A Different Kind of High: Charmaine Tara Chua’s Senior Collection

“Nirvana” by Charmaine Tara Chua | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon | Hair and makeup by Love Nunez | Model: Joni Alburo

Not a lot of people know this, but early this year (in February) I was invited by the University of San Carlos Technological Center’s College of Architecture and Fine Arts (USC-TC CAFA) to be stylist mentor to a couple of their graduating Fashion Design students during their Line Development course endeavors. The premise: work with the students, provide them guidance on how to style their senior collections (from mood board development to editing), help them produce two photo shoots (one lookbook/catalog shoot, one editorial-style shoot), and assist them on the days of the shoots. No, it wasn’t a glamorous job—just had to put that out there just in case you’re beginning to picture me as being like Lenny Kravitz’s character in The Hunger Games—and it was more volunteerism than anything else, but there was something noble about freely giving your time to help shape these students’ academic aspirations, and maybe even their future perspectives.

One of the students I was paired up with (I think there were 6 of them in their class, each of them to be paired with a different stylist—for some reason, though, I got paired with two students) was Charmaine Tara Chua, a sweet, bubbly girl who was looking to specialize in bridal/evening wear, as evidenced in her collection, which she dubbed “Nirvana.” At first I was baffled: why was I being paired up with someone whose aesthetic leaned towards the Monique Lhuillier-ish, when clearly my specialty was in anti-glamor/grunge, and so that put me on the far opposite end of the spectrum from her? (I was just being curious, of course, and wasn’t complaining.) I would find out later on that that was part of the exercise/challenge: teamings were done randomly—i.e., no student was allowed to select their preferred stylist (or photographer, or makeup artist), and vice versa. I was more than OK with this setup. I mean, sure, maybe later on in your career you are allowed to be selective (take note that I am using the term selective, as opposed to elitist) of your clientele/collaborators, but I seem to know that doing that early on can be damaging. I had to take it upon myself to impart the value of flexibility on to these young creatives. With Charmaine here I laid my cards on the table: “Bridal is not my strength”—had to make sure she understood that clearly, just in case my affiliation with Shutterfairy Photography (which specializes in wedding photography, and where I am currently an associate) belied that reality. Luckily she expressed she had no problem with this, and my coming clean only paved the way for a more dynamic partnership: she was going to learn about styling from me, and I was going to learn a thing or two about the new direction of bridal/evening wear from her.

And, boy, did I learn a lot! For example, little by little I was disabused of the notion that wedding dresses that come in non-traditional colors equal sacrilege—up to that point, you see, I had had a total aversion to wedding dresses that were not in the time-honored white (a few years ago I had said to a friend, who’d opted to wear jasmine yellow on her big day, “You are going to regret this decision!”). But now, looking at Charmaine’s palette of choice—pale shades of orange like apricot and papaya whip, and some vanilla (some of her pieces remained faithful to the traditional bridal white, of course)—I learned to appreciate this burgeoning trend. I also learned that not everything that goes into a bridal dress has to be lightweight—up to that point all I’d believed in were chiffon, lace, organza, satin, silk, taffeta, tulle, etc., but Charmaine’s courageous experimentation with denser fabrics like devoré made me a convert (what was even more commendable was that she used these in unexpected places, too, like the bodice)! She also made sure not to fall into the trap of sticking to one style of hemline all throughout—I’d seen some bridal collections, you see, that were floor-length all throughout, but Charmaine here was bold enough to let her 10-piece collection explore the gamut from mini to tea-length, ankle-length to floor-sweeping. And she wasn’t all about staight hems, too—she also had a couple of peekaboo hems, a very now high-low hem, and even a kind of distressed handkerchief-style hem! (When I asked her how the ones with the shorter and more revealing hems could be revelant to our culture/locale, where it’s no secret that brides are not allowed to reveal even the slightest bit of shin bone in the altar, she explained that she could see them being worn to courtroom weddings, or wedding after-parties.) My favorite part, though, was how the collection was not all-skirt—in one very daredevil move, Charmaine decided for two of the ensembles to be bottomed with a pair of beaded leggings. Yes, you read that right: beaded leggings! Her Line Development teacher had told me to “prepare yourself” for the unorthodox in the days leading to he run-throughs—I was able to keep my composure when I saw most of the clothes, but I must admit that I was not ready for beaded leggings! And how even more impressive to find out that Charmaine did the beadwork by hand. I would later on find out that, in her class, this girl was the master of embellishment—all those beadwork, all those crystals, all that laser-cutting, she did by hand, and all by herself, without the help of a ghost needleworker! (The school doesn’t actually discourage you from hiring subcontractors to execute some portions of your designs, but Charmaine opted to reject the idea of hiring a behind-the-scenes person because, for now at least, she wanted to do everything by herself.)

It was a different kind of high for me having to run my fingers through the pieces in this collection—Charmaine was spot on for baptizing the whole thing “Nirvana” because, really, no other word best described the experience those clothes could take you through. And how do you style an already heavenly collection? The good news is that you don’t need to do much. For this shoot right here all we did was commission shoe and accessories designer Mark Tenchavez of Shandar to create lace-up wooden “bootgies” (a portmanteau that I coined to describe his bootie-wedgie hybrids—you heard it heard first!) with Baroque carving and Lucite details—wooden, yes, because you have to balance the ethereal with something down-to-earth.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning on here that Charmaine’s technical expertise and strength in experimentation that shone through in this senior collection of hers would also come in handy later on during her thesis endeavors (yes, in the USC-TC CAFA Fashion Design universe, the thesis collection is different from the senior collection—whereas the latter attempts to mimic a full-blown line, the former is more of a capsule collection that aims to address a cultural sensitivity issue). For her thesis, Charmaine chose to remain faithful to her bridal/evening wear vision, but instead of reusing the exact same formula she used for her “Nirvana” collection, she upped the ante by throwing a masculin féminin element into the mix: she took the materials and shapes customarily used for traditional Filipino groomswear (i.e., the barong Tagalog) and translated them into bridal wear by giving them womanly silhouettes and details! If that’s not innovative, I don’t know what is! This clever approach would earn her an academic award for Best in Thesis (silver medal) at the 2013 USC-TC CAFA Design Awards (held last March 5 at the Ayala Center Cebu), and rightfully so! I strongly feel that this thirst for innovation could very well be her ticket to more awards/opportunities in the future, provided that she pulls it out of the hat with incredible regularity. For example, I was just looking at the eligibility guidelines for the Look of Style Awards 2013 (sponsored by Look Magazine and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, in which the winners get to fly to London and pursue a short course of their choice at the famed Central Saint Martins), and one line struck me: “Applicants [must] submit a [proposal]…which outlines how [they] will modernize Filipino clothing—such as the terno, [the] barong Tagalog, and/or [the] baro’t saya—to reflect the new generation’s take on Filipiniana, veering way from its traditional aesthetic and…showing its potential for mainstream fashion.” The moment I read this, nothing else came to mind but Charmaine’s thesis collection! I mean, she should be a shoo-in, right? Incidentally, the Cebu auditions for the contest are slated to take place this week (July 29-31)—I hope she decides to join!

Would’ve loved to show you guys all ten pieces from “Nirvana” (plus the pieces from her thesis collection), but I was only able to take photos of a few of them. These photos that you see on here are actually just outtakes, you see—I was only commissioned to be stylist, and it was somebody else (young photographer Gerard Abelgas) tasked to do the photos. Would’ve loved to be the official photographer, but then me being stylist and photographer at the same time was kind of not allowed, because that would have defeated the purpose of the exercise, which was to enable the students to work with a full-blown team and gather insight from a variety of resources. It was all good, though. I’m just thankful the photographer allowed me to jump in and take a few shots of my own. (To view Gerard’s photos, visit his Flickr page here.)

Another thing I loved about this assignment was that it reunited me with one of my favorite models Joni Alburo. I’d first met her some seven or so years ago backstage at a Kate Torralba show that I’d been tasked to style, and I’d absolutely fallen in love with not just her looks and her off-duty style (a grunge fanatic, just like me!), but with her attitude and professionalism, as well. I would end up working with her a couple more times over the next few years, but they had always been for shows, and never for shoots! So imagine my surprise when I found out from Charmaine it was Joni she’d picked for this job! I was, like, finally, here was my chance to see her strut her stuff in front of the camera! And, boy, did she strut it good! She reminds me of Marjay Ramirez before her—tomboy and grungy off-cam, but an absolute diva and chameleon when it was time to get to work! Can’t wait to work with her on more shoots! (That is, if her schedule and new priorities allow—she just passed the Nursing boards, and then took her oath as a registered nurse a few days ago!)

I also got to style the senior collection of Charmaine’s classmate Lian Lacandalo (didn’t I mention earlier that I was paired up with two students?). That was all sorts of fun, too, but unfortunately I have no photos from that session to post on here—I didn’t bring a camera that day because I did not want to interfere with the main photographer Dan Douglas Ong’s business, and I wasn’t able to get the necessary permissions to be able to use his photos for my blog. But fret not: you can view some of Mr. Ong’s photos by visiting Lian’s Facebook page (click here). Loved her pieces, too: everyday staples, but with surprising little twists—e.g., slim-cut shortalls in tweed, lace vests with reproportioned draped collars, daytime boxy shirts with origami-inspired details. Charmaine’s and Lian’s styles are obviously very different, with the latter looking to pursue ready-to-wear, but they are both alike in that this early on they already have the makings of champion innovators. Can’t wait to see where they’re gonna take their craft in the real world, and how they’re gonna make their marks in the local fashion scene!

“Nirvana” by Charmaine Tara Chua | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon | Hair and makeup by Love Nunez | Model: Joni Alburo

“Nirvana” by Charmaine Tara Chua | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon | Hair and makeup by Love Nunez | Model: Joni Alburo

“Nirvana” by Charmaine Tara Chua | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon | Hair and makeup by Love Nunez | Model: Joni Alburo

“Nirvana” by Charmaine Tara Chua | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon | Hair and makeup by Love Nunez | Model: Joni Alburo

“Nirvana” by Charmaine Tara Chua | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon | Hair and makeup by Love Nunez | Model: Joni Alburo

“Nirvana” by Charmaine Tara Chua | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon | Hair and makeup by Love Nunez | Model: Joni Alburo

“Nirvana” by Charmaine Tara Chua | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon | Hair and makeup by Love Nunez | Model: Joni Alburo

“Nirvana” by Charmaine Tara Chua | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon | Hair and makeup by Love Nunez | Model: Joni Alburo

“Nirvana” by Charmaine Tara Chua | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon | Hair and makeup by Love Nunez | Model: Joni Alburo

“Nirvana” by Charmaine Tara Chua | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon | Hair and makeup by Love Nunez | Model: Joni Alburo

“Nirvana” by Charmaine Tara Chua | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon | Hair and makeup by Love Nunez | Model: Joni Alburo

Nirvana,” Charmaine Tara Chua’s senior collection | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon on February 17, 2013 | Main photographer: Gerard Abelgas | Model: Jonielyn “Joni” Alburo | Hair and makeup by Love Nunez | Special thanks to Lian Lacandalo, Paco Serafica and Dino Lloren

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