Rustan’s House brand Criselda Lontok is synonymous with clothing women of a certain allure and figure type. Think sheer ponchos, loose tops and shifts with humongous flowers, and stretch pants with bands that snugly secure wandering waistlines.
Criselda Lontok’s fashion is what the late author Nora Ephron termed as “compensatory dressing” which suggests little tricks that offset the bulges.
“Some women with size 14 (turkey arms and all) will dare to wear a strapless dress. We have some shawls that can go with them,” explains Lontok.
Most of her clients prefer jersey pants to skim over the heavy legs. She also offers some dresses that hide bulging knees. Lontok says that, at a certain age, fashion is all about fit and not trends. Women feel inexplicably uncomfortable in regular-sized, fitted garments that hang on to the body. Customers look and feel younger if the fabrics gently drape their body rather than emphasize their silhouette.
“They shouldn’t feel conscious about their flab being seen,” Lontok says.
Her winning formula for “compensatory dressing” has made her one of Rustan’s top sellers for 30 years. Every time she holds a fashion show, women excitedly raid the racks for her new collection. Last year, sales racked up to half a million pesos, with some amount going to charity.
On Aug. 5, Lontok will hold her 30th anniversary fashion show at the Raffles-Fairmont hotel with the theme “La Vie en Rose.” The beneficiary is Bantay Bata. She chose the rose as a symbol of her life, with emphasis on the velvety petals and the little thorns.
Some of the rosy parts of her journey were her modeling days when she met celebrities—such as doing a photo shoot with actor Fabian, being the apple of Harry Belafonte’s eye, and evading a kiss from Neil Sedaka in front of a concert audience at Araneta Coliseum.
Even her fashion career seemed like a bed of roses. It all began when the late Gliceria Rustia Tantoco, founder of Rustan’s, showed Lontok, then a merchandising manager, some sample blouses which she knew that women would snap up. With her exposure as a fashion model, Lontok made suggestions on how to tweak the styles and created categories for the styles.
They were given European names under the umbrella label Mod International. For a novice, Lontok was given the privilege of having the clothes displayed prominently on the first floor. Pleased with the brisk sales and Lontok’s eye for detail and business instincts, Tantoco prodded her protégé to launch her own label in 1983.
Word got around that the Criselda label offered clothes for women with full or flawed figures.
She attributes her success to honesty. “I don’t fool customers. I don’t hard-sell. If they don’t like it, it’s okay. I don’t push,” she says. “It gives me great satisfaction that they keep coming back.”
Meeting the press, Lontok dons her signature look—a black boatneck top with batwing sleeves, maroon jersey trousers and printed ballerina flats. While some women would look dowdy in that attire, she is chic because of the patterns on her shoes and her bold accessories.
Her necklace is adorned with antique jade sculptures while her bracelets feature antique cubes with Chinese calligraphy and semiprecious stones. She favors chunky jewelry because of their visual impact. Invariably, they flatter the proportion of a full-sized figure.
For her fashion show, Lontok is collaborating with accessories designer Carissa Cruz-Evangelista to make pieces that will punch up her casual clothing.
Cruz-Evangelista is producing gold necklaces and cuffs with semiprecious stones and also a collection of black accessories using black crystal and black onyx. She worked for the Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions as a trade and industry product development specialist for fashion and accessories, and studied at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco.
Cruz-Evangelista, who is much younger than Lontok’s regular clientele, remarks that the Criselda collection is wearable. “Unlike other clothes in the market with unrealistic size expectations, she has a wider range of sizes (from eight to 22) that real women from different age groups can wear. I love her jersey because I don’t know how to iron.”
Meanwhile, Lontok’s evening collection will be accessorized by Yvel, a new fine jewelry collection famous for floral and nature designs with pearls, diamond and gold.
Although Lontok’s life has been fairly comfortable, she admits having some thorns that made her stronger. First was the separation from her husband after 14 years of marriage. After a rough patch, Lontok bounced back. “I’m very independent,” she says.
The most painful was the demise of her mother, Isabel Lontok, her close friend and confidant, who died in 1995, after a long battle with colon cancer. She paid homage to her mother in her fashion show.
Asked about age, Lontok predictably demurs. “When I get a checkup in the hospital, I don’t put the year. The nurses keep prodding me so I write it down on the chart. I don’t want them to say it aloud. They are surprised because they say I don’t look my age.”
Although she also refuses to reveal the ages of her children—Ma. Carla, Carlo Maria and John—she admits that she has eight grandchildren.
“In all, my life has not been difficult because I’ve always been spiritual,” says Lontok.