UNLESS you’re an insider on Philippine fashion, the name Kenneth Chua may not ring a bell. But while his name might not sound familiar, the body of work of this under-the-radar designer was anything but low-profile, from TV host Vice Ganda’s award-winning ensemble, to international concert artist Kylie Minogue’s outfits for her Manila performances, to a sensational fashion show where male models donned women’s clothing.
Since the late 2000s, the designer had kept loyal watchers guessing what he would do next. Who knew that even in the end, he’d still manage to shock them?
On March 11 this year, Kenneth Chua was found dead in his Makati City boutique, murdered according to police investigation, by his coat maker in a forceful attempt to get the designer’s ATM password. The stolen money, police would later confirm, would be used to feed the killer’s drug addiction.
Chua’s death was a blow to the local fashion industry and ordinary citizens alike who immediately demanded the arrest of his killer. Online, the hashtag #JusticeForKennethChua trended, with netizens expressing shock over the sudden turn of events.
But none were more shocked than those closest to him, people who knew Chua more as a frank alaskador (a tease) and a caring friend than a designer.
A month after his death, Sunday Inquirer Magazine met with some of his closest friends among them Jannella Segovia Cadacio and her mother, Nanette Cabristante, both of whom were Chua’s last clients. In fact, the designer’s last creation was a 10-piece ensemble for Cadacio’s March 29 wedding.
Cadacio however said it was not the first time she wore a Kenneth Chua gown. In fact, the first time she did was in 2006, for a May santacruzan parade.
“The first dress of his that I wore was a wedding gown when I was a sagala,” the 23-year-old recalled, aware of the irony in her story. “The last would be a wedding gown, too. Who knew, right?”
THE designer’s death was intriguing, to say the least. He had no known enemies, his parents had told police in an Inquirer.net report. Who could have wanted him dead, and in such a violent manner? He was found hogtied on the bathroom floor, with multiple stab wounds on his body. But there were no signs of forced entry.
SPO1 Alfred Reyes of the Makati City Central Headquarters, who was the investigator on the case, expressed surprise that the murder happened at a relatively quiet neighborhood in Barangay Palanan, Makati. Dayap Street is an unremarkable middle-class community, distinguished only by its close proximity to the Cash and Carry supermarket.
The killer could only be someone that Chua had known, and one who had access to his workplace, police theorized.
It took,only 24 hours for that theory to be proven right.
When Chua’s sister, Mimie moved to immediately void all her brother’s credit cards and ATM cards, the family discovered through CCTV footage that someone had already withdrawn money from Chua’s Chinabank account in Caloocan City at 8:30 pm the previous night, just a few hours after he was killed.
The man in the video, Reyes confirmed through Chua’s mother, was Rogelio Aquiat, a coat maker newly-hired by the designer and who, police found out, was a Caloocan City resident at the time.
The CCTV footage also helped establish the time of Chua’s death. Taking into account the distance traveled from Makati to Caloocan and the rush hour traffic that Tuesday, Reyes said Chua must have been killed shortly after his parents had left his boutique at 4:30 that afternoon.
At 3:30 p.m. on March 12, barely a day after the killing, a team led by Reyes arrested Aquiat, while he was doing drugs with two off-duty policemen in his residence. On the evening news a few hours later, Aquiat confessed to his crime.
AT 39, Chua had established a flourishing career in fashion design. His latest project involved designing outfits for the hosts’ opening acts on the ABS-CBN noontime show “ASAP.” Before that, there was the TV show “SOP” and the Philippine Fashion Week.
But Chua’s rise to fame was less of an overnight success story and more of a slow but steady ascent, built on a raft of loyal clients and constant exposure through fashion shows and bridal fairs.
Fashion was not even his first career choice.
Chua first took up interior design at the Philippine School of Interior Design before shifting to De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde to study fashion design under Inno Sotto.
It was after this course shift that Cabristante first met Chua in 2001 at Café Adriatico in Malate through a common acquaintance. She saw him a few more times after that; back then, they would often just greet each other hello. It was Only after Chua and a friend joined Cabristante on a trip to Baguio that she got to know the young designer better.
“After that, we were inseparable,” she said.
After graduating from Benilde, Chua opened his first shop in 2007 with fellow designer Jerome Salaya Ang. It was a half atelier-half apartment affair Cabristante said, and it would prove to be the start of a steadier stream of clients.
As his clientele grew, so did his devotion to Marian statues and other religious images. Chua would travel to Bulacan to add to his collection of religious images, and would later design clothes with intricate embroidery for them to wear.
Perhaps the clearest manifestation of his love for both fashion and faith was his 10-piece collection that formed part of Philippine Fashion Week’s (PFW) Visions and Trends show in 2008. Style hunters called his collection a visual feast, as he created wearable pieces from the intricate and usually stiff traditional outfits of religious statues.
The accolades would only grow from there, as Chua became known for his beadwork and the speed with which he finished his work. A solo collection on PFW came next.
In 2010, Stylebible.ph featured Chua as one of its 10 Designers To Watch Out For. That same year, he was named finalist in the Preview Emerging Fashion Talent Awards. In 2011, he sent male models in women’s clothing down the runway.
“Kenneth liked surprising people,” said Abet Calayag, another of Chua’s close friends. The designer had once called it the bulaga (surprise) factor and always made sure it was present in his designs.
But Chua’s PFW run would end in 2012 as he had to attend to an increasing workload brought on by more clients. Over a year ago, Chua moved out of his first shop to rent a bigger space along Dayap Street in Barangay Palanan, Makati. Soon after, he began working on the TV variety show “ASAP” where his creations were seen during the opening sequence, worn by hosts Vice Ganda and Anne Curtis.
But Chua had other plans beyond “ASAP” and beyond fashion design. Prior to his death, he had planned to venture into hair and makeup artistry for extra income. Makeup artist Henri Calayag said Chua had wanted to join the annual hair-styling competition Hair Asia in November after designing outfits for friends who had joined the competition previously.
Chua had other dreams outside of the beauty and fashion industry. He had thought of opening either a coffee shop like Café Adriatico or a food venture for his parents, something along the line of rice toppings or chicken with rice.
For a guy already so successful in his chosen field, it might seem a little strange to still harbor so many diverse dreams and pursuits.
But Chua, Cabristante said, was a man of “Why not?” He often used the term whenever he shared his bargain hauls—from books on sale to ukay-ukay clothing—that proved to be good buys on hindsight.
“He called those instances [from bargain hunting], his ‘Why not’s,’” Cabristante said. “When he found something good but cheap, he’d go, ‘Nanette, I have a ‘why not.’ When I balked, he would say, ‘why wouldn’t you buy it?’ Why not, nga naman.”
A day after Chua’s death, when police collared prime suspect Ronald Aquiat in his place in Caloocan, they also found in his house Chua’s Sony Cybershot digital camera.
It wasn’t just his confession on national TV, the CCTV images showing him withdrawing money from Chua’s stolen ATM card, nor the incriminating camera that established Aquiat as the prime suspect in the crime, Reyes said. The coat maker was one of Chua’s four employees, along with Chua two seamstresses and a master cutter, in his shop on Dayap Street. Aquiat was hired only in January, an additional hand to help Chua cope with the sheer volume of coats needed for his latest gig with “ASAP.”
Everything seemed fine at first, until coworkers started warning Chua of Aquiat’s changing habits.
“Some of,his workers had been telling Chua to watch out for Ronald (Aquiat) because he was changing,” Reyes said. “[Aquiat] had been asking around for money at the time.”
Only after Chua’s death did the workers find that “shabu,” or methamphetamine hydrochloride, was behind Aquiat’s erratic behavior.
“He (Aquiat) must have been desperate for money [to buy shabu],” Reyes said of the dire straits that drug addicts often find themselves in.
The CCTV footage established that indeed, money was the main motive behind Chua’s death. The footage also pinned Aquiat to the crime, although Reyes said that police would have eventually gotten to Aquiat even without the ATM lead,
The day Chua’s body was discovered, one of his seamstresses called the coat maker to ask if he had heard the news. The seamstress said that on the phone, Aquiat did not seem especially surprised and had quickly hanged up. Neither did he show up at the shop that day, which raised Reyes’ suspicions even more.
Either way, Aquiat would have been caught, Reyes said. In the press con following his arrest, Aquiat had pointed to an accomplice, a certain “Adjang.” But Reyes does not want to put too much weight on the suspect’s words on a second killer.
“In an investigation, I base [my judgment] on the crime scene and the evidence,” he said. And while the crucial CCTV footage shows another man near Aquiat and the ATM, Reyes said the evidence would remain circumstantial unless either the second killer emerges or another witness points to him.
The case is now in court. Aquiat may have confessed to his crime on TV, but he pleaded not guilty to the charge of robbery with homicide on March 27 at the Makati City Regional Trial Court. Pretrial proceedings began on April 15 and on May 20, Aquiat is set to defend himself against the testimony of the prosecution’s nine to 12 witnesses, Chua’s parents and employees included. Reyes, too, is among the witnesses to be called to the stand. But as far as his investigation and his police team are concerned, the case is closed.
On Cadacio’s Facebook page are photographs of her wedding gown—a “Cinderella” dress, she said, with a fully beaded corset, lace applique and a full tulle skirt. The 23-year-old also posted an album dedicated to the Kenneth Chua creations that she had worn in the past. In some photos, Cadacio is shown side by side with a celebrity, both of them wearing the same outfit. She said it was her way of keeping track of who wore what.
During the interview with SIM, Cadacio whipped out her phone and showed the same photos. She pointed to one black dress in particular from Chua’s 2008 Marian-inspired collection for PFW. “I wore this for my pre-nup,” she said. “And in all the events I went to, I wore Tito Kenneth’s creations.”
Her mother, Cabristante, had also worn a dress made by Chua before her daughter’s wedding, a gown worn by singer Claire de la Fuente for one of her events. Coincidentally, De la Fuente was one of Chua’s favorite local artists, mainly because she sounded like his all-time favorite singer, The Carpenters’ Karen Carpenter.
In fact, Chua had dressed or styled all his friends at one point in their lives. His two shops became their homes away from home; they were always welcome to drop by. And when they did, one of their pastimes was playing dress up with his designs.
“His shop was our playground and home,” said Chua’s friend, Jerome Garcia. “Most of his gowns were just lying around, so we’d try them on, complete with accessories.”
But beyond the fashion make-over and dress-ups, Chua’s atelier was where all his friends converged regularly. He’d host his birthday parties there, complete with home-cooked meals that he himself prepared. This, after his annual visit to Baclaran Church for the feast day of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
“Kenneth always initiated get-togethers, whether it be birthdays, mini reunions, even viewing parties for Miss Universe,” Calayag said.
Even Chua’s clients could just drop by and feel comfortable, he added. “He treated his clients like his kabarkada, and that’s why they kept coming back,” Calayag added. “That’s why they still visited even if he didn’t have work or projects with them.”
His family, too, was a mainstay at the workshop. “When you go to the shop, his mommy and daddy were also there,” Cabristante recalled. “His mom would make us coffee, while his dad would even massage Kenneth whenever he had a stiff neck.”
With Chua now gone, his friends have started to realize just how central he was to their circle. At his wake and funeral, Cabristante said, friends and family were surprised to find that everyone was at the very least acquainted with one another, no matter what stage of Chua’s life they had met him.
Like his other friends, Cabristante said she would miss the camaraderie that Chua had always engineered. With his Makati shop now closed, there would no longer be amain hub where friends could hang out and stay updated on each other’s lives.
Cabristante visited the shop three more times before Chua’s family vacated the area. “The saddest part now is passing by the place and realizing he’s not there anymore,” she said. “Usually, he’d be opening the door himself.”
Without his shop, Cabristante said they’d now have to find a new place to meet up. On the night SIM interviewed them in Makati, Chua’s friends were making plans for dinner. It would now be up to them to initiate their get-togethers and stay updated on each other’s lives.
Otherwise, Cabristante imagined, Chua would probably haunt them for being too lazy to do so. •