For the many who admired and respected eminent fashion designer Aureo Alonzo, the news of his passing on Monday—and his circumstances before his death—came as a shock.
Even as he continued to see clients, there was talk of his declining health in recent months. Late last year, a group of loyal clients and colleagues staged a benefit show to help pay for his medical bills. He was undergoing dialysis treatment.
Other than that, only those closest to him knew that he had been living in an elderly care facility weeks before his death at the Makati Medical Center. According to longtime friend and former model Ping Valencia, he had lost his beautiful home in Malate.
Alonzo died of hypovolemic shock due to gastrointestinal bleeding on July 7, just days shy of his 86th birthday on July 19.
A contemporary of Ben Farrales and Pitoy Moreno, Alonzo’s career peaked in the 1960s and ’70s, famously bagging Europe’s Camel Award in Italy and besting the likes of Gianfranco Ferré and Jean-Paul Gaultier. He dressed debutantes and society matrons, as well as European and Middle Eastern royalty.
As the featured designer in the then long-running Fiesta Filipina World Tour Group, a tourism caravan held to promote the country, which ran from the ’60s to the late ’80s, he was well-known in Europe and his clothes were loved and applauded.
“I want to campaign for a [posthumous] National Artist award for him,” Valencia says. “I want to work on that.”
Despite all the fame and success, Alonzo remained low-key and humble, which endeared him to many. To those around him, he was “Tatang” or father.
Alonzo’s generosity was legendary. His close friends feel it greatly contributed to the loss of his fortune in his twilight years. People continued to come to ask him for help even as he himself needed help.
“He was generous to a large fault,” Valencia says. “If you asked him for help, he would pawn his own home even if it meant he would become homeless. And that’s exactly what happened.”
But the riches Alonzo lacked in his later years, the remembrances and legacy left behind by his good heart more than made up for, as those lives he had touched share reminiscences of their funny, kindhearted Tatang.
In the end, perhaps he was never really alone.
Former model and close friend
I started modeling for Tatang in 1968. We called him that because that’s what his custoreras called him. He didn’t mind. I also called him Auring.
He won more awards than all of them (his contemporaries) put together! That Camel Award, people say it was a hoax. No! I was there. I wore four of his gowns. I was already married then and living in Paris. He sent me the tickets to fly to Italy because he wanted me to model the clothes. When they announced him the winner, we were ecstatic. But he was so composed. He dressed all these prominent people, and even some royals, but he was so low-key.
I want to campaign for a [posthumous] National Artist award for him. I want to work on that.
He was mabait but marami rin siyang kaaway because maraming inggit. He dealt with competition quietly. There was no backbiting. He never talked about anybody [behind their backs]. He never retaliated. He would just say, “Bahala na ang Diyos sa kanila.” Of course, he would say this only in confidence to those close to him.
Two years ago, his adopted son called me because they knew we were close. He was having financial difficulties and he wanted to sell items. I called up Frannie Jacinto, who also used to model for him. She didn’t work with Tatang as much as I did but she knew him. So Frannie stepped in.
He had lost his home! He was generous to a large fault. If you asked him for help, he would pawn his own home even if it meant he would become homeless. And that’s exactly what happened. He was adopting indigent children. He was undergoing dialysis and the money wasn’t enough.
Another friend, Marilou Kahn Magsaysay, found him a home for the elderly run by nuns. He agreed to go because he couldn’t have a day of peace in his own home as people asking for help hounded him, even as he himself needed help. This was only two weeks ago.
He died alone, and that’s what makes me so sad. His adopted children gave him so much joy and they weren’t allowed to see him in the hospital. He was so generous, and that makes me so furious because only a few came to his aid!
Malou Villar Chipeco, her mother and siblings, who were all his clients and friends, they all came to help.
I didn’t call him that often to make me clothes because he never charged me. He would just say, give me the tela. He made my mom’s dress for her 50th wedding anniversary.
He also made my dad’s barong when he died.
When he won awards, he never bragged. Of course he was happy to get them, and he liked the [prize] money. He liked the good life. He liked articles of substance, whether they’re antiques or not. Sometimes he’d wear his big diamonds.
He had a crazy devotion to Our Lady of Manaoag! He dressed her every year! He stopped only three years ago after the committee changed hands. Nagtampo siya talaga because he said he was still capable of doing it.
He got very passionate about things. One time, he made a fully beaded gown for a client. It was on the second floor of his shop because he was overseeing the beadwork. When the client came to pick up the dress, he asked one of his helpers to bring down the dress. It was a heavy dress, and I can’t forget what he said: “Mahulog ka na, huwag lang ang damit!” (Laughs) If he got angry, he was also quick to apologize.
His people stayed loyal to him for decades. He gave them homes and money to educate their children.
He wasn’t a mentor to me, but he was a good friend. He would always make me wear the dramatic dresses because he said I was ma-drama.
He was lovely to travel with. He would say, “Uy, cute ’yan! Guapo ’yan!” Then he’d just as quickly tell you, “Huwag kang maging p-ta!” You must have heard of designers trying to pimp out their models. He never did that.
I’ll miss him calling me. Three years ago, I remember him call and say that he was tired of life, of people constantly taking things from him. He told me, “Ibenta ko na lang kaya lahat and let’s travel the world?”
Jackie C. Aquino
I was still very young in the ’80s when I began working with him. I directed a few of his shows. He was very funny. He was one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet. When he handed you your professional fee, it always came with a personal note.
Tatang was nurturing, and he never got angry. When I made a mistake, he would take time to tell me how to fix it. Sure, I was intimidated; he was one of the señoras, after all. But he got on your good side right away. We would just be sitting down, tsismisan, laughing. I was very sad to hear of his passing.
Izza Gonzales Agana
Former model and beauty queen
I traveled around Europe with Tatang for about two years in 1983-’85. It was me, Ping Federis, Annette Coronel and other models, for Fiesta Filipina. We were the last batch. I saw the world because of Fiesta Filipina.
He was a very nice guy, soft-spoken and very kindhearted. Tatang was the prince of Philippine haute couture. His clothes were always applauded at those sit-down dinner shows in Martinique, Russia, Germany, Middle East. If you ask me, his baul clothes would still look [as] great today [as they were in his prime].
We visited him last year in his house in Malate, me and the other girls. We came from Mang Ben (Farrales) who was celebrating his birthday. Tatang was already sick then, but he was still up and about, definitely more lucid than Mang Ben. If I’m not mistaken, he didn’t know how sick he was. They didn’t let him know he had cancer.
It was just last week when I received a text that he was in a care home. I was very sad to hear that because he looked so well last year. How could he be in a care home?
We do this outreach program with other beauty queens, and I consulted with the priest in one of the homes for the aged if I could bring Tatang there. I even asked if I had to go through DSWD to do that. The priest assured me that he would take care of it.
And then I got another message that he was in the ICU of Makati Med. The girls and I were supposed to visit him, but I received news that he had already died.
Tatang was such a simple person. When we traveled, he was always in his room. I didn’t know him to be extravagant. When we were in Russia, the only thing I remember him buying were the religious icons, which they had a lot of there. He also bought fabrics, which he said he would use to dress the Virgin Mary.
Tatang was like a mom. He made pakialam everyone, you know, to make things right. He would always ask us about our love life, especially me, because I was very young then, the youngest in the group. I think I was only 17. He wanted you to be happy.
When he made you wear his clothes, he made sure it fit your personality. He always gave me the floral ones, yung mga may binabaliktad.
Tatang had such a sunny disposition. People thought he was so serious, but he was actually not. He had a sense of humor. And he wasn’t strict at all. He was very prayerful, laging nasa simbahan.
Fiesta Filipina was all about his clothes. He was famous in Europe, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. We did two to three shows a day. We were there to promote tourism [with the Bayanihan dancers]. We would be in Europe for about six months a year, and Tatang would come visit for a week or two at a time.
The senior designers had their own personalities. But I was comfortable with Tatang because we spent so much time with him. He was always with us.
I never got the chance to learn from Tatang, but I always admired his work. He always invited me to his shop though I never found time because of work. We saw each other often socially as we had common friends in the Villar family, owners of Crossover FM.
Tatang and I would often go to the Saturday bonding dinners at the Villar home on Banawe (Street in QC). He would always bring chicharon puti made in Malabon. Everyone loved that. I saw him last this summer. He was wearing a caftan and I teased him about it. As always, he was very soft-spoken. He was so mabait. I helped backstage when they staged a fundraiser for him last year.
US-based former model, beauty queen
I loved Tatang so much because he was a great couturier who treated everyone around him with respect. Aside from traveling the world with the Fiesta Filipina World Tour Group, I spent a lot of time with him doing fittings and shoots at his Adriatico atelier. I witnessed how he spoke to his workers, whether they were his seamstresses, driver, cook or household help. He spoke to them with kindness and compassion.
Not many people know Tatang had a wicked sense of humor! He enjoyed pairing me off with celebrities who were obviously gay, while we ate with our hands during lunch! I miss those times when we shared lunch just outside his kitchen. We shared a tiny table and he would put food on my plate like I was a child. We laughed a lot about everything and anything. I miss him terribly.
An unforgettable moment with Tatang: We were in Beirut, Lebanon, when he invited me and two Fiesta Filipina dancers to accompany him to pray. We were wondering what he meant by that. We were driven to the bay of Jounieh where the giant statue of Our Lady of Lebanon, or Notre Dame du Liban, stood. We climbed the hundreds of steps to the top where we could touch Our Lady’s feet. I became a Marian devotee after that experience, with Tatang leading us to her.
Fashion designer and former apprentice
I was only in third-year high school when I apprenticed with him. My neighbor introduced me to him. I learned discipline from Tatang, especially with workers; he had a system. He trained me well.
Tatang was very good in fitting. The finishing of his work was extraordinary. He was one of the best because of his craftsmanship. There was no one like him when it came to beading. Malinis talaga.
Masyado siyang mabait. ’Pag may humingi, masyado siyang mapagbigay.
Tatang used to subcontract with me in the early 2000s. I don’t know, maybe he lacked workers at the time. He called me out of the blue and said he believed in my craft and that he thought that I was already capable of interpreting his line. I must have passed his taste. He came to my shop, and he invited me in his. He just asked that I don’t lose his line [in the interpretation].
I liked his aesthetic. He was an original during his time. His finishing was pulido. You got your money’s worth. Alam mong pinagtrabahuhan. Pwede ka talagang matuto sa kanya.
Sobrang bait niyang si Tatang. Malumanay kausap, very simple at mapagbiro. He was easy to get along with. He was very real. If I did shows, he’d call to ask me to invite him.
I also used to make clothes for him, likewise with Mang Ben (Farrales). They were among my first clients. I got to collaborate with all of them (including Pitoy Moreno). It’s a good feeling to have been acknowledged by these pillars of Philippine fashion.