This is a story about escape.
Who would ever imagine that Juvenal Sansó, today one of Manila’s favorite Spanish-born painters, would travel to the European continent to follow his heart and study art — but would wind up sending in sketches to the great House of Balenciaga?
In 1951, Sansó hopped a boat to study in Rome and eventually surfaced at the École Nationale des Beaux Artes in the French capital. He was living off a princely allowance sent by his prosperous father, who owned the popular furnishings company Arte Español. Every well-heeled home of the period had furniture and chandeliers made of its signature wrought iron and Sansó had apparently convinced his proud papa that an artistic education would serve the interests of the family enterprise.
Sadly, it came to pass that the monthly stipend would be cut off as a result of government currency controls. Sansó, left to fend for himself, appears to have tapped into the peninsulare mafia and connected to a fellow countryman. In the last mid-century, there were only two famous Spaniards in Paris. The first was Pablo Picasso and the second was Cristobal Balenciaga.
Balenciaga himself had arrived in Paris in the 1930s, establishing himself at elegant, mirrored digs at No. 10 Avenue George V. It is not entirely clear if Sansó would ever meet the great man, but the young art student certainly had the knack of meeting the right people. He would hobnob with influential newspaper publisher and editor Yves le Dantec, who would invite him every year to summer in Brittany, which would inspire one of his most famous series. Elsa Schiaparelli, another couture doyenne who invented the bright fuchsia she called “shocking pink,” even sponsored a solo exhibition for Sansó at the famous Galerie Lucie Weill on the Rue Bonaparte.
Sansó thus threw himself full-time into fulfilling a massive commission of “an entire line of fabric designs” for Balenciaga. He would make so much money from it that he could stop all this dabbling and focus on his painting.
The Fundación Sansó today has hundreds of these drawings, painted with watercolor or acrylic on thick drawing paper. It was just a matter of time before the foundation would think about bringing Sansó back to this little-known thread of his artistic career.
It was also just the right moment for Septième Rebelle, a couture label so private and under the radar that only the most sophisticated of Manila’s cognoscenti make the pilgrimage to its Ortigas atelier for an appointment. The creative force behind it is Robbie Santos, who, as the term Septième Rebelle describes, is the seventh child and the most non-conformist of a family that is well-known in healthcare and education. Steeped in this teaching tradition, he is a great believer — like Sansó — in traveling far and wide to learn more about his art. Each year he travels to such outposts as Central Saint Martins in London or the Istituto Marangoni in Paris to learn more about the secrets of high fashion, including hand-sewing, draping and tailoring. Santos is best known for his classic lines. “I simply want to make women look their best,” he says. “Sleeker, taller, thinner. It’s the complete antithesis of athleisure.” For menswear, he adds, “I am a little more ‘democratic’ or liberal. I like more prints, bold colors and appliqués.”
He explains, “For me, it’s always all about the element of surprise. I love asymmetrical touches. Most designers put all the details on the front of the garment. I don’t. It’s part of my ‘rebellious’ nature to do something different but that’s still ‘nice’ — or shall we say, ‘acceptable’ — for Manila society. If you think about it, back accents are meant for people who are conservative and meek on the outside but have something else up that proverbial sleeve.”
Santos was let loose in the Sansó archives. (He’s no stranger himself to the idea of saving up material: “I have to say that I still have every single sketch I have ever made, even from high school, which was 25 years ago. They are all in my iCloud. I use all my sketches from the past to revisit and reinterpret ideas and trends,” he points out.)
Robbie first selected 80 sketches from the hundreds in the Sansó storage, eventually whittling them down to 38 of what he calls “looks.” He admits, “The hard part was finding the right textiles. I had to find fabrics that came closest to the textile designs Sansó made almost 60 years ago. I had access only to three fabrics that were digitally printed from the original textile designs. The rest are what you would term ‘inspired by.’”
To tell the truth, he says, “Colors, florals and even Sansó are not new to me — but collaborating with somebody else is. This one is my first.”
Furthermore, there was a second partnership with the Riqueza jewelry line of Erica Concepcion Reyes, which Santos describes as a name that is able to combine international aesthetics with Philippine craftsmanship, very much in step with the Sansó and Septième outlook of being Filipino but having international influences.
Despite the fact that the Sansó designs are from the 1960s, Santos notes, “There was never a conscious effort to recreate that period. Most of my influences come from the ’90s: Gianfranco Ferre, Givenchy, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Donna Karan.”
He continues, “The Sansó vibe for this collection represents the versatility of his textile designs: The florals, the geometrics, and everything in between. From the designer’s point of view, I used solid colors to break the patterns and to make the garments more wearable and practical. Some looks are definitely dressier than the others, but can still afford the same ease and comfort if paired with other pieces already existing in one’s own wardrobe.”
The Septième Rebelle designs are an amazing antidote to the times. “The colors alone are far from bleak and dreary. They are rich and vibrant, an attempt to uplift one’s mood and soul during this tumultuous time. The collection has an I-am-ready-to-party feel. Sansó’s works are anchored on his life in Malaga and Brittany, both of which are by the water. My designs responded to that and reflect the fun and ebullience of a beach party. I conceptualized a collection that was my answer to the question ‘What to wear on the beach?’ Think occasions such as open-air weddings or outdoor reunions or just to wear to a weekend at a Punta Fuego hideaway.”
As Sansó escaped and we, too, seek to escape, it’s a moment to just add water and some imagination. Life does go on amid the pandemic and the isolation of the quarantine. It’s a time for exploring the possible and, yes, seeing what life has to offer.
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To find out more about the Septième Rebelle collection, contact 0917-814-2675.