In February I dreamed of grunge. Of unbuttoned plaid flannels flapping in the wind like a migratory bird about to embark on one of its seasonal journeys. Of ratty old jeans more torn than Ednaswap or Natalie Imbruglia could ever be. Of greasy, unkempt tendrils creeping out from under wool beanies. Of beat-up 14-hole Doc Martens stomping on dirty pavement. Of teeth-clenching throughout an entire opus. Of smelling “like teen spirit.”
I wasn’t stoned to the bajesus or anything; I was merely inspired. It all started when I was researching the German (or so I think he is) photographer Horst Diekgerdes after falling in love with the flare effects in his advertising work for Chloe from 2002 (I’d been flipping through old magazines!), and I stumbled upon this editorial that he did for Teen Vogue with stylist Havana Laffitte called “Finding Nirvana” featuring modern rethinks (Marc by Marc Jacobs, Missoni, A.P.C., Isabel Marant, etc.) of the grunge classics. The fashion, mood and mise en scène were so dead-on they brought me back to my own pimply adolescence when I would spend weeks on end experimenting on my jeans—including my one and only pair of 501s—to achieve the perfect ripped effect, raid my dad’s closet for his old Pendletons, and stay up until the wee hours of the morning just staring at this one photo of an all-grunged-up Kristen McMenamy by Steven Meisel, which I’d torn off of the December 1992 Vogue (from a spread called “Grunge & Glory”). Suddenly I found myself sorting through my iTunes looking for post-Louder Than Love Soundgarden and pre-Celebrity Skin Hole. And then glued to YouTube watching clips of Nirvana’s and Alice in Chains’s performances on MTV Unplugged. And then digging through stacks of my old Spins for anecdotes on bad behavior in the ‘90s music scene—did you know, for example, that Courtney Love used to flash her breasts to her audience during encores? Speaking of, um, mammaries, who could forget Bridget Fonda’s classic line from Cameron Crowe’s Singles from 1992: “Are my breasts too small for you?” I had planned on watching The Social Network on DVD, but now I was shelving it in favor of the ‘90s classics like, well, the aforementioned Singles, Ben Stiller’s directorial debut Reality Bites from 1994, and, of course, Antonia Bird’s Mad Love from 1995. Just like that, I got that old time feeling. The cutesy floral babydolls that Fonda’s Janet Livermore wore with leather biker jackets and trilbies. Ethan Hawke’s Troy Dyer and his unwashed mane and everlasting gaze. Drew Barrymore’s Casey Roberts and her oversize plaid flannels and messy pixie. When I got to the part when Casey stood at the back of Matt’s (Chris O’Donnell’s character) pickup truck as they drove away from all the troubles in their lives, her unbuttoned flannels, well, flapping in the wind like a migratory bird about to embark on one of its seasonal journeys, with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Here Comes My Girl” playing in the background (heartland rock from the early ‘80s, really, and not grunge, but no other song could’ve been more fitting), I thought of how awesome it would be to have a shoot inspired by this whole grunge feel.
As luck would have it, less than 24 hours later, Maria Velasquez would announce her engagement to Michael Franco via a Facebook photo album, comic strip-style (you should’ve seen it, it was something). I was jumping up and down my seat thinking, wow, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect! I’d known Maria since forever, from when she’d been my associate lifestyle editor at Eastern Visayas Mail some 8 years back, and I’d always admired they way she carried herself—not afraid to speak her mind, opinionated yet canny, brash yet good-humored, like a one-girl revolution. Her headstrong, devil-may-care, semi-rebel nature and no-fuss, somewhat tomboyish style harbored just the sense of cool that I wanted to tap into for the grunge theme I envisioned. We wasted no time exchanging e-mails. Quite the coup in my part: It didn’t take a whole lot of effort to convince her to go for the theme. I only had to leverage the blog post that she herself had put up almost a year back, in which she’d paid homage to her 10-year-old 1460 8-eye Doc Martens. Swear to God, my amazing recall of all manner of detail is my best weapon. OK, I’m lying: I also had to sweet-talk her by pointing out that her fiancé was sort of a dead ringer for Chris O’Donnell. But that was it. In less than a half-hour I got her to say yes. Which, if you come to think of it, made that day the day she said yes twice.
Over the next couple of days a few of adjustments had to be made, especially since I found out that Michael wasn’t a grunge guy. I mean, he liked grunge and all, but that wasn’t the only thing he was into. An avid guitarist, he was also into hard rock, heavy metal, alternative, punk—you name it. And so instead of setting a theme that was purely grunge, we had to go for something a little broader—Maria and I both decided to make it ‘90s. At first the thought of giving the initial mood board an overhaul seemed disconcerting, but over time I came to an understanding that it was for the best, especially when, as I was visualizing the styling in my head, I realized that it would be just plain wrong to subject Michael to heavy grunge gear à la Matt Dillon’s Cliff Poncier from Singles—the whole thing would come out too contrived and too costumey. That’s the thing about styling for real people: You have a vision, yes, and people are going to respect that, but at the same time you have to take into consideration what your subjects are like in real life, and so you might have to exercise some restraint, tone it down a bit, because what you really need to do is augment their abstract qualities, not try to disguise them. And so, after careful deliberation, this was what the final mood board looked like: stills from the 1993 music video of Aerosmith’s “Cryin’,” featuring Alicia Silverstone and Stephen Dorff; a photo of a young Kate Moss wearing a feather headdress by the British fashion and documentary photographer Corinne Day for the July 1990 issue of The Face (also known as “The 3rd Summer of Love” issue, and the editorial in question, styled by Melanie Ward, is what many fashion journalists consider to be the launching pad that propelled Ms. Moss into superstardom); the soundtracks to 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You and 1995’s Empire Records; that one still from Mad Love (Barrymore standing at the back of O’Donnell’s pickup truck as he drove); and the album cover of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness from 1995 for the palette (take note that by palette here I mean the color swatches to be used in the final layout, and not necessarily in the styling, because I like to think of the finished product ahead of time—in this case, it was coral red, eggplant, light olive, Navajo white variation # 9, and dark chestnut that I was able to extract from the Mellon Collie album cover). There was this one photo of Mischa Barton by Bruce Weber (styled by, well, Havana Laffitte, from the September 2006 issue of Teen Vogue), in which she was wearing an oversize flannel shirt and a floral-print thermal tee over a net-overlaid taffeta gown from Peter Som’s Fall 2006 Ready-to-Wear collection, that did not make it to the board because of, well, the gown element, but I kept it in my head, just in case. Also in the backlog: the motorcycle scenes from the video of Aerosmith’s “Amazing” from 1993.
Long-distance styling can be a massive pain in the backside because it takes out of the equation some of the more important steps—like doing house calls to inspect the client’s closet for pieces they might already have that can be useful, taking their measurements, overseeing the actual fittings, etc. —but Maria was so hands-on she made it a lot easier for me. I e-mailed her a 3-page list of clothing items and accessories, and she would send the file back to me all marked up with her comments (“Yes, I have this, but in a darker shade of blue” or “No, I do not have anything that looks like this, but please do look for one for me”). It helped that she had bristling Internet savvy, having been a blogger since time immemorial (i.e., before it had become a fad), ‘cause when there was an item or two she couldn’t picture she’d do some digging up in cyberspace to see what they looked like, and more often that not she’d come up with better images/samples than what I’d had in mind! We followed this very same modus operandi when it was time to finalize the props and the locations. Somehow I was able to find (and work with) someone who was more obsessive-compulsive than I was. It took us a good five or so days doing all this, but they were time well spent.
Next on the agenda was picking a date for the shoot. We had initially agreed on February 13, Sunday, but somehow that didn’t feel right—for one, I seemed to know it was, um, impolite to wear them out in the hours leading to their first Valentine’s eve as an engaged couple! And so we had to push it back to the following Sunday, which turned out to be the right move: February 20 was Kurt Cobain’s birthday, the 17th after his passing (he would’ve turned 44). You know the stars are all aligned and you’re in for something hella good when even your shooting date is in keeping with the theme!
On the day of the shoot I woke up at 5 AM. I’d arrived in Ormoc 1 PM of the previous day, and went straight to bed after 2 hours of oculars—I’d figured more than 12 hours of sleep should be enough to prep me for a 12-hour shoot (I do not have an assistant, so if it’s an on-location assignment that entails 4 or more sets I usually plot a 7-to-7 in my datebook). Michael and Maria were ready by 7:30 AM, complete with an entourage (3 people!) to help out with the props and the heavy equipment! There were a few setbacks, like the pickup truck not turning up (we’d asked to borrow my cousin Francis’s vintage-looking bad boy that looked like a ‘78–‘79 Ford F100 Custom XLT, but he was marooned in Manila)—good thing Maria had a Plan B, and she had her cousin’s jeep on standby (things like this I appreciate because I’m not very good with backup plans).
I was happy with the clothes, too. The five or so days we’d spent exchanging e-mails to plot their outfits turned out to be the best investment. I loved that Maria paid close attention to detail. When I’d told her to bring a pair of denim shorts, for example, she could’ve brought one that was close-fitting, but she’d known we were doing ‘90s so she’d made a conscious effort to bring one that was somewhat baggy. Some items weren’t perfect, but a little nip and tuck here and there did the trick—the floral minidress that we’d borrowed for my mom, for instance, wasn’t exactly babydoll and didn’t exactly have that ‘90s silhouette, but a few crude alterations to the hemline brought us closer to the vicinity of the Donna Martin look. That wasn’t the only alteration that had to be made on the fly—when I told her to cut the sleeves off her precious denim jacket to make it look more in sync with Axl Rose-inspired red bandana, she obliged. I hope I’m not blowing my horn too much if I say I think this was my best styling job ever. My only regret was forgetting to ask Michael to slip out of his surfer sandals and borrow my Bed Stu work boots for a while, but, oh, well, the whole thing didn’t turn out dastardly so I guess we’re fine.
Sheila On did a really great job with hair and makeup. This was my first time working with her, but she just blew me away with her awesomeness. We didn’t have to explain to her what we’d wanted—Maria only had to show her a photo of Alicia Silverstone circa the Areosmith years, and they got to work. Of course, it’s a look Sheila is all too familiar with: We were classmates in high school, so it’s safe to say we grew up with the same inspirations (I remember asking her almost everyday to sing Shanice’s “Saving Forever for You” from the Beverly Hills, 90210 soundtrack to me—another thing you should know about her is she got mad pipes!). She couldn’t be with us the whole time, though, since she’d just opened her studio and had clients literally banging on her door, but that was fine because her finished product required minimal to no retouching, even when Maria had to sweat like hell because of all the crazy stunts I was making her do. The only retouching that had to be done were those between sets, and thank God Sheila had chosen to set up camp smack in the middle of the city, only a good 10 minutes away from wherever we were shooting.
I must say, though, that my favorite part of this whole thing was how game my subjects were. This was my first solo project, and naturally I’d had apprehensions—like, “Am I sure about this? Can I do this?”—but Michael and Maria were so upbeat and flexible and playful and just plain wonderful to work with that all my worries had to hit the road. They also liked to overcompensate. I’d asked for an electric guitar, and Michael brought two. I’d asked for a small set of speakers and amps, and he brought everything he owned plus a couple more he’d borrowed from friends. I’d asked for an empty bottle of Jägermeister, they brought all sorts of liquor bottles in all shapes and sizes! (They even brought a dozen sandwiches for snacks, and said I was supposed to finish all of it!) Did I mention they were extra resourceful? When I decided the last minute that I wanted to do an “Amazing”-inspired motorbike set, they found a bike to borrow at the snap of their fingers. It helped that Michael was into photography, too—in between frames he would dispense quick suggestions and helpful tips. (I guess it’s worth mentioning now that one of his cameras he’d sold to contribute to the engagement ring fund—isn’t that sweet?) And Maria, so used to being a muse, was a natural in front of the camera—she had this preternatural way of finding the right facial expressions, and a sinuous grace that made her poses look like actual movements. I also saw how supportive they were of each other—I’d ask Maria to do something really tricky, and Michael would cheer, “You can do it!” Yes, I have the tendency to push my subjects around a bit. But it was the sets wherein I had absolutely nothing to do with the sittings—i.e., the stolens and the candids—that I enjoyed shooting the most. These two, when they think nobody’s watching—or taking a picture, for that matter—are quite the pair. Pure, unadulterated chemistry. I swear there were times I forgot they were yet to be married, ‘cause they looked like they’d been married from the moment they’d first met.
I couldn’t make it to their wedding because I was booked for another shoot, but I heard it was quite the spectacle. No, the theme wasn’t grunge, but one that was equally fierce: Mafia. I was just looking at the photos from their wedding reception, and it looked pretty wild, alright—think The Sopranos meets The Wedding Crashers. It’s refreshing that there are people who get to come up with things like this, because it makes the whole thing all the more memorable. Were they trying to cause a stir? Well, no. They simply wanted to prove to the world that rock ‘n’ roll dreams do come true.
Michael Vincent Franco and Maria Cecilia Velásquez | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Ormoc City on February 20, 2011 | Hair and makeup by Sheila On (to book Sheila, click here)
In my mood board (see below, clockwise from top left): Stills of Alicia Silverstone and Stephen Dorff from the music video for Aerosmith’s “Cryin’,” 1993; the soundtracks to 1995’s Empire Records and 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You; a photograph of Kate Moss by Corinne Day (styled by Melanie Ward) for The Face’s “The 3rd Summer of Love” issue, July 1990; still of Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell from Antonia Bird’s Mad Love, 1995; palette inspired by the drabber colors of the album cover of The Smashing Pumpkin’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, 1995, composed of (L-R) coral red, eggplant, light olive, Navajo white variation # 9, and dark chestnut (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).