It was already the twilight years of the conjugal dictatorship, and after nearly two decades of wearing creations by the best local and foreign designers, from Ramon Valera, Christian Espiritu, Joe Salazar to Renato Balestra and Hanae Mori, the first lady had practically seen it all.
But one particular “terno,” a royal blue chiffon adorned with peacock feathers, gave her reason to pause. Salazar designed it in such a way that the embellishment would fall off bit by bit, leaving behind a trail of wispy feathers as she glided from one part of the room to another.
Imelda, in the presence of Salazar’s good friend Larry Leviste, looked at the designer and asked: “Don’t you think you’re making me look too much like a queen by the kind of ternos you’re making me wear?”
“Well, it’s true, Ma’am.” Salazar said. “You do look like a queen.”
“You do have a point,” Imelda said with an air of nonchalance, before going back to her bedroom to try on the next terno.
Imelda obviously enjoyed being the center of attention, said Leviste, a former designer himself.
Instead of wearing the terno to a low-key event, she wore it to a high-profile one in 1982: the first Manila International Film Festival awards night at the newly built Manila Film Center.
Depending on how you see it, more recent red-carpet events like the ones preceding the annual State of the Nation Address look either too frivolous or too fabulous. But in fact, they pale in comparison to the era of Imelda and her Blue Ladies.
Many of these Blue Ladies, who belonged to the country’s richest families, were married to then President Marcos’ cronies, with huge business interests to protect and advance. Some were wives of his trusted aides who held cushy government positions.
Apart from making them her sounding board, Imelda sought their help in staging extravagant parties for visiting dignitaries.
Because Imelda wanted her Blue Ladies to look chic, she didn’t think twice about sometimes lending them her own jewelry to match their outfits. But it was as if they had to follow only one unwritten rule: They could look as fab as they pleased as long as they didn’t upstage Imelda.
During a screening at Manila Film Center, Leviste and the other designers couldn’t help but stare at Imelda and her humongous necklace of pink diamonds.
They reportedly once belonged to Farah Diba, wife of the deposed Shah of Iran. As lights in the cinema slowly dimmed, Imelda’s huge, multifaceted diamonds continued to sparkle. What people were witnessing was already the tail end of an era, which began a decade earlier.
The period immediately after Marcos declared martial law in 1972 up to the early ’80s saw Philippine fashion flourish and reach new heights, as Imelda and her stylish friends tapped the services of top Filipino designers such as Pitoy Moreno, Ben Farrales, Aureo Alonzo, Salvacion Lim Higgins and Espiritu to design ternos and evening gowns regularly for them.
It didn’t take long for European and Japanese design houses to send roomfuls of clothes from their current collections to Malacañang for Imelda and later her daughters Imee and Irene to consider.
She picked haute couture as she pleased. This was on top of her legendary shopping sprees at Saks Fifth Avenue and other leading department stores abroad.
Before the Marcoses seized absolute power, rich, fashionable ladies could show off their outfits only during limited occasions such as annual society balls and state dinners at Malacañang.
But this soon changed under Marcos’ “New Society,” as parties either marking the opening of a new edifice or honoring one of Imelda’s jet-setter friends became regular events. Since off-the-rack evening wear wasn’t readily available back then, she and her friends needed dependable designers to do their clothes.
When Imelda assumed the role of “patroness of the arts,” she also began spearheading an annual fashion-cum-cultural show called “Bagong Anyo,” which featured creations of both veteran and newbie designers.
First held at Nayong Pilipino, the annual extravaganza initially featured the clothes of 50 Filipino designers. It also helped launch the careers of then young upstarts such as Salazar, Auggie Cordero, Inno Sotto, Gang Gomez.
Imelda’s “Bagong Anyo” showcased culture and indigenous fabrics and crafts—indeed the country’s heritage.
“As a Filipino, I couldn’t help but feel nationalistic, especially after seeing how impressed foreigners were with what we could do,” Leviste said.
A few months after martial law was declared, everyone was reluctant to go out and violate the curfew. The curfew that stretched from midnight to 5 a.m. robbed the country of its nightlife. The Marcoses soon realized that they had to stage regular spectacles to entertain and distract the public.
It was during this time that Imelda summoned the country’s top designers to Malacañang.
Leviste recalled how he and his colleagues, including Cordero, were quaking in their shoes when they received the “summons.”
“To our amazement and relief, when we stepped inside the Palace, it was as if there was no martial law,” said Leviste.
Classical music was playing as the designers helped themselves to a sumptuous buffet spread. Soon enough, Imelda emerged to tell them of her plans to stage “Bagong Anyo.” None of the designers declined to participate.
“We had no reason to complain,” said Leviste. “Not only did we have a venue to show our clothes, we were also one of the privileged few who were given curfew passes.”
Held yearly in different venues, including the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Rizal Park and, believe it or not, Camp Crame grounds, “Bagong Anyo” became the main attraction in 1976, as numerous finance ministers, heads of state and their spouses flew to Manila for the historic International Monetary Fund summit.
That year, Imelda, with the help of her Blue Ladies, staged “Bagong Anyo” at the Folk Arts Theater. But over the years, everyone, including perhaps Imelda herself, grew tired of staging and participating in the show.
Down to Pitoy
During the Marcoses’ last years in power, “Bagong Anyo” was scaled down and held in Malacañang with Moreno as the lone designer. From being a cultural showcase, it became a small after-dinner show and ideal break for guests before they trooped to Imelda’s private rooftop disco on the third floor.
But critics, including some of the designers she tapped, also saw “Bagong Anyo” as the perfect excuse for Imelda to throw parties whenever her chic foreign friends such as Cristina Ford, Gina Lollobrigida, Van Cliburn, Margot Fonteyn and George Hamilton were in town.
“No guidelines were imposed,” Espiritu said. “‘Bagong Anyo,’ was more entertainment extravaganzas than trade shows. Participation wasn’t optional. Those drafted had no choice but to participate.”
Espiritu started making ternos for Imelda before martial law, but as she began jetting all over the world in her husband’s place to forge deals with the likes of Mao Zedong and Moammar Gadhafi, her orders soon required the designer to devote his time and resources exclusively to her.
It didn’t come as a surprise to Espiritu when his other high-profile clients, who were then also among Imelda’s Blue Ladies, stopped going to him. He learned later that Imelda had dissuaded them from hiring his services so he could work exclusively for her.
Soon after Valera died in 1972, Espiritu became Imelda’s exclusive go-to guy for her ternos. Instead of using stiff fabrics like Valera, he used more delicate materials like “jusi” and “piña.” He also drew on his family’s experience of running an embroidery business in Parañaque staffed by female embroiderers trained by Belgian nuns.
Known as Christian de Manila, Espiritu’s shop in Malate was a beehive of activity, as dozens of embroiderers, with their trusty “bastidors,” toiled day and night to meet Imelda’s orders. Apart from Sotto, Gomez and Barge Ramos also started their fashion careers as assistants of Espiritu.
In a special report CNN did soon after the Marcoses left Malacañang in 1986, its reporters interviewed Espiritu who was quoted as saying that his embroiderers “nearly lost their eyesight” to keep up with the disgraced first lady’s demands.
Although he insisted that his statement was a figure of speech, Espiritu incurred the ire of Marcos loyalists who branded him “ungrateful.” Through common friends, he also learned that Imelda was offended by what he said.
His staff’s style of doing “calado” embroidery was totally different from the dainty patterns prevalent in Laguna. Imelda’s ternos became Espiritu’s canvas, as he produced some of the boldest and most elaborate embroidery patterns that also paid homage to countries she was visiting.
Her ternos also became conversation pieces, as Imelda regaled foreigners here and abroad with stories of how they were made and how the style of embroidery had evolved into something uniquely Filipino.
Unlike other designers, Espiritu didn’t dye his ecru-colored materials. Instead, his ternos partly assumed the colors of threads he used in the embroidery.
When in China…
“If she was going to China, her ternos should be Chinese-inspired,” he said. “I would go through books about China and borrow patterns like, say, lotus leaves, and reinterpret them through embroidery.”
Espiritu, who has since retired, can no longer remember how many ternos he did for Imelda during a given week. (Salazar sometimes did as many as 10 ternos a week, said Leviste.) But the most Espiritu did during an official trip were 17 ternos when Imelda went to Japan.
There was one instance when Imelda called Espiritu from China in the middle of the night to inform him to gather his team, as she planned to go to Japan soon after her return to Manila.
“Of course, she never got to wear all of them,” said Espiritu. “She just wanted to bring with her spare ternos. I heard from people close to her that she used to choose her dresses based on her moods.”
The sun in Tokyo may look the same in Manila, but tell that to Imelda. Her aides would pull back the curtains in her hotel suite, as she examined several ternos under direct sunlight.
Based on what she saw and felt like wearing, she would choose, for instance, a pink terno over a yellow or blue one. That would be the cue for her staff to bring out shoes, bag and jewelry that matched her chosen outfit.
Espiritu hardly attended parties thrown by Imelda in Malacañang, but he would regularly go to the Palace to attend to her fittings. Just like everyone else, the gracious and lovely Imelda had her good and bad days.
They all look the same
In the presence of Ford, Imelda’s good friend, she once complained to Espiritu of the futility of going on a diet when all “you do are ternos that all look the same.”
Espiritu almost cried, as he explained to Imelda his reason for sticking to a tried-and-tested cut and silhouette. She was a first lady and not an entertainer who could wear flamboyant and stylized versions of the terno, he said.
Ford came to his defense, and Imelda resumed fitting the other ternos as if nothing happened.
“I guess she had so many problems back then, especially when she became Metro Manila governor,” said Espiritu. “But most of the time, she was warm and gracious. She would even gush whenever she saw new embroidery patterns.”
But like most creative people, Espiritu eventually experienced “burnout.” He found the perfect excuse when he started dabbling in movie production and produced the Edu Manzano-starrer “Alaga” in 1982.
He was making all sorts of alibis, until Imelda finally got tired of having him called. She asked Blue Lady Lulu Tinio to look for an alternative designer. That was when Salazar, with his softer, less structured creations, came into the picture.
The middle-aged Madame was gaining weight, but her chest, neck and “champagne shoulders,” as Valera once described them, still looked good.
Salazar, on Leviste’s suggestion, did a peach terno made of draped chiffon. The next thing they knew, they were asked to go to Malacañang to present more ideas to Imelda.
After her fall from power, one of the 20th century’s most powerful and stylish women has taken to wearing ordinary-looking ternos. Neither Espiritu nor Leviste knows exactly who does them.
“It’s most likely a dressmaker,” said Espiritu. “Not even the dumbest designer would do something like that. But even with a good designer, the terno of yesteryears doesn’t work on Imelda anymore. She needs a new look to complement her heftier figure.”
But there’s no one else quite like her, Leviste said. She has nothing more to prove. Not even Evita Peron, to whom she has always been compared, could come close.
Admirers and critics are still divided over Imelda’s influence and legacy in Philippine fashion and the arts, but they would probably agree on one thing: Stories of her “Imeldific” ways would continue to live on long after the erstwhile “Iron Butterfly” has faded from the scene.