I have bragging rights to being friends with Chito Vijandre for more than 50 years now.
I first met him in Grade 3, on the bleachers of La Salle Taft, one sweaty August afternoon in the late ’60s. We became fast friends because we were the top artists of the school. From Grade 5 to 7, Chito and I won medals and citations for doing exuberant paintings, posters, Christmas cards.
We were the protégés of art teachers Katy Bengson and Elena Alsua. We had keys to the Art Room and would have fun after classes. Every year till Grade 7, Chito and I would win the gold and silver medals for Artistic Excellence.
I also won in Poetry Writing and Solo Singing contests. Our greatest achievements were the Art Olympics in Chapultapec, Mexico. Chito went in person to do on-the-spot painting, while my painting was exhibited in a museum. Another distinction of mine was winning the First Prize for the Shankar Children’s Art Competition in India.
I likewise designed the artwork for the school yearbook.
But it was Ricky Punzalan who won first prize in a nationwide, on-the-spot painting contest in Luneta. You could say we were all in competition, but didn’t realize it just yet. Our memories of those golden years consisted of sunset afternoons and paintings that bloomed brilliant rainbows.
Puberty kicked in when we entered high school in La Salle Green Hills. Chito taught our group how to smoke and put on makeup. The Vijandre home in Bel-Air had a room that Chito designed, with floor-to-ceiling banig mats and throw pillows. We baptized it Le Chateau.
Our group mates were Yoko Vicente, Vernon Vergara, Cal Lim, Joey Javier Reyes, Ricky Punzalan, Chubby Soriano and Jim Tan from Xavier School. Chito’s first foray into fashion was stringing hippie beads in remarkable color combinations; these would establish the Vijandre palette of colors.
At his Bel-Air home, we would stage fashion shows that starred my sisters Gina and Ma-el Leviste.
Ma-el won Miss La Salle Green Hills. In sophomore year, I was crowned Miss Universe at Jade-Vine resto. Chito attended with the gang, wearing his first couture outfit. It was a lizard-green knee-length jumpsuit, plus platform knee-high boots in green snakeskin.
Chito was a great dancer, too. He wore this outfit while dancing the Aldeguer Sisters’ moves to Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move.” Next year, I crowned Chito Miss Asia.
Martial law ushered in the ’70s; Chito and I decided to be business partners and open a shop on M. Adriatico Street, between Ernest Santiago and Rusty Lopez. I did designing for my beloved mentor Auggie Cordero, who taught me everything about fashion. The one-page ad about our shop said, “Two Good to be True.”
First fashion show
Our first fashion show
together was a luncheon event at the Philippine Village Hotel where we discovered Anna Bayle. Another star model of that show was forever beautiful Pinky Amabuyok, a Miss World runner-up in London.
In 1976, we had our first group show at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. On our first meeting, we sat with Gang Gomez, Lorenzo Gohar, Monet Recio and Gary Flores. The title of the show was “Fourcast.” Without telling me beforehand, Chito suddenly announced that he and I would have separate collections.
I froze at the prospect of doing my clothes alone with no shop of sewers. But I did not back down. Senior designers Rusty Lopez and Goullee Gorospe cut and sewed my suite of khaki and olive drab pantsuits. Budji Layug dyed my katsa with his organic dampol dyes in Batangas. Candy Cruz donated all her Kenzo bags and scarves. Rene Factora gave the soundtrack, a 45 rpm record called “Brazil.”
Our show established us as the Young Designers of Manila. Chito designed the logo of the Fashion Designers Association of Manila (FDAP).
Another group show at the Hyatt had Mike dela Rosa, Danny dela Cuesta, Chito and me. It was produced by Anson’s and was curated by Tingting
Cojuangco, w ho had an altercation with me. But that’s another story.
In the mid-’70s, we had the prestigious Ramon Valera Awards. Chito and I were finalists for the Most Promising Designer. He already had a signature style mixing colors and couture fabrics—fabrics like lace and chiffon, organza and Japanese obi gold lame, along with handmade brooches. The Thai silk and organza came from his mom Tita Sosi’s camphor chest. This would be his forte.
He added tassels and rich embroidery to throw pillows when he started a curio shop called Firma in Malate. He loved to do interiors, too; his Fidel resto in swinging Nakpil Street with business partner Markus Schmidt was the bomb.
Chito was a stickler for ornamentation and draping. At the recent Red Gala charity ball, seeing him make his comeback in fashion with a fantabulous collection was like seeing characters in a dream, with each outfit a masterpiece.
“And it was all over in 10 minutes,” said Tessa Valdes. —CONTRIBUTED