Before we had Traffic Czars, Housing Czars, or Business Czars, we had a Fashion Czar.
In the 1970s, Pitoy Moreno was at his peak. He was not only on top of the field of haute couture in the Philippines, he was acknowledged as Asia’s Fashion Czar, having dressed First Ladies, international movie stars and royalty.
Moreno’s anointment as czar apparently came after a decade of touring the world with his fashion and making waves from the late 1950s. The regional press placed him on that pedestal, following the lead of French glossy magazine Le Figaro.
The images in this article come from Asia magazine, a publication of Adrian Zecha (who eventually moved to the hotel industry in the 1980s, establishing his famous Aman brand of resorts).
Moreno did not start out in the fashion business but took up fine arts at UP Diliman in the early 1950s. His classmates were the likes of Celia Diaz (Laurel) and Araceli Dans.
He moved on to expressing his art through fashion after college, eventually becoming the designer for the Bayanihan Dance Company. The opportunity to travel with the famous group led to exhibits of his work in the US and his eventual discovery by the fashion press there and in Europe. Aside from Le Figaro, Pitoy’s work appeared in Harper’s, Vogue, Bazaar, and other international publications.
Pitoy is credited with introducing jusi and piña fabrics to the design world. The Asia magazine article also credits him with being the first designer to adapt the Barong Tagalog to female dress, including creating a Barong Tagalog wedding gown.
The magazine also highlights Pitoy’s impact on French designers with a story of how Pierre Cardin and Pierre Balmain “looked in” at his show when he arrived in Paris in the Swinging Sixties. “They presumably thought Moreno was exhibiting native costumes rather than high fashion. They were, Moreno muses, very embarrassed. At the end of the show, people were shouting, ‘Who needs Paris?’”
Because of that first show in the city of lights, Paris Match did a feature spread on Pitoy’s fashion with photographs of his designs on sultry Filipina models all over the city.
The article reported that Moreno would get standing ovations after his shows in the US and Europe. In Madrid, Moreno was greeted at the end of his show with cries of “Exito, exito!” Not understanding the language very well, Pitoy started to back off into the wings, when a producer shouted that exito meant “success” and pushed him back onstage.
The article notes one of Pitoy’s talents was that he “discovers beauties and transposes them into national figures. If you want to know who will be the next Miss Philippines, (it is said) all you have to do is ask Moreno.”
The article ended with Pitoy’s accomplishments by the start of the 1970s: “Moreno has clothed three of the world’s ‘Ten Best Dressed Women’… US First Lady Nancy Reagan, the Condesa de Romanones, Deeda Blair (wife of the former US Ambassador the Philippines), not to mention Queens of Thailand and Malaysia, Princess Sophia of Greece, ex-Princess Suga of Japan, Philippine First Lady Mrs. Imelda Marcos, US First Lady Mrs. Pat Nixon, the wife and daughters of ex-US President Lyndon Johnson, Miss Internationals Gemma Cruz and Stella Marquez, Miss Universe Gloria Diaz, choreographer Agnes de Mille, dancers Margot Fonteyn and Rita Moreno, and Cristina Ford, wife of auto tycoon Henry Ford III.”
Moreno’s star waned in the 1990s as he eased off work due to his health. I met him only once. Together with a good friend, Ramon Orlina, we were judging an art competition in 2005. He was an elegant man.
A few years later, in 2009, Moreno was given National Artist status by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, along with other cultural icons (including architect Bobby Mañosa). Unfortunately, the circumstances of the declaration by GMA were controversial, as the president did not follow protocol, and the award was revoked.
Moreno passed away in 2018. He did not relinquish his crown. A new generation of fashion-forward Filipinos has taken over the scene here in Manila and many are now based in Paris, London, or New York. They owe the original Czar of Fashion a debt of gratitude for paving the way for Pinoys to be the new Pitoys.
Thumbnail caption: Pitoy Moreno and his bevy of beauties pose in Technicolor.