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Oh, Criselda!

By MILLET M. MANANQUIL, The Philippine STAR Published Sep 26, 2021 5:00 am

One of my joys as a lifestyle journalist is being able to interview personalities up close. And ask them: What did you do to be so successful? What dreams do you dream? What passions do you have burning inside of you?

I don’t always get the answers straight from their lips. Their answers are sometimes untold, and I just have to read them in their souls and feel them from their hearts.

Such was the case when I met Criselda Lontok, beauty queen-turned-fashion model-turned-bestselling fashion designer. And, I have to add, turned-lifetime friend. 

 Criselda loved rich brocade fabrics.

A two-hour interview decades ago became a forever friendship as I embraced her charisma and sincerity. I asked her mundane questions such as: What is your best beauty secret? (Her answer: “Avoid using the air conditioner, as it makes your skin dry.”) What diet do you follow? (“I don’t do any dieting. I eat like a truck driver.”)

She taught me to be more prayerful, to be more humane, to face adversities with grace, to be kind even to people who are unkind, to teach lessons to those that need to learn, to understand why some people are crazy. 

Criselda knew how to laugh. And make other people laugh. Over long lunches with our mutual friends, or while lingering in the comfy sofa of her eponymous boutique, or while sharing happy as well as sad stories over the phone, that was when she gave me answers to not-so-mundane questions on life and love.

She taught me to be more prayerful, to be more humane, to face adversities with grace, to be kind even to people who are unkind, to teach lessons to those that need to learn, to understand why some people are crazy.

And in the meantime, I will spend crazy moments missing her laughter.

John Fernandez: ‘Farewell, my queen angel’

Seeing my mom during her last moments was too painful. I just wanted to take her place completely so I could battle her suffering with younger muscles and a stronger heart. But angels were on standby, ready to take her home.

I felt regret for not being able to say the things I would have wanted her to hear, nor do more things I could have done for her.

I whispered my request for forgiveness with her eyes closed. The only consolation was that I was able to wrap my arm around her head and whisper: “I love you, Mama,” and she said it back with her fading voice. 

Criselda Lontok with her family, Mari Fernandez, Carla F. Lanuza and John Fernandez

My heart remains broken. She has always been my rock, my inspiration, and my greatest fan.

Farewell, my queen angel. Thank you for being my mother.

Nedy Tantoco: ‘Criselda was family’

I mourn Criselda’s passing deeply because she was family. That means more than 50 years of respect, love, friendship, and yes, business. Criselda loved my mom and the feeling was mutual. She always referred to Mom as her mentor. 

Criselda and Rustan's chairman and CEO Nedy Tantoco with a portrait of Rustan’s founder Glecy Tantoco in the background.

Her design legacy and long-time collaboration with Rustan’s will forever remain an integral part of our history. No one can refute her beauty inside out. She had deeply loyal roots to the company she devoted her life to. Her iconic style will surely live on in Philippine fashion.

Rico Tantoco: ‘Such unwavering commitment’

  With Rico Tantoco and Mary Prieto

Dearest Criselda: You have lived your life with love for my mother and my father and in loyal, dedicated service to our company. I was your president at Rustan’s from 1989 to 1994 and again in 1999 to 2008 and we always felt your love. In a world of selfishness and intrigue, you constantly gave yourself to our family selflessly and with unwavering commitment.

Now we wish to pour on you all our love and eternal gratitude with all our hearts. It was such a great honor to have been associated with you as a constantly admired colleague. Espere nosotros y nosotras en el cielo, Criselda. And enjoy the heaven you richly deserve.

Mario Katigbak: ‘Three times a lady’

With Mario Katigbak and Marilen Tantoco

Criselda and her siblings were considered not only our friends but also nearly relatives as we were all from Lipa, Batangas. She then became my colleague in Rustan’s, a lunch mate, a confidante, a mentor.

What I cannot forget about Criselda is that she was truly a lady. She never talked bad about anyone. Not even about those who hurt her.

Dina A. Tantoco: ‘Mentor with a vision’

  With Dina Tantoco

When I started working at Rustan’s 13 years ago, Criselda was a well-respected, important member of the Rustan’s family. However, she never placed herself above anyone.

She took the time to teach our marketing team the proper ways to hold a fashion show. We were amazed with her vision. We saw how she was able to bring her customers together (and they were all women we look up to), the way she meticulously worked with her suppliers to get the best fabrics and prints, and the way she paid close attention to every detail of her events.

It was an honor to work with her and learn from her. She would tell all us “newbies” the stories of GRT (Rustan’s founder Glecy Tantoco) as a way to teach us how to carry out our tasks. She was full of wisdom, kindness, and glamour.

Donnie Tantoco: ‘My queen when I was 16’

When I was 16 years old, my grandparents asked me to deliver a speech during the annual gathering of thousands of Rustan’s employees. I had never stood on such a stage before, facing what seemed an enormous auditorium. I gave my message and felt thereafter that I had done a bad job.

When I came down, the first person to greet me was no less than Ms. Criselda. She smiled as I approached her and said, “Donnie, I liked your message. It had a good meaning.”

  With Donnie Tantoco

I felt so affirmed and paralyzed at the same time. Before I could say “thank you,” she walked back to her seat among the elders of our family. She was a queen who wore the crown that she earned through her sheer hard work lightly on her head. She actually listened to me, and perhaps noticing that I needed encouragement, went out of her way to give me her love, support and her confidence.

Maritess ‘Tokie’ T. Enriquez: ‘A lady of laughter and love’

  With Ambassador Benny Tantoco, Maritess ‘Tokie’ Enriquez and Ching Montinola

One thing I will miss most about Criselda is her infectious signature laughter, which I enjoyed during lunches with our common friends. And her incredible capacity to love. During one much-applauded fashion show, we were touched as she announced that she was dedicating the show to Ching Montinola, who was quietly seated on her wheelchair.

Danny Dolor: ‘A ‘makabayan’ beauty queen’

  With Letty Syquia and Danny Dolor during a Cofradia event

I first met Criselda when, at 15, she was crowned Miss Batangas Youth in 1955. She was a richly popular dalaga. Yes, I attended her wedding. And she faithfully attended all events I invited her to, whether religious (such as the Cofradia de la Inmaculada Concepcion, which held yearly Marian processions), or civic-cultural (such as town fiestas or fundraising rigodons). She was faithful to Lipa, Batangas, and she liked keeping Philippine traditions alive. She was truly makabayan

Marilou T. Pineda: ‘Criselda always gave her 100 percent’

  Marilou T. Pineda

When my sister Nedy was taking care of our mother fulltime in New Jersey, I was left in the Philippines to manage Rustan’s. And it was Criselda who organized 100 percent of our launches and events, while I had to prepare the logistics. It was so natural of her to do these. Attendance was fantastic. All went well. That was Criselda.

Menchu T. Lopez: ‘A compleat designer’

  Menchu T. Lopez

I remember the time I asked Criselda to make my ninang gown for a special wedding. She not only made the gown; she was also concerned about my hair and makeup,shoes and bag. That’s how Criselda was. Always complete and compleat.