to work (she loved the Robert Mapplethorpe shots of Patti Smith); Paul getting ready to take photos of Cattski with the grand piano (the singer sang a haunting rendition of The Cure’s 1989 hit “Lovesong” while Paul was setting up); no dressing room, so Cattski was forced to dress and undress in front of everyone (such a trouper!); Cattski getting ready for the evening set.
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
Do I have a confession to make. When the folks at Shandar rang my house to tell me I was going to be shooting Christina Garcia-Frasco for the catalog of their shoe line’s inaugural collection, I got a little nervous. I hang up, and lost a little bit of composure. I mean, sure, Christina and I go way back—in a previous post I talked about how her co-spokesmodel Marjay Ramirez and I go way back, but Christina and I go more way back than way back, having gone to the same grade school and high school, although it was her older brother Paulo I’d been classmates with—but I guess that was exactly what I was nervous about. You see, the last time I’d spoken with her was some 15-16 years ago—well, we’d bumped into each other a couple of times in recent years, especially at dinner parties thrown by her younger sister Carissa, but we hadn’t had the chance to really sit down and catch up. I could still picture her schoolyard persona. She’d been the kind of sister who’d looked up to her brother, treated his peers as her own. Furthermore, she’d always been active in the student council, and as such had had a broader network. It had gotten to a point I’d become closer to her than to Paulo—we’d sit on the concrete bench underneath the flag pole, talking about books and our own writing (yes, she, too, had had a profound interest for writing growing up), among other things, while waiting for the class bells to ring. Flash forward to a decade and a half later, and here we were: I, who had no idea what I was doing, being new to this craft and all, was about to photograph her, who was quite possibly the most accomplished person I knew! To me, she was an apotheosis. Not only was she a hotshot corporate lawyer, she was also the daughter and right hand of the Governor of the Province of Cebu, and the First Lady of a booming Municipality (Liloan, some 45 minutes northeast of Cebu City). So, you see, this woman was kind of a big deal—I had every reason to be anxious. But, well, someone had to do the job, and as much as I was no stranger to wasted opportunities, I just knew I couldn’t afford for this one to be one of them.
Couple of days later I would graduate from nervous to the acme of panicky when the Shandar’s Mark Tenchavez told me that Christina had requested for a pre-shoot meeting of sorts, and asked me and the stylist Meyen Baguio to attend on their team’s behalf since they were going to be in Manila for an appointment with socialite-philanthropist Tessa Prieto-Valdes that they couldn’t reschedule (they were going ask Tessa to host the launch party, a task that would later prove to be successful). Christina had offered to host the lunch meeting at a place called Politics Café, in her new hometown of Liloan, and our drive there became one of the longest rides of my life. For the first time in a long time, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to say. How were we going to do this? What was she expecting to get from this meeting? Was she going to ask to see my portfolio, which I hadn’t even put together yet? What if she wasn’t going to like our concept/s? I was going crazy in my head. Normally, you see, with other clients or subjects, the pre-shoot appointment would be one of the highlights of a stint, something I’d always looked forward to—something about the prospect of giving a good “sales talk” and presenting strong mood boards that gave it a great punch of oomph. This time, though, I just wanted to skip the whole thing. I was thinking, if this was some random girl whom I hadn’t met yet, or whom I barely knew, it would’ve been fine, because that nonfamiliarity allowed you to be a bit courageous, you know? But this was Christina—with acquaintance came a greater sense of commitment, and a greater dread of failure. I couldn’t decide whose stomach was twisting into more knots—Mark’s, as he was about to meet Ms. Prieto-Valdes, or mine, as I was about to lunch with Ms. Garcia-Frasco.
When we got to our meeting place, though, and Christina hopped out of her SUV in her Sunday best, all the bedlam inside of me got flushed out of my system. She flashed me a toothy smile and gave me a big bear hug like it was only yesterday that we’d last seen each other, and we found ourselves chatting up a storm before we could even slip into our lunch table. Turned out she was still the same girl from back in high school—cheerful, accommodating, ready to consider everyone around her as a friend. But, of course! How could I have expected her to change? If I ever faltered when I tried to speak it was probably ‘cause I was choking on, um, shame. Shame on me for expecting the worst when I should’ve known her better than that! We talked briefly about high school and family before getting down to the business at hand.
It turned out we didn’t have to convince her to appear in the Shandar catalog—she was already bent on doing it. No stranger to shoots, having been an endorser (her work for the jewelry brand Michelis a few years back is probably the best known of all her stints) and having been featured in fashion/lifestyle magazines quite a handful of times in the recent past, Christina isn’t reputedly selective in her appearances. Every chance she gets, as long as it doesn’t conflict with her hectic schedule, she is more than willing to contribute. But make no mistake—she isn’t doing it for the wrong reasons. It’s not that kind of opportunism—in fact, it’s not any kind of opportunism at all. Sure, she is into fashion and all, and she enjoys dressing up just as every woman her age does, but more than anything she is an avid supporter of local designers. “Anything I can do to help the local fashion industry [thrive],” she declared. To her, the logic is a rather simple one: The more you tell it, the more it resonates. In this case, the more you support local talent, the more they move up the value chain, and this only leads to more opportunities in the industry, and if it’s good for the industry, it’s good for the community. From that logic sprouts her motivation. As she went on and on about this I couldn’t help but be amazed—this was probably the most mature and sensible approach I’d ever heard in my ten or so (albeit off and on) years of working in fashion!
Christina approached the planning stages with the keenness and acumen of an editor. Like Marjay before her, she wanted to have a hand in all the other aspects of the shoot, and attacked the whole thing as a collaboration versus just a mere appearance. This got us real excited—nothing disheartens me more than a subject who just shows up on the day of the shoot and waits for instructions to be tossed their way. When we told her that we wanted no role-playing involved—i.e., she was going to be photographed as, well, herself (in Mark’s shoes but just being herself)—she was thrilled. At least three sets, that was what the concept had called for, each showing a side of her that people who knew her or knew of her could relate to. “But I wear so many hats!” she laughed. In other words, the possibilities were endless, and that wasn’t exactly a bad thing, now, was it?
We decided for to the first set to showcase Christina the attorney, for the most part because she was at this very moment shaping up for a breakthrough chapter in this area—in just a few weeks she was going to be appointed as the Resident Associate of the Manila-based Lex Mundi firm Romulo Mabanta Buenaventura Sayoc & de los Angeles, as the firm was about to inaugurate their Visayas branch office (this decision to set up camp in Cebu had called for a dependable associate to oversee local operations, and Christina was the natural choice for the job). As it turned out, this set was going to be hitting more than one bird, because not only was she a lawyer, she was also a professor at the University of San Carlos College of Law and at the University of San Jose Recoletos College of Law (teaching private international law and moot court argumentation, among others)! I wanted an office type of setting—desk and paperwork and big law books and all. In my mental mood board: the uberdecorator Mica Ertegün in her chic and stately office, photographed by Mario Testino (for the August 2011 issue of American Vogue, if I am not mistaken). We couldn’t shoot at her home office because Sundays were the only time I was available to shoot and we didn’t want to interrupt the peace and quiet enjoyed by their household on that particular day of the week, so we agreed on simulating her place of work right here at Politics. Another thing I learned was that, with Politics, a cozy little, well, political-themed restaurant (framed black-and-white portraits of Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, and JFK, among others, hang in the walls, while quotable quotes from Winston Churchill and even her own mom stare back at you from the back side of table cards) that transforms into a swanky saloon by night, Christina had added businesswoman to her résumé—as if she wasn’t busy enough already! And so it was perfect that we were going to be shooting here at the restaurant. Did I already say “more birds with one stone?”
For the second set I wanted underscore Christina the First Lady of Liloan. For days what we’d envisioned was a sort of a romantic setting, guest-starring Duke, her hubby the Mayor—sunset, at Liloan’s hundred-year-old lighthouse, him in a biker jacket and on a big bike, her in a frothy little cocktail dress, with champagne flutes in one hand and her Shandar shoes in the other. But, alas, charming as it sounded, that idea was fated to be axed. Christina offered politely that that wasn’t how she wanted to be portrayed in the catalog. Besides the fact that they’d already done the lighthouse shot in the past (for their engagement photos, by Jim Ubalde), she felt she needed to show the world “the bigger picture.” Sure, they were very much in love, and up to this day still loved to go on dates like they’d just met, but her being First Lady didn’t stop at being a wife. She talked about how she also played an active hand in the affairs of the town, acting as the Municipality’s legal consultant, providing pro bono services, and more importantly as women’s and children’s rights advocate, establishing programs and projects for women and children in need—the latter something she was deeply passionate about. “I love being around little children,” she enthuses. Just like that, the groundwork for the second set was born. “I can gather ‘round a group of children to play with during the shoot,” she proposed. On our plea to convince the hubby to be part of it, though, she said, “I won’t be able to get Duke in the same picture ‘cause he’s leaving to visit his family in the U.S. on the day of the shoot—but I can wear my campaign shirt that says ‘MISIS NI DUKE!’” What a cute idea—who were we to say no?
She would open herself up a bit and allow us to tap into something deeply personal for the final set, though. At a dinner party a couple of months back I’d met her fuzzy furball Gelato—an adorable little Chow Chow (well, little is not exactly a fitting term because this one over here was huge) who was as composed and genteel as his master. I asked her if we could do a fun, laid-back set with the doggy, to which she exclaimed, “By all means! Oh, and he has a brother now, by the way.” The newest addition to the family was named Espresso—another Chow Chow, ‘cause Christina just couldn’t get enough of those fuzzy wuzzies. I imagined a picnic type of setting, Christina in white, flanked by two huggy bears, and it was like I’d died and gone to heaven.
Flash forward to two weeks later, and she was on a roll. If the Shandar team were to give an award for well-preparedness it would definitely go to Christina. She took care of all the props—the table, the books, the pens, everything!—and all we had to bring were the shoes and some clothes. Even when things threatened to go off-kilter, she always managed to come up with some sort of antidote. For example, when it turned out that some of the dresses we’d brought were a tad too oversize for her, despite the fact that they were sample size (how could we have forgotten that she was tiny?), immediately she called on an assistant to haul in a rack of clothes she’d picked out from her own closet for Meyen to choose from. Normally this would pose as a threat to the pre-worked mood board, but the woman, true to her lawyer form, had done her research—“I looked Mica Ertegün up to make sure we’re on the same page,” she quipped—and plus she had an unmistakable eye for style, and so you didn’t have to worry about a thing. For the “office”/Politics set Meyen pulled out Christina’s personal favorites: two knee-length sheaths, both from Arcy Gayatin, the first in a structural peplum silhouette in sand, the other in a simple hourglass contour fit with a bateau neckline, in dark turquoise. “I love the clothes that Tita Arcy makes for me,” she raves. “From afar they look simple, but look closer and you’ll see these immaculate little details.” She handed me the first dress so I could marvel at the cut-and-sew, subtly boned bodice. Both dresses went really well with Mark’s orange-red ankle-strapped wedges with floral-pattern sequin appliqué detail. I was kind of thankful the dresses we’d brought didn’t fit. The Arcy Gayatin numbers did a really good job in bringing into light the Christina that we wanted to portray. Sheath dresses always have a way of working wonders, and I’m not even implying that they’re fail-safe. Think Kate Moss showing up at the Cannes in 1997 in a no-fuss Narciso Rodriguez gray sheath. Understated elegance coming into play for maximal impact.
In her SUV on the way to the Frascos’ farm, where we were going to be shooting the second and third sets, we got to talking about her shoe sensibility. We were worried, you see, that she was going to have a hard time wearing Mark’s shoes on uneven terrain, to which she assured us she was going to be just fine. “I have about ten of these,” she said, referring to the shirt she had on that had “MISIS NI DUKE” emblazoned across the chest. “For months, on the campaign trail, when Duke was running for office, this was all I wore. I was dying for some variety, but the shirt was non-negotiable. So I decided to ditch the running shoes. I started showing up in heels, and Duke was, like, ‘You have got to be kidding me!’” She had no qualms admitting she was more comfortable in heels than in anything else, no matter the terrain. True enough, she had no trouble moving around and playing with the little kids in Mark’s 4- or 5-inch wedges for the second set.
I was happy with how that set with the kids turned out. In my mood board I had plastered a photo of TOMS Shoes founder and designer Blake Mycoskie goofing around with South African children during one of TOMS’s “shoe drops” (the term they use for the pursuit wherein they visit different countries all over the world to donate shoes to children in need), and we managed to pull it off. If the pictures don’t look contrived, that’s ‘cause not one bit of role-playing was involved—when we asked Christina to play around with and exchange stories with the kids, she did exactly that, and most genuinely, too, it was as if we weren’t there taking photos of them. The little ones adored her. They took turns in singing to her songs they’d learned in school, and telling her stories of what they wanted to be when they grew up. They all got so caught up in the moment that they almost forgot that it had to end somehow, and it got to a point that it was almost embarrassing on our part having to tell them it was time to say goodbye so we could proceed to the next set. When I commended Christina on the way she handled the kids, she said, “Is this the part where you ask me if I have plans to have kids of my own?” Apparently a lot of people she knew liked to ask that question a lot. It was definitely something she’d always wanted, to have children of her own. For the time being, though, she was happy with her nephew Jules and her niece Izzy—and with her doggies.
Enter Gelato and Espresso, ready for their close-up. And fluffier than ever, too! Gelato had grown twice in size since I’d last seen him, and his little brother was way bigger than I’d expected him to be! Meyen had to squeeze Christina into a white Ronald Enrico cocktail dress that had this flouncy, voluminous rosette skirt, to give the illusion she was only slightly bigger than her pets, just so they won’t come off overshadowing her. At first I kept thinking what I would do in case one of these big boys tried to jump me, but luckily no such thing happened—they were the politest, most well-behaved creatures I had ever met! Even looked like they were trying to be extra careful not to trample on the picnic baskets and all the other props. They seemed to understand what I was saying, too, because whenever I instructed Christina to “not look at the camera,” they would do turn their heads away, too! They were so adorable, they definitely stole the show. It kind of made us regret putting them on the same frame as the pièce de résistance of the day, which were the shoes that Mark had named after Christina (the Frasco, peep-toe stilettos in raspberry/orange Thai silk with bow detail)—I mean, be honest now, when you look at those photos, do you even notice the shoes? We had to make room for a couple of frames of Christina sans the furballs, if only to put the shoes back in the spotlight.
Total comfort zone experience for me, the day of the shoot—a complete volte-face from what I’d undergone in the days leading up to that aforementioned pre-shoot meeting. From the very second we arrived at Politics for the first set to the minute the stylist Meyen Baguio called out “That’s a wrap!” after the final set, never once did I lose my cool. It was as if Christina’s composure had rubbed off on us. Well, that, and the fact that she was the quintessential hostess, a champion in making everyone feel at home. (Case in point: the make-believe picnic for the last set turned into a real picnic when she took out boxes upon boxes of treats—chicken/pork adobo rolls!—from the hundred-year-old family-owned bakery Titay’s.) As we gratified our post-shoot munchies she commended the team and I on the way we ran the session—“This is probably the most relaxed shoot I’ve ever been a part of in my life!”—before proceeding to share with me some tips she’d learned from working with other photographers and stylists. It’s always nice when a subject takes the time out to boost your confidence and push you. It keeps you motivated like that.
Of course, it helped, too, that makeup artist extraordinaire Emi Ayag was there. This was a real treat for me, because I hadn’t seen Emi in ages—I think the last time we’d worked together was for a Kate Torralba fashion show some three years back. It was Christina herself who’d asked for us to reel Emi into the team. This request, of course, had come from a special place, because apparently she’d had quite a history with Emi, with him being a part of every important moment of her life—from the night she’d met the man she was going to marry, to the day they’d become engaged, down to the day they’d tied the knot! And so for days I’d had to beg Mark to pin Emi down. I’d had my own reasons for wanting him, too—perhaps not as special as Christina’s, but Emi had also been there for me during my seminal years, a part of some of the most important shoots/shows I’d worked on as a startup stylist. Needless to say, I was ecstatic that he was able to find time in his hectic schedule to do this with us. Aside from the fact that his work was flawless and he’d gotten the job done quick (he’d memorized Christina’s face it well may be that he could put her makeup on with his eyes closed!), it was just nice to have him around, standing behind me, nodding at me whenever I needed assurance that I was doing things right.
I’m so lucky that I get to work people like Christina, and, well, Emi. There was a time a couple of months back that I was beginning to have doubts about taking the step up from styling to photography—I felt I wasn’t ready, didn’t have the time, didn’t have the resources. But looking back on shoots like this now, I feel that, really, I’m my own worst enemy and it’s all me saying it couldn’t be done, because there are definitely people out there who are more than ready to hold my hand. At least I know now that if I ever make it far enough in this craft, it won’t be because of me but because of an amazing support system in the shape of people like Christina and Emi. So to that end, thank you, guys, for everything that you do!
Christina Garcia-Frasco for Shandar | Photographed by Angelo Kangleon in Liloan, Cebu, on April 17, 2011 | Styled by Meyen Baguio | Hair and makeup by Emi Ayag (to book Emi, click here) | Special thanks to Nestor Castillano | Sand peplum sheath dress with cut-and-sew bodice, Arcy Gayatin | Dark turquoise bateau-neck sheath dress, Arcy Gayatin | White uni-shoulder cocktail dress with rosette skirt, Ronald Enrico
Behind-the-Scenes Instagrams Top row, L-R: Emi taking the requisite test shot of Christina’s makeup before sending her off to battle; Shandar’s Nestor Castillano loved to hold the reflector (don’t ask me why!); yes, I like to take photos from way up high, and sometimes I blame the photos, but mostly I just love to climb (LOL); the test shot that got everyone’s vote and eventually made it to the catalog. Middle row, L-R: The team setting up the “picnic” set; we got to nibble on Politics Café’s delish Presidential Oysters Rockefeller in between sets; Emi inspecting the rack of clothes that Meyen and Christina had assembled; the stylist Meyen working her magic. Bottom row, L-R: Shandar’s Mark Tenchavez overseeing the shoot from the sidelines; Emi being fabulous while standing by for retouches (notice his quick-fix apron bag); Gelato and Espresso ready for their close-up; me taking photos from atop a tree deserves a second take—hey, you gotta give me credit for giving new meaning to “taking it from the top.” Behind-the-scenes photos courtesy of Emi Ayag.
Am I boring you yet? You know, with all these journal-type posts? That question, of course, goes to those who know me personally—friend or foe, I must say—because I just know that a couple of brows are going to raise, and they’d be, like, “Tell us something we don’t know,” or, “Show us something we haven’t seen!”
I can’t exactly blame them. It’s no secret that when I put up this blog a little over two months ago I declared that I was going to be using it as a vehicle for my foray into photography. An inconvenient truth, as it turns out now, but it’s the truth anyhow. It’s only natural that people are expecting this to be more of a photoblog than anything else.
But you gotta cut me some slack. One thing I can tell you right now is that, being new to this whole blogging thing and all (I’m not even sure if I can spell blogosphere correctly—did I get that right?), I’m not sure if it comes with a set of rules, and if it does, where to get a reliable handbook. You must remember that, in the beginning, I wasn’t exactly sold to the idea of blogging. I’d never thought I’d live to see the day that I would be putting up a blogsite. For eons my friends had been badgering me to start a blog, and always I’d rebuffed them by saying, “I’m a writer, not a blogger.” My contention was that to those of us who had seen our work on newsprint or some other sort of physical medium a little over a hundred times pre-Internet era, the idea of intangibility was frightening, not to mention the notion of self-publishing a little unceremonious, slapdash and narcissistic. And so when that day came when I had to erect this whole thing, I didn’t have a single clue what I was doing, much less if I was doing it right. Safe to say that until this very day I’m still clueless! Which is why I rely on friends who’ve been doing this a long time to give me some direction (one of them my writer friend Debbie Rojonan, who maintains two blogs—including Balaki Ko, which aims to encourage penning poetry in the vernacular—and whose Tweet from months ago that said “Where in the social media engagement pyramid are you? Still a lurker? Move up. Share, comment, produce, curate. It’s the information age” was what had given me that much needed thrust).
To cut to the chase, the consensus was that, no matter what your reasons for putting up a blog, it has to show the world your character, a dose of your personality, and ensure that your identity doesn’t get “lost in translation” in the process. This tenet is especially crucial for someone like me, a startup photographer, because it offers people who have not met me or heard of me yet a window into what it’s going to be like working with me. I’ve decided the best way to do it is through snippets from my journal—not only does this give my audience a peek into my progress in learning the craft, it also shows what inspires me, in the hopes of perhaps catching the eye of those who are inspired by the same things, and of eventually paving the way to winning collaborations.
That being said, you’re going to have to get used to this, because from here on out, at least once a month, this is what you’re going to be getting from me. What it is is I’ve elected to tap into Instagram to help me carry this whole thing out. (I’m sure all of you know what Instagram is, but to those of you who don’t, it’s the free app for iPhones that lets you take snapshots, apply filters to them, and then instantly share them with friends.) And so, you see, it’s not going to be all writing, and somehow I’ve managed to figure out a way to carry on in the same lane! Instant photos are still photos, whether you like it or not!
One day I will eventually get to that point where I get to do what most seasoned photographers do—that is, just STFU, post the damn photos and then let them do the talking. Wouldn’t that be nice? But I know I got an awful lot of work to do before I can turn up at such plateau. In the meantime, I’m just glad I can share with you the little things that make this work in progress an exciting one and this journey worth the while.
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The beginning of this month saw me getting the New York blues. I was browsing through my good friend Kathleen’s Facebook photo album of her trip to the City that Never Sleeps, feeling sorry that I wasn’t in any of the pictures. I was supposed to go with her on this trip, you see. We’d talked about it for a year—the plan was for me to leave for L.A. late May, and then meet her in the Big Apple a month later—but, as luck would have it, her vacations dates were approved, while mine got the red light. To say that I wallowed in pain would be saying the least. My brother would find me crouched in the breakfast nook, just staring blankly at my I Heart NY keychain and the MTA subway/commuter railroad map (01) from my first trip. I even hung my $3 I Heart NY souvenir shirt in my bedroom window (06) just so I could stare at it before falling asleep. It all turned out fine, though, because while I couldn’t go to New York, it was New York that found its way to me!
Yes, my friend Anne Alegrado and her family (04, 05), my gracious hosts during my first NY trip some two years back, came to Cebu for a quick vacation early this month. It was nice to be within hugging distance with her again, and with her daughter Ellis (02). Remember Ellis from my previous post? The little girl who took me to the Brooklyn Bridge—or, as she called it, “the bridge from the princess movie” (she was talking about Enchanted)? Yes, that girl. She remembers me as “the uncle who slept in our couch and walked me to school couple of times.” Last time I saw her she was into, well, “princess movies” and mathematics. Now she’s into ballet and yoga (03). Proud mother Anne was happy to report that the little girl was learning to play the guitar, too! “[Her Dad] Jovi bought her a Beatles guitar chord songbook,” Anne shared, and then Ellis wasted no time in singing to me her favorite Beatles song, “Here Comes the Sun” from Abbey Road (07). She knew all the words, and sang in perfect tune! It makes me happy seeing my friends’ kids grow up like this—I’m never going to have kids of my own, so moments like this are the closest I can get to feeling like a proud parent. Our reunion had to be cut short ‘cause they had lots of other people to see—and plus they couldn’t stay long in Cebu ‘cause they had a European trip to embark on (as of this writing they’re in Madrid, I guess). For days I couldn’t get Ellis’s rendition of “Here Comes the Sun” out of my head. It inspired me to take this snapshot of a sunrise one morning (08). To me, the song represents her future, one that’s definitely going to be bright. I hope I live to see the day when she gets there—remind me to bring sunglasses!
Not really big on taking photos of flowers, but I was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen (it was the 136th anniversary of his death the beginning of this month) and the stories I’d grown up with—particularly that one that told of a butterfly looking for a flower to become his bride, and it was a daisy named Marguerite he first approached for guidance as she was “the wisest one.” I’m not really sure these were daisies (09, 10), but they were gorgeous.
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My favorite pieces from fashion designer Dexter Alazas’s most recent collection (12)—he calls it the “peacock collection.” Always I’ve been a sucker for tasteful melees of ornamentation, and these pieces are testimony to Dexter’s mastery in this department. I would love to be able to use them for a shoot one day—that is, if no one beats me to it and I can find a client who can fit into them! I love visiting my friends’ ateliers and browsing through the racks. Dexter’s atelier (11, 12) is special because not only does he put on display his newest creations, pieces from his past collections are within reach, too—and these things, they have a way of taking you back (I think he still has this one gala gown that was used during a shoot I had with the photographer Wig Tysmans and the model Melanie Ediza for CeBu! Magazine some 10 years back.) Rumor has it that for his 15th anniversary two years from now Dexter will be putting up a retrospective. If there’s any truth to that at all, then I’m not the least worried—his archives are carefully arranged, and so curating is going to be a no-brainer.
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The indefatigable Ms. Marlene fitting me into a Dexter Alazas barong Tagalog (13, 14). This was my first time ever to slip into a barong. Always I’d been a suit person. My sister saw these snapshots and exclaimed, “Never thought I’d see the day!” I mean, I still remain partial to suits, but this time I had to make an exception—I was about to attend one of the most important wedding of my life, and the dress code called for traditional Filipino for the gents. The things you would do for a best friend getting married are nothing compared to the things you would do for two best friends getting married to each other! Well, that, plus the fact that, as you get older, you strive to be more polite in social functions—and that includes playing close attention to the dress codes. Turned out wearing a barong wasn’t too bad after all—the only downside is that you can’t smoke a lot or be around smokers ‘cause one flick of ash on the material and then you’re dunzo.
But enough about barongs and dress codes and stuff. Let’s talk about Ms. Marlene. Most of you don’t know her, but I have so much respect for her. She’s, like, the Cebu fashion industry’s best kept secret. She’s non-exclusive; she works for quite a handful of local design houses. The reason she is indispensable is that she sees eye-to-eye with these designers. A designer gives her a sketch, or an idea, and she executes it flawlessly. She is very diligent, too—working long hours, especially when it’s show season. She and I go way back—always at my side whenever I was commissioned to style a Kate Torralba fashion show, and always ready with her quick fix kit for instances that required last-minute alterations and I refused to let pins and binder clips do the trick. I look up to people like Ms. Marlene—the people who work behind-the-scenes tirelessly and fervently to bring beautiful clothes to life.
New York just wouldn’t stop coming to me. This time it was in the form of Nila Romano and Dr. John Seno, who flew into town early this month so they could get married in front of family and friends (17-28). Well, technically they’re not from New York but from New Jersey, but they live in a town called West New York, which is nestled right by the Hudson River and is considered a part of the New York metropolitan area—you can see the Upper West Side of Manhattan if you face east—so, yeah, they’re still New Yorkers to me. (Nila was also one of the few people who showed me around the Big Apple when I was there during my first visit two years ago.) This wedding was special to me—I’d waited for it like it was my own. I’d been with this couple, you see, since the beginning, since the courtship stages, and I’d witnessed the whole thing blossom into a beautiful, strong bond. Fifteen years! That’s how long they’d been together! Very few relationships get to stand the test of time. It’s a connection cemented by his unwavering faithfulness and her eternal optimism. Nila’s older sister Dory Cusi, who’d flown in from SoCal, would later toast to many of John’s finest qualities and heroic deeds, including how, when Nila couldn’t fly to the Unites States yet, he single-handedly chaperoned Dorly’s little children across the Pacific so they could finally be reunited with their parents—“and that’s when I knew he was the right guy for my sister.” They tied the knot at the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral (21-23)—it was my first time to step inside that church, and it was glorious. The bride wore a dazzling floor-sweeping strapless sweetheart-neckline gown that they’d snatched in Manhattan. John’s mother had commissioned a choir to sing “Ave Maria” as Nila’s walk-down-the-aisle song. The whole thing was so surreal I was brought to tears. A great bonus was that I got to be reunited with my some of my closest friends from college, and with the rest of the Seno family, especially John’s brothers Joey (25, delivering his best man’s speech) and Rico (26), both of whom I had become close to as John and I had lost touch.
Just a couple of photos from a recent engagement session that I did (29-32). This one took two days because we had to go up the mountains! Yes, it was grueling! The pictures came out pretty good, though, thanks to the fact that this was the first engagement shoot wherein I had absolutely nothing to do with the styling—i.e., someone else took care of the clothes, leaving me with nothing else to attend to but my camera! I should do this more often—you know, just take pictures and leave all the other aspects like the styling and the props to others. It gets you focused like that. I am unable to upload that set on here just yet ‘cause I am not allowed to publish the photos until the days leading to the wedding, so you will have to stay tuned.
Every Wednesday morning my friend Jeff and I make it a point to visit the Carmelite Monastery down Mabolo (just a good 10 minutes’ walk from our office) to light a few candles and say a little prayer (33-35). (By the way, last week, August 24, was the 48th anniversary of the consecration of the Monastery.) I can tell you that not one prayer has been unanswered. More often than not I pray for good health for me and my family. Sometimes I pray for good shoot weather, and I almost always get it! Of course, I go to the Redemptorist Church, too (36)—I live right next door!
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So a friend brought me to a place that specialized in bespoke menswear (37). I can’t disclose the name of the institution ‘cause I’ve kind of been sworn into silence, but they’ve been making bespoke suits and barong Tagalogs for a privileged group of Cebuanos for years, relying mostly on astute word of mouth. I ran my hands through some of the suit jackets laid on the dress forms and was amazed by the precision and the sharpness—what great handiwork! I hope to make an appointment soon.
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That’s a tally of my daily cigarette consumption right there (38). I was really sick beginning of this month, and when the doctor asked me “How many sticks do you smoke in one day?” I could not answer her. And so she told me that I “better start keeping track.” And so here we are. Turns out I am a pack-a-day smoker. Yikes. The good thing about keeping a record, though, is that it kind of disgusts you every time you look at it, and so it kind of keeps you in check. I am not in a struggle to quit or anything—I just really want to minimize my burning up is what it is. Smoker’s cough is not exactly music to anyone’s ears—even to the smoker himself.
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One of my best friends from high school, Rhoderick (39), blew another birthday candle this month. While I could count the candles, what I couldn’t count was how many times this person had been there for me and my family throughout the years, so I knew it was time to give back. I threw a little birthday dinner for him at my place, and we had habichuelas (his favorite), among others, and I made Do-Over-style sangria, too! I’m happy to report I’m getting good at this thing—that is, cooking and entertaining at home. Sure, it’s labor-intensive and time-consuming, but it gives little celebrations a great punch of importance and a touch of individuality, as opposed to, say, just dragging someone to the usual restaurants. Just a little something I picked up from my recent obsession with Rita Konig (I talked about this briefly in my previous post). It is not my intention to do this more and more, but to do it more often than not, maybe at least once a month. You see, there was a time I could not cook, even if it meant saving my life. To borrow a line from Carrie Bradshaw, “The only thing that I have ever successfully made in the kitchen is a mess.” But I’m not twenty-something anymore, and now that I am running my own household I am somehow responsible for injecting a little, um, wisdom into it. Those closest to me will laugh when they read this because they know I am a first-class slob. But, hey, I am working on that, too. One step at a time! This year it’s all about cooking for me, and maybe next year it will be cleaning (LOL). Here’s a serving of the vegetable/seafood pesto pasta that I whipped up some two weeks ago (40). Yes, my brother loved it, and I’m making it again this week.
One of my all-time favorite shirts: a black and white “she-Che” raglan (41) from Cecile Zamora’s Defect that my best friend Yna Varias gave to me for Christmas ’99—yes, it is 12-years-old, and I still wear it like I only got it yesterday!
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Herb Ritts is, like, my all-time favorite photographer. As a young boy growing up in a small town, I would flip through my Mom’s and my aunts’ old Vogues and be mesmerized by his work. The first time I knew I was going to make fashion a huge part of my life was when I saw the cover of American Vogue’s April 1993 issue—Helena Christensen, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Stephanie Seymour all playful, wearing candy-striped crop tops by Marc Jacobs paired with white Daisy Dukes, photographed by Herb Ritts. I would later find out it was him who’d directed two of my all-time favorite music videos, too: Madonna’s “Cherish” from 1989, and Janet Jackson’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” from 1990. Ever since then I’d become obsessed with his style, his penchant for black-and-white and the way he’d approached chiaroscuros. I remember crying so hard when he died in December of 2002. Three weeks ago, on the week of his birthday (August 13, he would’ve turned 59), I paid tribute by setting my favorite Herb Ritts photograph (“Versace Dress, Back View, El Mirage, 1990″) as wallpaper on my phone (42, 43). Around the same time, the Getty announced that they had just acquired 69 Herb Ritts photographs, and that they were planning to put up a retrospective in the spring of next year—God, I hope I’ll be in L.A. in time for that!
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Another person whose demise brought me to my knees: the Filipino actor Rico Yan. I was watching Got 2 Believe, his last movie, in which he’d played a wedding photographer. I had to grab my phone and take pictures of freeze-frames (46, 47) of him crying. He was most beautiful when he cried.
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So, remember last month when I talked about how I stockpile on Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Green in Lemon Jasmine? I got an e-mail from someone who blogs about teas asking why I loved them when there were a lot of better tasting sleep-inducing teas out there. Here’s my answer: They come in string-less, tag-less, staple-less pillow-style teabags (44)—in short, they are environment-friendly.
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Another e-mail I got was from someone who wanted to know how the oversize mustard grandfather cardigan that I let a client wear for a nautical-themed set qualified as, well, nautical. My answer: I know that when we say “nautical fashion” we are quick to think blue-and-white stripes, and then a little red highlights here are there, but what some of you don’t know is that yellow is part of the basic sailorman palette, too—owing to the yellow slickers that sailors use (I did a little bit of research and found out that the yellow “resulted from treating canvas with linseed oil to make it waterproof”). Also, I did take a closer inspection at the buttons of that cardigan: they were gold-colored, like those of the traditional Service Dress Blue uniforms, and they had these embossed yacht anchor details, too (48)—you can’t get any more nautical than that.
This past month was special for a lot of different reasons, but this one right here could be the biggest highlight of them all: A little over two weeks ago I started my apprenticeship at Shutterfairy Photography. Single-handedly run by the beautiful and brilliant Malou “Mai” Pages-Solomon (49, 50), Shutterfairy is one of the best-known boutique wedding/lifestyle photography firms in this part of the country. I had been an avid follower of her work, even before I could get a camera of my own. It was a bold step in my part deciding to pursue this apprenticeship. Towards the end of June, after five or so solo shoots, I’d felt I’d needed to push myself some more, and that all this business about being self-taught was getting old. I’d read somewhere about Victor Demarchelier, Patrick Demarchelier’s son, being his father’s principal assistant. “There are [other aspects of photography] that you can grasp faster as an assistant,” he had been quoted as saying. How cool is a father-and-son team? But my father was no longer here to teach me, so I had to look outside the family circle. I pulled a couple of strings, managed to get good viva-voce recommendations, sent a letter of application, and in no time found myself under Mai’s wings.
My first session with her was for an engagement shoot. We were going to be shooting at a farm up the mountains in Carmen, some two or so hours northeast of Cebu. As luck would have it, the couple we were going to be shooting were from New York—I swear to God, the New York streak just kept on coming! Cherry, who has roots from Cebu, was about to marry her fiancé Christian (56) in less than a week. I asked why they decided not to have their engagement photos taken in their new hometown of New York, and she said it was Christian’s idea for them to be taken here, in this very farm, ‘cause he’d fallen in love with this place when they’d first visited about a year ago. What was not love? I looked around me and I couldn’t keep my jaw from dropping—everywhere you turned it was picturesque (49-56). The place is called Noah’s Farm, and it is owned by Cherry’s sister, Toni Grace “TG” Villamor, who likes to take her family up there once in a while when they want to shy away from the city life.
What I did was mostly help the couple with their outfits and scout for settings, but I did take a couple of pictures, too, ‘cause Mai would be, like, “Where’s your camera? Why aren’t you taking pictures?” I can’t post any of my photos from that day on here yet, ‘cause I have yet to get approval from Mai and, well, the clients, but, here, feel free to go to the Shutterfairy blogsite to view Mai’s gorgeous set from that day.
Remember two months ago when I inaugurated this blog and I talked about how photographers these days, in an effort to stand out and be cut above the rest, “hold back on the sharing?” Well, I take that back now, because Mai here was just amazing. She answered all my questions, even those that I did not ask out loud (it was as if she was reading my mind!), and she was always pushing me to get to the work at hand. I will write more on the things I’ve learned from her in my future posts. Right now let me just soak up in the awesomeness of how lucky I am to have found a mentor who is as generous as she is talented.
I have quite a number of Nike Dunks, but this pair right here (57), I must say, is my favorite. The sangria/saffron combo always does it for me.
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OK, so I’d been hearing through the grapevine that there was this store in Cebu that sold items from IKEA, but I’d never really paid attention to the buzz. And then I chanced upon the store myself. The store is called Förskö (60), and they are located at the second level of the Banilad Town Centre. I must’ve foamed in the mouth a little when in the corner of my eye I saw the IKEA logo. Never in my wildest dreams had I seen this coming! Not a lot of stock in there, though, and their space isn’t large enough to accommodate the showroom types of displays that IKEA is known for, but they do have a couple of winners, including the LACK side tables (the solid painted versions and the clear lacquered birch effect versions), the silver TERTIAL work lamp, and the MAKROS pendant lamp (58) that I loved from the 2011 catalog. They also have the KNAPPA pendant lamp (59) which I don’t remember from the 2011 catalog, so presumably it’s from a newer line. If you can’t find anything you love, that’s alright—just flip through the pages of the catalog, point at something, and they’ll place the order for shipment later! I’m thinking of getting the NASUM storage baskets (in clear lacquered banana fiber weave). We’ll see.
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The fresh carabao’s milk pastillas (64) from Carigara, Leyte, are simply the best. You should try them.
I forgot to mention my apprenticeship at Shutterfairy comes with a huge bonus: For package deals—e.g., engagement session plus day-of-the-wedding coverage—Mai works with a husband-and-wife team, Paul and Charisse Calo (71), a.k.a. Calography. I met Charisse (66) during the previously mentioned first session with Mai, and I would get to work with both her and her better half a couple of days later during my second session. Both teams were commissioned to do the engagement photos of visiting Zamboaga-based couple Al and Pie (67, 68, 69, 72) who were going to be married in two months. It was fun for the most part because Paul turned out to be the adventurous, adrenaline-driven type, and there was never a dull moment because we were always moving from one location to another. Even more amazing was the camaraderie between the two teams, and that they saw eye to eye and there was never a conflict of ideas. That day I learned some of the technicalities of shooting under harsh lighting conditions, like minding my ISO and all that other good stuff. It’s so cool that I get to pick at not just one brain but three! I cannot wait to work with them again. Click here for a couple of Paul’s and Charisse’s shots from that session.
Proud of myself because this month I kept true to my promise of buying more books and fewer magazines! In fact, no magazine purchases at all this month! (Well, next month is a going to be a different story altogether, as I am determined to grab the September issue of Vogue—Kate Moss on the cover, my dears, and an exclusive coverage of her wedding to Jamie Hince!) So my brother Jake came across this bookstore that sold hard-to-find volumes at steeply discounted prices, and I wasted no time in checking it out. The photography shelf was what I checked out first (73), but it turned out all it contained were books on graphic design and illustration—the salesperson told me they were running low on photography titles, but I enlightened her that maybe all they needed was a little rearranging, because I did find this one baby, Forever Young: Photographs of Bob Dylan by Douglas R. Gilbert (with text from music journalist Dave Marsh and a foreword by The Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian), in the shelf labeled Fashion. I couldn’t believe they were selling this book for, like, less than Php 200. I loved all the photos in it, but my favorite was this one photo of Dylan singing to the poet Allen Ginsberg in some kitchen while Sally Grossman (better known as the lady in red on the cover of Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home) looked on (74). As I did more digging I was able to unearth a copy of Vivienne Tam’s China Chic (75). For years I had been looking for this title, and finally here I was holding a copy of it with my bare hands. My first impulse was to add it to my cart, but then after leafing through the first few pages I decided it wasn’t for me. No disrespect—Vivienne Tam is one person I look up to, along with other Asian and Asian-American designers like Anna Sui, Vera Wang, Jason Wu, and Alexander Wang. But this book was just not me at all—best left to Winnie Narazeths of the world. Perhaps Anna Sui by Andrew Bolton would be more in my lane, what with her rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic and all. So, no, I do not regret not buying this one. One thing I do regret not getting was this huge Collector’s Library Edition volume of Oscar Wilde’s works (76). I’d turned away from it in favor of a book on the makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin. Asinine move in my part, really, and I should’ve listened to my writer friend Xiomara Demeterio-Glindmeyer when she said, “I would grab Wilde in a heartbeat.” I was tempted, you see, by the immediate practicality the Aucoin book had offered—like, hey, I was going to be doing shoots for a living, so best to grab the one that would teach me a thing or two about makeup, a very important aspect of every shoot. I realize now, of course, that the Wilde book would’ve been the more practical choice—the Aucoin book, easy to find, whereas the chances or finding another Wilde book in this part of the world, close to impossible. Oh, well, you live, you learn.
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Just a couple of days ago I was reunited with someone I hadn’t talked to or seen in a very long time—I’m talking about the singer/songwriter Cattski Espina (77, 78). She had just finished titling and tracklisting her new album (to be released really soon!), and now it was time to get to work on the album cover. She had commissioned Shutterfairy to do her portraits, and since Mai was in Manila for a family thing I took the liberty of setting up the pre-shoot meeting myself. What was supposed to be a quick discussion turned into 3- or 4-hour meeting, ‘cause there was a lot of catching up to do in my part. I confessed that the last album I’d heard about was Vacuum My Inside (released late 2003), the follow-up to their 2001 debut Cattski EP. Turned out that I’d missed out on a third album (a 2009 release called Sound Minds Speak Volumes) because this thing she was about to launch was her fourth. I also learned that she was on her own now—this new release was going to be the first from Cattski the solo artist; Cattski the band was no more. “Which is why I’ve decided to call it Zero,” she shared, “because it’s like I’ve gone back to zero.” I’m not allowed to let anyone in on the details just yet, but suffice to say that, like the album title, the recording is going to feature a pared-down sound—a departure from the heavier sounds in her previous works. “More electronica than rock,” she pointed out. This called for a brand spanking new look. We got to work, and I was happy with the styling concept we were able to come up with. The shoot’s this weekend, and I’m excited. I can’t wait to see how it’s all gonna turn out.
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Cattski couldn’t help but notice the wallpaper on my phone. I told her that this was my own little way of paying tribute to someone. Couple of weeks ago it was Herb Ritts (42, 43), and these days it was Aaliyah (79, 80). It was the 10th anniversary of Aaliyah’s death last August 25. Can you believe it’s been 10 years? Feels like it was only yesterday that I cried myself to sleep, after seeing the news on the plane crash that killed her. In her song “Try Again” from the soundtrack to Romeo Must Die, Timbaland ad libs, “It’s been a long time/ We shouldn’t have left you/ Without a dope beat to step to.” Well, at least Aaliyah didn’t leave us without a dope beat to step to. Up to this very day I still dance to “Back and Forth” in my room, the same way I used to do it back in ’94, and it’s something I’m not ashamed of. Nothing wrong about getting up and letting “this funky mellow groove get you in the mood”—yes, “you know it’s alright.”
This was a tricky one. You see, it’s a feeling I was supposed to be familiar with—it’s no secret that I stockpile on Bigelow Cozy Chamomile Herb Tea (“Pure chamomile for quiet moments,” the package says) and Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Green in Lemon Jasmine (“Helping the world unwind,” says this one), and that I punctuate my each and every day, working or non-, with a hot mug or two of these babies. So when Sheila Desquitado said this was the feel she wanted her engagement photos with Cameron Bradley to evoke—that feeling you get after downing a good cup of chamomile tea/blend—you’d think I’d be chuckling, right? Well, wrong. Truth is, she kind of lost me there. “Light, airy, relaxed, and mellow,” she’d said at one point, as if sensing I’d needed help, and these words I’d jotted down in my notebook. But the more I stared at them the more I was convinced that they were describing, say, a white eyelet dress, and not a concept for a shoot. What kinds of themes could I tap into for that “light, airy, relaxed, and mellow” feel? For once I was clueless. And to think I’d thought this was going to be easy.
If you come to think of it, perhaps it was only apt—you know, that it was tricky—because Sheila here was kind of a tricky one, too. In all the years I’d known her I’d asked her a thousand times about her love life, and always she’d just shrug, smile coyly, and graciously change the subject. And then this past December, out of the blue, she’d left on a plane to Down Under—not a word spoken, if only in passing—only to come back weeks later with a ring on her finger! How’s that for dropping a bomb!
Well, to me, at least, it was like a bomb had been dropped, but that certainly wasn’t the effect she was aiming for. She’d chosen to keep mum about the trip to see the man of her dreams because “I didn’t want to make a fuss about it.” And that’s just her, you know: No-fuss, quiet, understated. Ever the lady. And so it was no surprise that she wanted something “light, airy, relaxed, and mellow” for her engagement shoot. But the issue here wasn’t that I was surprised, ‘cause I’d actually kind of seen it coming. It was more of I was taken aback, because it wasn’t something I’d done before.
You see, in all my years of styling and my few months of shooting, I’d come to a deduction that, if there was anything that was to set my work apart from others’, it was that my aesthetic was decidedly, um, masculine (see my very first solo effort here). Always I’d had a thing for some dirt, some grit, some pretty disturbing antics. And some adrenaline. Initially what I’d envisioned for Sheila and Cameron was something inspired by this one scene from the final episode of The Hills in which Stephanie Pratt spent a day in an off-road track in Corona to watch her motocross racer beau Josh Hansen in action—this was right after she’d told me that Cameron was into dirt bikes and all that good stuff. But then that wasn’t what she’d wanted. And although that was what I’d wanted, it had to be axed. Hey, this was their engagement, not mine! You can’t always get what you want.
It took a while for me to figure out what we were gonna do. Luckily I got into cleaning mode one day and that’s how I stumbled upon a couple of my old Vogues—including the October 2002 issue which had Christy Turlington, in a pewter silk Calvin Klein gown, assuming a Dhanurasana/Bow Pose on the cover. And just like that, total lightbulb moment for me. Photographers talk about their “money shots”—well, this was my “money thought” right here! But, of course! How could I have forgotten about Sheila being a yogi? We’re talking about my own personal Christy Turlington right here: one day she’s lecturing me on the dangers of smoking, the next she’s going on and on about the wonders of meditation. I’d been too caught up in that bubble of me that I’d overlooked Sheila’s very essence, the one thing that defined her. In no time I was on the phone with her—“Let’s do yoga! For a theme, I mean!”—and she was digging it. Perfect, she’d said, because it was a side of her that she’d been wanting to show Cameron, and she’d also been planning on converting him to the discipline. I was thrilled, too, for the most part because it was something I hadn’t seen anyone do before (this part of the world, anyway).
The next challenge was, um, “expanding” the theme, especially after she’d pointed out it would be backbreaking to do, say, the Downward Dog the whole time. She’d booked me for a 7-to-7, so it was an opportunity for four or more sets. We had to think of a location, and quick, so we could proceed with the rest of the mood board. At first I’d wanted something à la Madonna’s studio in The Next Best Thing—wooden panels, airy windows, homey. I was this close to booking my friend Gayle Urgello’s music room because it was all that, but then Sheila said she wanted the whole thing to be at a beach. I’d been trying to dodge the whole concept of a beach shoot, just ‘cause everyone else was doing it. But who was I to say no, especially since this was sort of like a vacation for Cameron, and possibly his first chance to see a Philippine beach. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that the only thing more novel than a yoga theme was yoga on the beach. Sold! And so now we had to build the mood board around this premise.
After a couple of meetings over chai tea lattes, this was what it all came down to: three main sets, each one inspired by, well, a soothing beverage— (1) A morning tea set (which was to include the whole yoga thing); (2) a mid-morning and siesta set that had a feel of a tropical fruit juice; and (3) an early evening set that had the fizz of champagne bubbles.
The first set wasn’t at all tough to style: plain old sleepwear for the actual morning tea frames (two nighties for her, one over the other, because they were too sheer!), all-white for the yoga series. It was the props that I had some trouble with—all we had were mugs, and how crass! Good thing my aunt Marilyn Davison came to the rescue, and she let me borrow a set from her prized collection. They were Shelleys, no less—fine bone china, and the cups were oleander-shaped with gold-plated rims. Did I mention they came in a dainty chintz pattern? I became obsessed with them for a while that I decided to extract my palette from the chintz pattern, and that’s how I ended up with puce, Bondi blue, sea green, celadon, and University of California gold.
The second set was a no-brainer. They wanted beach, well, that was what they were gonna get. Sheila was showing me snapshots of her and Cameron kicking it at Surfers Paradise (the Miami of Australia), and immediately I thought, wow, he was the kind of guy who would look good in navy stripes because, well, he had that sailorman look, what with his salt-and-pepper hair and all. She agreed, and at once I mentally updated my board with those 1952 Robert Doisneau photographs of Pablo Picasso wearing a classic Breton fisherman’s shirt. This meant putting together something nautical for Sheila to wear, too. She didn’t have a navy bikini or one with stripes, so we opted for a black one, and all I had to do was throw in an oversize mustard grandfather cardigan with gold buttons that had these embossed yacht anchor details, and a sailor hat that I borrowed from my fellow stylist Meyen Baguio. But that wasn’t enough, ‘cause I wanted a burst of color, too. I was browsing through runway reports on the Spring 2011 Ready-to-Wear shows, and found myself hopelessly drawn to Naeem Khan’s melee of tropical prints and brilliant colors in Palm Beach silhouettes (petite wrap dresses, floor-length kaftans)—they kind of reminded me of socialite Helen Lee Schifter vacationing in St. Barts. I then remembered I had this Persian green/lime floral print silk chiffon kaftan with Indian silk trimming by Kate Torralba, possibly from one of her 2008 collections, that she’d given to me as a birthday present—perfect, because it had that exact aesthetic that I loved about the Naeem Khan collection (well, it wasn’t exactly floor-sweeping because the hemline was way up there, but that was fine because Sheila had the legs for that sort of stuff anyway).
For the third set I shifted to a gala state of mind. The idea of evening gowns for engagement photos had never impressed me much, but Sheila here had such a regal stance it would be a shame to let that go to waste. I found out it was my friend Humberto Villegas who was doing her wedding dress, and I thought, Great! Humberto was one of the few young local designers I knew who knew a thing or two about consistency and focus—he’d been doing evening and cocktail pieces for as far as I could remember, with very little distractions, and it was safe to say he’d become an expert in this department by now. Ever-effervescent and never one to miss a beat, he had this uncanny way of finding rare fabrics, and of sculpting ordinary ones into extraordinary folds and drapes. I wasted no time making an appointment, and a few days later I was in his studio sorting through his carefully arranged archives. It wasn’t an easy task because everything in there was just so beautiful, but in the end I got to narrow it down to two gala gowns, including this gorgeous carmine pink silk chiffon number with oxblood satin ribbon shoulder straps that he’d made for his sister Ana a couple of years back. And just like that, we were ready to roll.
When Cameron arrived in Cebu everyone that Sheila introduced him to went on to go crazy about him. “He looks like Richard Gere!” a common friend gushed. So he was winning everyone over with his good looks and charisma. I was more concerned about whether or not we were ever gonna win him over with what we were about to do—Sheila had told me, you see, that where he was from engagement photos weren’t exactly the norm. I was relieved when I finally met him the evening before the shoot and he said, “Let’s do this!” To my surprise he was more game than I’d expected him to be! Even apologized for not being able to bring with him his biker boots and other MX gear—“I was worried about my baggage allowance,” he explained—and I told him not to worry, the motocross theme had been called off. Well, he admitted that the whole concept of a shoot was still kind of strange to him, but it was something his fiancée wanted, and so he was more than willing to give it to her. (And how sweet is that, right? Like how, I would learn later on, he’d said yes to wearing the traditional Filipino barong Tagalog on their wedding day instead of a suit.)
Funny thing, ‘cause on the day of the shoot it was Cameron who seemed very ready for the whole thing, and Sheila, who’d been preparing for this for weeks, was starting to get the nerves—it wasn’t something she was used to, being in front of the camera and being the center of attention. Thankfully I’d remembered to bring with my some of my chamomile tea. It also helped that a few of our common friends had decided to tag along—Marnelli and Jurex to help with the props and the sittings, Jeff and Marla to help with accessories—and so we had a couple of laughs. But it was Cameron who ultimately helped her gain her composure back by saying there was nothing to be scared about. Like during the nautical set, when I asked her to lose the cardigan and sit for me in just the bikini, she hesitated for a moment—but then she stole a quick glance at Cameron, and he just flashed her a boyish grin, and just like that she laughed it off and obliged.
He had that kind of effect on her—just one smile from him, or one nod, or one word, and all her worries would melt away. Slowly I realized that this was exactly why she knew this man was the one she’d been waiting for all her life. Finally she got to meet someone who was her exact equal—in thought, temperament, and tenderness. He was like everything she’d ever held near and dear to her heart all rolled into one package. The effect that her beloved teas had on her, the effect that yoga had on her—these were the very effects that Cameron had on her. Perfect, then, that the song we’d chosen so get us in the mood was Nouvelle Vague’s lounge/bossa nova cover of Modern English’s 1982 hit “I Melt with You” (and, yes, I’d had Marnelli and Jurex help me out with red cardboard-cutout letters that spelled “I’LL STOP THE WORLD AND MELT WITH YOU”). So I didn’t get to have my The Hills-inspired motocross theme and my adrenaline rush, but I learned an important lesson: That peace of mind and contentment don’t just come from a hot mug—they have to come from everything you do and everyone you surround yourself with. You can’t always get what you want, yes, but that’s alright, because sometimes what you get is what you need.
As for Sheila’s effect on Cameron—well, that’s a different story altogether. Let’s just say he’s absolutely smitten. “Wow, she looks really beautiful,” he would say every time she emerged from hair and makeup. He must’ve uttered this over five times in a span of 12 hours. Over lunch he talked to me about how Sheila had that rare combination: “beautiful and down-to-earth.” In other words, she was just his cup of tea. So, wait—maybe it’s the same story, after all.
The couple would tie the knot 10 days later, at Dumaguete’s Bishop’s Palace, a quaint little chapel in the middle of a pastoral enclave (a fairy tale-like tree-lined dry-weather road leads to it) some twenty minutes southwest of the city proper, in an intimate ceremony attended only by Sheila’s immediate relatives, very few of her close friends, and Cameron’s best friend Mark, who’d flown in from Australia. I might have teared up a little when she walked down the aisle—particularly at the beginning, when she appeared on the chapel’s doorstep, bathed in the balmy afternoon light, looking radiant in her Swarovski-encrusted Humberto Villegas gown. The reception was held at the sprawling Ang Tay Golf and Country Club. The setting was rustic and unstudied, a lot like a love that would never grow old. And the mood? Well, “light, airy, relaxed, and mellow,” a lot like their relationship, and just like Sheila had dreamt it to be.
“I’m so happy for her,” said Sheila’s youngest sister Sheryl, who’d flown in from Singapore only a few hours before the wedding to be the maid of honor. “She finally found someone who brings her happiness, and challenges her intellectually. Someone to explore the world and spend the best years of her life with.” No one can say they don’t feel the same.
Cameron James Bradley and Sheila Desquitado | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Suba-Basbas, Lapu-Lapu, on March 27, 2011 | Hair and makeup by Michael Sotillo | Sittings and props: Marnelli Uyguangco and Jurex Suson | Special thanks to: Marla Baguio, Jefferson “Tyra” Mendo, Mia Bacolod | Persian green/lime floral print silk chiffon kaftan with Indian silk trimming, Kate Torralba; cosmic latte chiffon gala gown, Humberto Villegas; carmine pink silk chiffon gala gown with oxblood satin ribbon shoulder straps, Humberto Villegas
In my mood board (see below, clockwise from top left): Nouvelle Vague’s self-titled debut album from 2004, which contains bossa nova-ed covers of post-punk/New Wave hits, including Modern English’s “I Melt with You” from 1982; Christy Turlington on the cover of American Vogue, October 2002, photographed by Steven Klein; looks from Naeem Khan Spring 2011 Ready-to-Wear, photographed by Gianni Pucci; Pablo Picasso wearing a classic Breton fisherman’s shirt, 1952, photographed by Robert Doisneau; palette inspired by the moody colors of the oleander-shaped fine bone china chintz tea cups used for the shoot, more specifically (L-R) puce, Bondi blue, sea green, celadon, and University of California gold (take note that, because I added some grain to them, the swatches here might be different—darker, if you will—from the samples in your matching system).