Forever Your Girls: Rael, Nikka and Nicole

Growing up, there’s always that someone you look up to. And I’m not just taking about your favorite writer (Joyce Carol Oates in my case), or your favorite musician (D’arcy Wretzky of The Smashing Pumpkins!), or your favorite girl on TV (Shannen Doherty for me, I’m sorry!), or any of those from, um, another universe. I’m talking about someone who is actually in your life, someone who is right under your nose, someone you get to see and talk to everyday. Their mere presence enthralls you. When they open their mouths to speak, you hang on to every word. When they start to move to set about doing something, you stare dreamily.

Such was the effect that my good friend Odette Tolentino’s big sister Rael had on my 13- or 14-yeard-old self. I was a sophomore in high school when she opened a store across the street from the bookstore my father owned—a one-stop shop that sold everything, from clothing to accessories, gift items to goods for the home, even stationery and secondhand books. Most of the items had been culled by her mother ultraselective Cora from various flea markets, antique shops, vintage clothing stores, and even garage sales in their parents’ new hometown of California. Everything was so pretty and charming! I would find myself hanging out there for two or so hours everyday after school, and sometimes all day on Saturdays, just looking around and not exactly buying anything (hey, I was just a schoolboy), much to the chagrin of my father, who asked nothing of me but to lend a helping hand at his own store. To me, each visit was magical, like I was stepping into an alternate world every time. Akin, perhaps, to the novelist/screenwriter Amy Ephron’s visits, as a child, to an ailing Stiles O. Clements’s (the great American architect, who did the Spanish Colonial Revival style façade of Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre, among others) house, which had “floor-to-ceiling birdcages with parrots and macaws of all kinds,” and a large cage out in the garden that housed toucans and flamingos and peacocks. Elements, that’s how Rael called the place, and how fitting! But it wasn’t the items per se that fascinated me—rather, it was how she presented these pieces, how she arranged and rearranged every corner, how she mixed this with that. Her sleight of hand was unerringly good, and invariably chic. Also worthy of note was not only did she sell clothes, she made some of them, too—in the backroom was a seamstress or two, for patrons who wanted something one-of-a-kind or custom-made. She didn’t want to be called a designer, had had no formal training in that department, but she knew her way with patterns and fabrics, and knew how to work the sewing machine, and so friends (and friends of friends) trusted her enough to come to her for help with their wardrobe dilemmas. It helped, too, that she was a tasteful and meticulous dresser herself—everyone she knew wanted a piece or two of what she was wearing, and who better to duplicate them than the original wearer herself? I myself was a huge fan of her dress sense. At dinner parties that her aunt Violeta threw, Rael was always the one that stood out, and that was ‘cause she was always impeccably dressed—mixing structured pieces with soft, feminine ones, and even vintage with new. I would stare at her from across the room, even told my mom at one point (or, maybe even more than once), “You should be dressing like her” (to which my mom would just nod and say, “I know!”). In a small town (this was Ormoc) where there were no designers, stylists, or makeup artists (as of the time, at least), she was the closest thing to a creature of fashion that I’d ever been exposed to. And in a time when the term hadn’t even been invented yet, she was my It Girl.

We would eventually lose touch with each other, especially after I’d moved to Cebu. Not to say we would completely lose touch, as there were a couple of times when, out of the blue, she would do little things for me, and so I would remember, you know, that she was still in my life somehow. Like, for instance, when she found out that I’d started working in editorial and had become a stylist, she would call my mom and hand her copies of hard-to-find (in this part of the world, anyway) magazines and catalogs, with specific instructions to ship these volumes to me. Her own little way of contributing to my compendium of references. And how very thoughtful, right? Some of these magazines remain in my shelves up to this very day. She became sort of like a long-distance mentor, so to speak.

It had been more than a decade since I’d last seen her (which I think is funny, because she lives in Ormoc, which is only two hours away from where I am, and I get to see her sisters Odette and Anna more often, and they live in California!), so imagine my surprise when she sent me an e-mail saying she really loved my recent work and wanted to hire me for a day! She wanted family pictures—well, just her and the girls (her two daughters), because there was no way she could convince the boys to be part of the thing. “I want something that shows my closeness with my daughters,” she wrote. Of course, I said yes! I mean, how could I not? Not only was this an opportunity for me to think outside the engagement/couples box, this also was a chance to rekindle old ties—and to make new ones, with her girls (I’d only seen her eldest Nikka once or twice, when she was still a toddler, and Nicole I’d never even met before). Plus, given I was all too familiar with Rael’s taste (not just in clothes, but in everything she surrounds herself with), I just knew this sitting wasn’t going to be one of those sloppy ones. November was a really busy month for me as I was booked to style and assist at five shoots for Shutterfairy Photography (where I am currently apprenticing), but luckily I had one weekend free, which was the weekend after Thanksgiving, and so that was the date I gave Rael. I might have caught myself with a silly grin as I was packing my bags—I’d never been this excited about a trip to Ormoc before!

This whole thing was perfect timing because, while doing catalog work for Grace Querickiol-Nigel’s accessories line Gracie Q just a week before this trip, the designer had shown me a coffee table book that the great American fashion photographer Bruce Weber had done for a recent ad campaign for German outdoor furniture giant DEDON, and I’d fallen head over heels with the concept: a multi-storey tree house among the branches of a giant tree, filled with DEDON masterpieces and quirky little bric-a-brac, and then occupied by people from all walks of life (from a young couple to an old couple, ballerinas to a garage rock band, even nudists!)—it was the ultimate outdoor living fantasy! Immediately I’d thought to myself, you know, that I had to find a way to translate some of this magic into my own work! And this family shoot right here was a chance for me to do so!

My proposal to Rael included four sets—the first being the highlight, as this was where we were going to set up an outdoor family room of sorts using real furniture and other home accoutrement. Really easy and all sorts of fun because I didn’t have to source items from other people’s homes or from the shops—everything in her own living room was gorgeous, and so I had to look no further! I didn’t even have to take anything from my own apartment—well, except for this Marrakesh-style ceramic flask that had been gifted to me by a friend from Seattle, and my own precious copy of that great big red volume a.k.a. Allure by Diana Vreeland. Safe to mention now that this whole task was kind of like a test for me—I wanted to see if I had what it takes to be an effective set decorator. I was confident with my styling skills—after all, I’d only been doing it more than 10 years—and I was pretty much getting comfortable with my photographing skills, but somehow I felt that something was still missing. For years I’d been stressing over the dilemma that I couldn’t find good shooting locations or decent backdrops in this part of the world, until I realized that, Hey, if you can’t find a pretty spot, why don’t you go ahead and create one yourself? So for months I’d been doing some pretty extensive research, immersing myself in stories about, say, the decorator Rita Konig, and the set designer Shona Heath—and here I was now, anxious to add “set decorator” to my resume! It was frightening at first, standing in the middle of Rael’s living room and not knowing where to begin, but all I had to do was take a deep breath and think, What would Rita Konig do?, and just like that, I got to work. First, I pulled out a carved hardwood settee (since anything larger than a settee would be fiendishly difficult to transport), and then I threw in a patchwork quilt for that touch of shabby chic. Throw pillows, I went for an assortment—in chenille, chintz, damask, and needlepoint, even a couple with tassel fringe. Instead of an actual coffee table, I asked to use an antique-looking hope chest to serve as one, and topped it with random curios (a carved wood picture frame painted in white, an artificial twig bird’s nest with faux eggs, and the abovementioned ceramic flask and Diana Vreeland book). And then I threw in some flowers (artificial, of course), wreaths (the springtime kinds, not the Christmastime kinds), and a couple of watercolor paintings, and that was it. What look was I trying to achieve? I couldn’t decide if it was country cottage-style, or whatever—the whole thing was too eclectic to ever be put in a box! But that didn’t matter. What mattered was it looked homey and inviting—and, more importantly, it represented Rael’s style well. That a certain milieu reflects someone so well sometimes out-enriches the most essential of design principles. Of course, I was proud, too, that it didn’t take a lot of effort in my part to put everything together—only 30 minutes picking the items, and only 15 minutes assembling them on the day of the shoot, and that’s it, no to-ing and fro-ing! Turns out the less stressed out you are about the outcome, the more efficient you become. In Ms. Konig’s own words, “Don’t panic, it is only the dreariest of people who have everything immaculate all the time.”

When it came to the clothes, well, I had it all too easy, too. Knowing that Rael was a clotheshorse, again, I didn’t have to source a lot of items—I told her I had full confidence in her own wardrobe. She asked for copies of pictures that were in my mood board, anyways, just so we could be in the exact same page, and so in no time her inbox was barraged with photos of Olivia Palermo. Rael admitted she had not heard of Olivia Palermo before—she wasn’t a The Hills/The City junkie like I was—but I told her it was the New York socialite and reality TV star that first came to mind when I was developing boards for her shoot, just ‘cause I thought they shared the same style sensibility—i.e., traditionalist, throw-it-on chic, with a knack for mixing crisp, tailored pieces with flouncy, ultra-feminine ones. For the first set I suggested for her to wear an ensemble that was inspired by Ms. Palermo’s outfit in a series of paparazzi photographs of her walking down TriBeCa’s Greenwich St. (from last May): loose-fitting pale cornflower blue dress shirt, pleated maxi skirt, and ballet flats. Rael was quick to snap a light blue seersucker dress shirt from out of her own closet, and quicker to commission her seamstress to whip up a maxi skirt for her, in plain white. For her daughters, a variation of the same theme: plain white dress shirts, and printed skirts in blue-and-white, inspired by, well, Ms. Palermo’s outfit when she attended the Friends with Benefits premiere at New York’s Ziegfeld Theater last July. For the second set, which was going to be shot at the Sabin Resort Hotel, we decided to play with black-and-white: Nikka was going to be wearing an ensemble inspired by Olivia Palermo’s outfit in this one paparazzi photo of her filming a scene for The City at the W Hotel Miami Beach (circa July 2009)—long white cardigan over a white button-front shirt, worn with black tuxedo shorts and a huge black ribbon as tie—while Rael and Nicole were going to be in a black-and-white maxi dress and mini dress, respectively. For the third set, which was going to be shot at a private compound in the Bantigue Beach area, particularly at the charming little driveway that led to Inez Larrazabal-Vesuña’s white picket-fenced country-style home, and which was going to feature a bicycle (Rael’s idea), I wanted outfits that were punchy bright, summery, and floral, a la the Zara dress that Ms. Palermo wore to the Stephane Rolland Haute Couture show during Paris Fashion Week last July—except I wanted to throw in some solid cardigans in the mix, to make the look more girly and carefree. For the fourth and final set, back at the Sabin, I had to reach outside the Olivia Palermo box and look to someone with a more romantic sense of dress for some inspiration. One of my favorite Bruce Weber photographs is that of Natalie Portman for the December 2007/January 2008 Teen Vogue shot outside his beach cabin in Montauk, New York, in which the actress is standing in the rain (with an umbrella, of course), in an oversize cream-and-white check blazer worn over a simple white dress, the blazer cinched at the waist with an offbeat, haute-hippie-style belt. This was exactly the kind of look I wanted on Rael for the fourth set, except I wanted the blazer to be more vibrant, in the same vein as the ‘50s-style halterdress in multi-colored madras that Ms. Portman famously wore back in 2002. Luckily, my friend Vanity Salinana let me borrow a madras blazer that she got from a thrift store! What better way to contrast sunset at the Sabin’s faux boardwalk, right, than with rainbow-bright madras? The stars all aligned when I was able to unearth a patchwork madras shirtdress in Nikka’s closet, and a pair of madras shorts in Nicole’s.

It rained like crazy on the day of the shoot, and I was about to call the whole thing off when I met with Rael and the girls as they were having their makeup done, and they were just laughing and having a good time. It was refreshing to see Nikka and Nicole just being themselves around their mom—if was as if she wasn’t their mom, you know, and more like their big sister. I thought about what Rael had told me in her e-mail: “I want something that shows my closeness with my daughters.” Well, it looked like I wasn’t going to have a hard time capturing that—if I just let them be themselves! It stopped raining mid-morning, perhaps thanks to their collective sunny disposition, and we were able to go about our business. I told them to “don’t mind the camera, pretend I’m not here, and just be yourselves,” and throughout the entire day they did just that. It was obvious the girls loved being around their mom more than anything—they were more comfortable during the frames that they were with her versus when they had to face the camera solo!

I couldn’t help but marvel at how Nikka looked exactly like Rael. “I look at you and am reminded of the first time I met your mom more than 15 years ago,” I told her at one point, and to which the young lady just beamed. Swear to God, the resemblance is uncanny. Even the way she moved her hands, the way she spoke, the way she laughed—just like her mom! Guess it’s worth mentioning now that Nikka almost couldn’t make it to this shoot. A medical student at Cebu Doctors’, she had asked her mom for a rain check because she’d wanted to spend her weekend hitting the books—but she’d said yes at the last minute, perhaps ‘cause she couldn’t bear the thought of letting her mom down.

As for little Nicole (I really shouldn’t be using little because this girl has some serious legs on her), well, it’s obvious she took after her father in the looks (and in the height!) department. When I asked her about her plans for college—i.e., if she ever considered going to fashion or arts school—she said she was interested in pursuing something that had to do with a lot of mathematics or athletics. This didn’t mean, of course, that she didn’t inherit some of her mom’s love of clothes—in fact, as Rael would later reveal, Nicole had been the most excited about this whole thing, and on the days leading to the shoot would rush home from school and spend hours on end trying her outfits on even when we hadn’t finalized them yet! She was very polite, too: when she spotted a couple of friends hanging around the pool at the Sabin, she waited until I was done with my frames before asking if she could go talk to them for a bit. What a sweetheart!

I’d never thought I’d be doing family sessions this soon. Always I’d thought I’d had to master/do nothing but couples sessions for, like, years before I could graduate to anything else (and don’t ask me for my logic behind that!). And then this one right here just made me realize that it’s so much easier doing families versus couples! Sure, there’s going to be more than two people to style, which means more work, and plus the prospect of having a child or adolescent misbehaving on set is kind of scary, but, hey, at least it’s more, um, relatable, right? I mean, not everyone has a better half, but everyone has a family! The moments that unfold before your eyes are things you are all too familiar with, and so it’s not hard to chase after the ones you should be capturing! Perhaps I’m speaking a little too soon here, but what I’m absolutely sure of is that I enjoyed every minute of this session, and I look forward to doing more family shoots in the future!

Speaking of family, another reason this shoot was extra special to me was ‘cause it was my second time to collaborate with the makeup artist Sheila On, after working together on my first ever solo shoot some 9 months back. Sheila is one of my oldest and dearest friends—we were playmates when we were kids, and classmates all throughout high school. We’re not exactly blood-related, but we grew up together, and she reads my mind, and I read hers—sometimes that is enough to make a family, you know?

I should also mention that it was my mom who assisted me during this session—she helped carry my equipment around, assisted with the styling, even took behind-the-scenes shots. Most people don’t work well with their mothers around—I’m proud to declare my mom has the opposite effect on me, and I actually become more efficient when she’s there. I said it once, and I’ll say it again: there’s no affair quite like a family affair!

Oh, and Happy New Year to my readers/viewers! I hope you all have a stylish 2012!

Rael Tolentino-Matuguina and her daughters Nikka and Nicole | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Ormoc City on November 26, 2011 | Hair and makeup by Sheila On (to book Sheila, click here) | Special thanks to Monique Rosal and Vanity Salinana | All accessories for the black-and-white set from Gracie Q Creative Designs

In my mood board (see below) Top row, L-R: New York socialite and reality TV star Olivia Palermo walking past TriBeCa’s Ivy Bistro (after leaving International Plaza Nails) on May 3, 2011, photographed by Bauer Griffin/Zimbio.com; Ms. Palermo attending the Friends with Benefits premiere at New York’s Ziegfeld Theater on July 18, 2011, photographed by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images North America; Ms. Palermo filming a scene for an episode of The City at the W Hotel in Miami Beach on July 18, 2009, photographed by James Breeden/Nate Jones/PacificCoastNews.com; Natalie Portman wearing a ‘50s-style multi-colored madras halterdress, circa 2002, photograph from PEOPLE.com; one of my favorite images from Coming Home, the coffee table book that the fashion photographer Bruce Weber did for a recent DEDON ad campaign. Middle row, L-R: Ms. Palermo in a floral Zara dress attending the Stephane Rolland Haute Couture F/W 2011/2012 show during Paris Fashion Week, July 5, 2011, photograph from hillsfreak.blogspot.com; Natalie Portman photographed by Bruce Weber in Montauk, New York, for the December 2007/January 2008 issue of Teen Vogue. Palette used in this layout, bottom row, L-R: Powder blue, light pistachio, earth yellow, bittersweet, and chamoisee.

Behind-the-Scenes Instagrams  Top row, L-R: Cross-checking an outfit I have put together for Nikka versus an Olivia Palermo photo in my mood board; Nicole trying on outfit # 1 the day before the shoot; sorting footwear is tough (I’ve never seen this much ballerina flats in my life!); finalizing outfits for the madras set. Middle row, L-R: Me photographing the girls during the bicycle set; me hard at work on the set decoration; I loved, loved, loved these watercolor paintings; me and the girls at the Sabin for the black-and-white set. Bottom row, L-R: Sheila On putting on Rael’s makeup; it’s always fun watching Sheila as she does her magic; Sheila’s makeup box looks good enough to eat; Nikka’s turn in the makeup chair.

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