When Miguel Polido and Pia Ymas began dating some four years ago, I remember a lot of people saying, “What a gorgeous couple! They’re gonna make beautiful babies one day!” Apparently that’s how most people make a judgment call on whether a couple is a perfect match—they imagine the resulting offspring! I, however, am not most people, and so what I was thinking was along the lines of: Wow, they’re gonna look sooo good in their engagement photos—the photographer is gonna have a field day for sure! And that right there is why I think I’m kind of clairvoyant, because flash forward to the tail end of last year, Miguel did end up popping the question, and not long after that I got a call from our common friend Cryse Nemenzo (all the way from L.A.), saying that Pia wanted my team at Shutterfairy Photography to do the engagement photos, and that it had to be me to do the styling! Of course, I foamed in the mouth a little bit—as Pia’s biggest dream was coming true, one of mine was, too!
I loved how Pia, although clearly excited to be future Mrs., was calm and composed throughout the whole thing. No bridezilla here! For one, she trusted me enough to not barrage me with a long litany of the things that she wanted. In fact, the only real instruction she gave me was that her engagement photos had to be in keeping with the theme of the impending wedding. At first she toyed with the idea of an “old Hollywood” theme, and I was beginning to dust my collection of Vanity Fair Hollywood Issues from recent years to study their stunning three-page fold-out covers (my favorite is that from 2011, with Catherine Deneuve leading the pack) and equally dazzling centerpieces (my favorite is that from 2007, which has a series of film noir-inspired images by Annie Leibovitz) when all of a sudden she told me there had been a change in plans, and now she wanted to pursue a Parisian kind of theme instead—“Eiffel in Love” was what the invites were going to say. It was Cryse who had suggested this shift (perhaps inspired by the Parisian-themed bridal shower in the 2011 movie Bridesmaids, no?), and Pia heeding his advise would turn out to be the best creative decision of her life! Because, really, while I was kind of sold to the idea of “old Hollywood,” tricky part about that was that one wrong move could cause you to slip and fall over into frou-frou territory! At least with the Parisian thing you didn’t have to worry about that—like, there was no pressure to ever use, say, a feather boa!
But, happy as I was about this new development, that didn’t mean my job was guaranteed to be a lot easier. For one, French style was not my forte—and I had never been to Paris before in my life! It was easy for me to say, “Oh, as long as it’s charming, confident, mysterious, nonchalant, and sexy at the same time, we’re fine,” but it was exactly in trying to come up with looks that had all those elements combined that proved to be a challenge! I did my research, talked to some of my closest friends who’d been to the City of Light recently, visited a number of street style blogs, and all I could gather was this: those French girls pretty much had staples, including the quintessential black-and-white stripes (derivatives of the classic Breton stripes), the LBD, the capri pant, and the beret; while the French guys…well, they liked to wear all black, “even on summer afternoons.” But then I imagined Pia and Miguel in these clothes, and it all looked too costumey (bordering on the pantomimey!) in my mind’s eye, especially if I threw the loaf of French bread tucked under their arms and the tandem bike into the picture! Somebody suggested that I should look to the styles of French Vogue editors Carine Roitfeld and Emmanuelle Alt for inspiration (“because those are really the kind of clothes you see on girls in the streets of Paris,” I was told), but then weren’t these a little too edgy? Pia here had such a soft, doll-like face, it would be wrong to mix it with greaser-style leather jackets, stovepipe jeans and biker boots! I swear, it was making me crazy in my head: days upon days of research and interviews, and not quite getting it right!
Fortunately, one stormy night found me marooned in my best friend’s apartment in Taguig, and she had a DVD of the sixth season of Sex and the City lying around, and so I decided to pop it in, and it was when I got to the last two episodes, “An American Girl in Paris (Part Une)” and “An American Girl in Paris (Part Deux),” that I had an epiphany: Pia didn’t have to play the part of a Parisian girl in her engagement shoot—she could play the part of an idealistic girl who’s visiting Paris for the first time, expecting to find “ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live-without-each-other love!” As soon as I got home I attacked my mood board notebook, and, I must admit, it was kind of spine-tingling to finally be able to infuse some Carrie Bradshaw style into it, after years and years of itching to do so! I printed out screencaps of her outfits from the two abovementioned episodes; bought a bargain copy of the cosmopolitan-pink faux alligator skin covered Sex and the City: Kiss and Tell by Amy Sohn so I could review the character’s other outfits from earlier episodes/seasons; even devoured an essay or two on why she was made to wear a tutu skirt in the show’s opening sequence, and how this piece of clothing—and, ultimately, the entire ballerina silhouette—became inextricably linked to her legacy. But, of course, I was careful not to make the whole mood board all about Ms. Bradshaw, lest I ended up giving my client an all-bell-shaped wardrobe! For example, I also had screencaps from the opening scene of 2010’s The Tourist in there—Angeline Jolie’s character in an ivory sheath dress, a camel cashmere stole and vanilla suede gloves, sitting in a brasserie down Gare de l’Est, getting a note from a messenger, and then burning it—because I wanted at least one look with that kind of fitted, ’40s-style silhouette, too. I even clipped a couple of images from that now-iconic fashion spread that the legendary Richard Avedon did for the September 1962 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, featuring the model Suzy Parker and the director Mike Nichols as a celebrity couple hounded by the paparazzi as they frolicked through Paris—I wanted our main photographer Malou Pages to be able to study these pictures because I wanted a kind of paparazzi-like feel for some of Pia and Miguel’s photos, too. It’s kind of funny, really, if you come to think of it now, how we were relieved to have escaped the “old Hollywood” theme and landed on this whole Parisian business, only to end up looking back to Hollywood for Parisian references!
Looking at these photos, you might be thinking I must have had a hard time sourcing these clothes that you see Pia wearing. But, believe it or not, it only took us a little over two hours to build this wardrobe! When I was thinking about where to get ballerina-style dresses, you see, no one else came to mind but my designer friend Dino Lloren, who’d made an entire collection of frothy cocktail pieces in prom/ballerina silhouettes back in 2011 (presented in a joint fashion show with accessories designer Noreen Tseng in Macau), so I whisked Pia away to his studio. Luckily for us, Dino still had a couple of samples from that collection, and so I wasted no time in yanking out the prettiest ones and putting them on her back! I also took out this sunglow-hued cocktail dress with a giant rosette detail out front—apart from the ballerina silhouette, we all know Carrie Bradshaw style is also about ridiculous floral accents. We struck even more gold when, digging further through Dino’s archives, I remembered that he’d made an entire collection of ‘40s-inpired sheaths in delicate pastel colors (presented at the event celebrating the 75th anniversary of Mandaue City’s La Presidencia, or City Hall, September of last year), and so I let Pia have the carnation pink number with a Queen Anne neckline for these afternoon outdoor tea scenes that I’d been envisioning. I figured I needed a floor-length gown, too, because I didn’t want the whole thing to be abbreviated hemlines all the way, and so I grabbed this azure-cyan number similar to the one that the designer had made especially for beauty queen Bee Urgello late last year. (Dino makes some of the most gorgeous evening gowns in this part of the world—last year alone, I think in two out of the three most prestigious local beauty pageants, the candidates who chose to compete in Dino Lloren creations walked away with the awards for Best in Evening Gown.) And that was it! I was done with Pia’s wardrobe! I normally have a strong aversion to using just one designer or one label throughout a shoot, but I had to make an exception for this one—Dino had everything I/we needed, so, really, why look any further?
Miguel’s wardrobe I built by imagining: What would Aleksandr Petrovsky, Carrie Bradshaw’s Russian artist lover, would have worn in his 20s or 30s? I was also thinking of French actor Romain Duris and French singer-songwriter Benjamin Biolay and their penchant for finely tailored suits. But I didn’t want to go for the quintessential French guy palette of blacks and greys—I had to make sure to inject some color here and there, too (carnation pink tie, for example, to go with his gainsboro suit), just so he wouldn’t look drab next to his fiancee. When I first met with him my instructions were: “Look in your own closet, or borrow from friends.” But then he felt his year-round suits were outdated now, and he certainly did not want to borrow from friends (he didn’t even want to borrow mine when I offered)! I had to respect that because, really, if you come to think about it, borrowing from someone else’s closet is kind of impolite. The guy had manners! He didn’t want to buy anything off-the-rack, either, because he wanted the perfect fit! And so we were left with no choice but to go bespoke. I felt bad at first, thinking about the bill—I mean, hey, we weren’t talking just one suit here—but then he said that this was going to be “the wisest money I’ll ever spend,” and that his working wardrobe needed an update, anyways. Gotta give props to a guy who thinks like that, right? Of course, I sent him to menswear genius Protacio Empaces, Jr.—no one else, in my opinion, understands the right kind of snug, the right kind of taper, or the right kind of jacket length, or has access to suiting fabrics that could make a Php 8,000 suit look like a Php 40,000 one. When I finally saw the finished products on the day of the shoot, I didn’t even ask to see the bill—it was enough for me that he looked like a million bucks, and that he was really happy about this choice (he would thank me months later, saying his new suits/blazers, especially the navy one, definitely helped him up the ante at work).
And just as we didn’t have a hard time putting the clothes together, we didn’t have to do a lot of work when it came to nailing a location for the shoot, too—the Chateau Norma along V. Rama was immediately brought to our attention, and after only a 30-minute ocular inspection we decided not to look any further! To those not in the know, Chateau Norma is the name of the mansion that the politician Eduardo “Eddie” Gullas and his wife Mingming erected on the site of their old home. It was hastily baptized by society journalists as the Palazzo Gullas back in 2010, but its official name of Chateau Norma was to be made known about a year later, which was a good call because, while palazzo did have a nice ring to it, chateau really was more fitting because the mansion’s décor scheme was predominantly informed by the classic French styles. My heart ballooned at the sight of the Louis XV-, Louis XVI- and Directoire-style furniture, the majestic crystal chandeliers, the lush draperies, the framed tapestries, the grand staircase. I remember walking into one of the guest rooms (the one they were allowing us to use for this shoot) and thinking, Wow, this could pass as a suite at the Hôtel Raphael! The garden was not too big in size, but monumental urns on plinths gave the whole thing the illusion of having greater area than it actually did. Out front there was a tiered fountain that, if you squinted, looked just like the ones they had over at the Place des Vosges, and next to the pool there was this massive statue of the Roman god Neptune (not really a reproduction of Antoine Coysevox’s that’s being housed in the Louvre, but close). There was even this cast-iron miniature Eiffel Tower lying around in the back porch, and even the walls of the garage (the last place you’d consider decorating) were lined with replicas of vintage Folies Bergere and Moulin Rouge posters! The place was just too perfect that we couldn’t stop thanking Pia’s sister Shobe for the tip (yes, it was Shobe who had suggested we checked it out; she was close personal friends with Congressman Gerald Anthony “Samsam” Gullas, the man and lady of the house’s eldest grandson). (Some of my friends have been asking why we didn’t pick La Vie Parisienne down Gorordo for this shoot. Well, two reasons: one, La Vie didn’t really open until two weeks before this shoot, and we like to do oculars and nail our locations at least two months before a scheduled shoot date; two, even if they’d opened earlier, I still wouldn’t have gone for it because that would’ve made it too predictable.)
But just because we already had this amazing shooting location at our disposal didn’t mean I was free of my duties/responsibilities as set decorator. One thing, I had to build an afternoon tea setting out in the garden, and I didn’t want a plain-looking one, too, so I had to make it as outlandish and exaggerated as possible—think the Mad Hatter’s tea party scene featuring the model Natalia Vodianova as the title character, milliner Stephen Jones as the Mad Hatter and the designer Christian Lacroix as the March Hare, that Annie Leibovitz and Grace Coddington did for a whimsical Alice in Wonderland-inspired shoot for the December 2003 issue of American Vogue, except with more colorful berries and macarons and cake, and with stuff normally found in a boudoir like strands of pearls and jewelry boxes, in reference to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette from 2006. Shutterfairy’s in-house set decorator Jenny Hortillosa also helped out by creating giant flowers to add a touch of fantasy to the whole thing. For most of the other scenes, which had to be done indoors, there was no need for us to lug heavy duty stuff around since, well, the house was already chock-full of gorgeous furnishings, but I still had to come up with little accents, you know? For the Save the Date scenes, for example, I had to find a way to make use of the miniature Eiffel tower, so I took a dozen Parisian postcards and antiqued them by hand (to those of you who are wondering how I did it: I soaked them for about 20 minutes in a mixture of Earl Grey tea, pekoe cut black tea, vinegar, and some bleach, left them on a hot tin roof to dry, buried them in soft ground for a three days, and then ironed them under a cotton towel), and these were what I used to jazz the thing up. For the breakfast in bed scenes, I borrowed a couple of French Vogues from Protacio, and then we had a coffee table book that had a portrait of Grace Kelly on her wedding day—the idea was to have Pia pretend like she was browsing for bridal inspirations, and then she got stuck on that very image/page. I even made blueberry French toast! (Funny thing, because after I posted a photo of the breakfast tray with the French toast on Instagram, someone messaged me on Facebook asking if I could cater for a breakfast-themed bridal shower!) The awesomest part about working on the set décor, though, was when a good friend of mine, Pia Congmon, showed up at the set to lend a helping hand! Loved the finishing touches that she added—the Baroque-style decorative mirror with the lyrics to Édith Piaf’s signature song “La Vie en rose” written on it in gold marker, for example, was her idea, and it went really well with the afternoon tea set and Dino’s carnation pink ‘40s-style ensemble! She also helped set the mood by being our DJ, playing a selection of French lounge/new wave tunes.
Loved that it was Emi Ayag that they’d commissioned to do the makeup—last time I’d worked with him was when we’d shot Christina Garcia-Frasco for the catalog of Shandar’s premier collection some two years back. For a while there, though, I felt kind of bad, because it looked like he was working himself up too much—i.e., switching up Pia’s hair and makeup every time we changed outfits and scenes! For the record, I didn’t ask him to do that. Apparently that’s just how Emi likes to do things—he wants his work to play a part in the storytelling, too. I appreciated this because some makeup artists go for just one look for an engagement shoot, with the sporadic light touch-ups in between scenes. Of course, I took it as a compliment when Emi said he enjoyed working with me for the reason that I was always bound to turn everything into “a major production.” Most people think I’m crazy for doing the things I do, you see, so, for a change, it was nice to work with someone who thought it was absolutely OK to go over the top.
Can’t keep track anymore of how many wedding/engagement inspiration blogs have featured this engagement session ever since Malou posted the final photos on Shutterfairy’s official blogsite last July 2, or of how many people have stopped me in public or rung me to ask about this particular job. Some of them rave about the clothes, some about the props and the set décor, some about the makeup, and most about the location (“I can’t believe there’s a place like this right here in Cebu!” one friend of mine enthused). While I enjoy basking in these compliments, I have to confess that I don’t think the whole thing would’ve come out as captivating as it did had it not been for, well, our subjects themselves! Because, really, I could very well put these clothes on other people, or assemble these sets or borrow this location for another shoot, and Emi could do the very same makeup on another person…but would it have the same effect? No? Didn’t think so. Not only were Pia and Miguel very easy to work and be around with (I swear, they’re the kind of people you just want to spend an entire Sunday afternoon with), and not only were they very, very good-looking, they had such an amazing chemistry going on, too, which could easily bring any picture to life! I mean, even if you stripped them of these clothes, these props, this location, and just photograph them wearing their everyday clothes and against a blank wall, you’d still have a charming picture! I don’t know if it’s the way they look at each other, or the way they make each other laugh… I can’t explain it, really. If you’re wondering what the true je ne sais quoi of this shoot is, it’s their chemistry. It’s the same chemistry that they would bring with them to their wedding day (just take a look at their gorgeous wedding photos by Mark Cantalejo to see what I’m talking about), and hopefully the same one they’ll be carrying with them on to their 50th or so wedding anniversary!
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P.S. I’m so sorry my photos are kind of sucky! When I’m busy with the set design and the clothes, you see, I tend to forget about my camera, and in this case I think I left it in some mode other than manual and so the aperture was set to a 7 or 8 the whole time! There were even a few times that I would pick up the wrong camera (Jenny’s, because we have the same make/model) and not realize it until after 50 or so shots! Hard when it’s indoors, too, because I am forced to hike up my ISO to way up there—Malou is a natural light photographer and has an aversion to using artificial light, and so I have to go with that flow. It’s also a given that, when it’s a job for Shutterfairy and Malou is the main photographer, I have to stay in the sidelines and take photos from there, to make sure I don’t block her view and/or interfere with her business. To that end, just look at my photos as outtakes, and we’ll be fine. To view the official photos, click here.
Miguel Polido and Pia Denise Ymas | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon for Shutterfairy in Cebu City, Cebu, on May 20, 2013 | Main photographer: Malou Pages for Shutterfairy | Hair and makeup by Emi Ayag | Set decorators: Angelo Kangleon, Jennifer Hortillosa and Pia Congmon | Pia’s clothes, all by Dino Lloren | Miguel’s clothes, all by Protacio Empaces Jr | Special thanks to Congressman Gerald Anthony “Samsam” Gullas and family, and to Mark Tenchavez of Shandar
In our mood board (see below) Top row, L-R: Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in the final scenes of Sex and the City’s series finale, “An American Girl in Paris (Part Deux),” wearing a seafoam green ballerina-style dress; Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in the opening scene of the Sex and the City film from 2008, wearing a vintage (presumably from the early ‘80s) white-and-gold dress with oversize floral detail; Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en rose;” Angelina Jolie as Elise Clifton-Ward in the opening scenes of 2010’s The Tourist, sitting in a brasserie down Gare de l’Est, wearing an ivory sheath dress, a camel cashmere stole and vanilla suede gloves. Middle row, L-R: Kirsten Dunst as the title character in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette from 2006; Natalia Vodianova as the title character, milliner Stephen Jones as the Mad Hatter and the designer Christian Lacroix as the March Hare, photographed by Annie Leibovitz for an Alice in Wonderland-inspired shoot for the December 2003 issue of American Vogue; Suzy Parker and Mike Nichols, photographed by Richard Avedon in Paris for the September 1962 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Bottom row, L-R: Leighton Meester as Blair Waldorf and Ed Westwick as Chuck Bass in the second episode of the fourth season of Gossip Girl, set in Paris; French actor Romain Duris on the cover of French GQ’s December 2012 issue; a look from Michael Bastian Fall 2012; Leighton Meester as Blair Waldorf in the first episode of the fourth season of Gossip Girl, set in Paris.