We first met José Reyes Moreno Jr.—Pitoy to all—in 1988, in his home office. His loyal assistant, Mary Jane Marcelo, served Moreno’s signature buko salad, a recipe that remains tightly guarded even after his death. When the plates and glasses were cleared, he entered and started the interview.
Thirty years ago, there was a big hoopla over his fashion show at Manila Hotel. It was a fund-raising event for a cause close to his heart, the Philippine General Hospital children’s ward.
Back then, Moreno’s name was synonymous with resplendent beadwork, embroidery and handpainting, and with the high and mighty. He had dressed up Philippine presidents from Garcia to Arroyo, as well as visiting heads of states such as US Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter. Moreno gave us a short lesson on the barong and the embroidery on the pechera, the rectangle framing the buttons.
He recalled growing up surrounded by strong women such as his mother and aunts in the affluent communities of Binondo and Tondo, and being exposed to artisan beadwork and embroidery. His first shop on Taft Avenue fronted the Philippine Women’s University, home to the Bayanihan national dance company.
Moreno stepped into high society and political power through his schoolmates, daughters of prominent people from the University of the Philippines, his fraternity Upsilon Sigma Phi and the Bayanihan.
Moreno himself came from the de buena familia set. His older sister, poet Virginia Moreno, explained that their father, José Sr., a ship captain, died when Moreno was only 4. The vessel, Marikina Lines, was lost at sea.
His mother, Felicidad Reyes, raised the children in two households. They lived in the Reyes ancestral home in Binondo. The Reyeses, said Virginia, were Sangleys, Chinese émigrés, who were educated and influenced commerce, politics and culture.
Back then, a seamstress came to the house for the ternos and Filipiniana dresses of the Reyeses. During the war, women were not allowed to wander the streets. Moreno was tasked to bring the terno fabrics and collect them from the seamstress. This was his initial exposure to Filpiniana dress.
Moreno’s family settled in Gagalangin, Tondo, the residence from the paternal side, which was referred to as the Moran-Moreno home. In his college days, the house became the tambayan of Upsilon because of its kitchen, a study and high-fidelity sound system for their music.
In 1969, Moreno turned one of the ancestral homes in Malate into the famous home and shop with his J. Moreno awning, located on Gen. Malvar Street. The foyer had a bench beside a sculpture by Napoleon Abueva. Inside the house, a painting by Anita Magsaysay-Ho was a focal point. A biombo, a folding screen of wood and piña, was a gift of his best friend, Corito Araneta-Kalaw.
The Malate home became a meeting and rehearsal venue. Gary Flores directed his galas, while Boy Saulog choreographed the Malacañang shows and foreign tours. In the new millennium, he worked with director Raymond Villanueva, who would visit him in his last few years at Manila Doctor’s Hospital.
Three generations of Moreno’s models reveal that the designer’s greatest gift to them was exposing them to the world.
Conchitina Sevilla Bernardo
I was 16, and he was the youngest of 15 designers when we first worked together. “Fashion on Wings,” a show held on a Philippine Airlines plane, organized by Women’s Magazine, went island hopping. At the end of the show, we bowed together.
Pitoy was present in the important events of my life. I asked him to make my wedding gown, simple, yet he enhanced it with a Chantilly lace veil with matte beadwork. He designed the gowns for the weddings of my son and daughter. From my father’s tattered christening gown, he took the old Belgian lace and reconstructed the outfit for the christening of the younger generation. It has been preserved with much love, and was worn by my children and grandchildren.
In Paris, he brought me to our guardian. When Pitoy, Nomer Pabilona, Casimiro Abad and I sat for a meal, we peeled the fruit with our hands. The guardian was appalled; in France, fruits are eaten with a knife and fork.
Pitoy was family. We would chat almost daily as he involved himself in my kids and my home. He genuinely cared for me as I did for him.
Toni Serrano Parsons
I met Pitoy when I was 16 through tita Conching Sunico. Like his close friend, Imelda Cojuangco, he took care of his skin. Every Sunday, somebody would give him a home facial. Whenever friends traveled, he always asked for facial masks, serums and fashion magazines as pasalubong.
He cared for all his models. When he saw that this boy would be a good match, he would say nice things about him.
On our fashion trips abroad, guys wanted to date us. He encouraged us to widen our horizon. We went out as a group. Pitoy took us to the best places to eat and introduced us to important people. The embassies abroad wined and dined us.
Even if he had a falling out with friends like Oscar Zalameda and Teyet Pascual, he never uttered a word that he would later regret. He never spoke ill of anyone.
When I first arrived in the Philippines (as Miss International 1960), I was told to seek him out. Because he was so attentive, we became so close that he had been my confidante.
Sometimes he suggested designs which I was not accustomed to. Still, I agreed and I was happy with his clothes. I trusted him because he knew what was best for his clients. He’d tell me to try a different color or advise me what not to wear. He had good taste.
As cochair of the Bb. Pilipinas Charities Inc., he helped the girls when they had to parade in their gowns and national costumes. He lent his clothes when we organized mini fashion shows to raise funds for the Bb. Pilipinas Charities.
We planned the wardrobe for the winners who would join international contests. Two suitcases would be filled with competition gowns, the national costume, daytime and cocktail dresses, and other things that went with the swimsuit.
Carolyn Masibay Garcia
We modeled for Pitoy out of sheer friendship. Although there were no fees yet in the ’70s, we had fun. I’ve never seen a designer who had such an intimate relationship with his models.
On our trips abroad, he made us wear a uniform—a long-sleeved shirt under a white blazer. The girls wore white culottes. People thought we were a football team.
Our travels were fun. The boys teased Pitoy about his age, saying that he inspected their passports yet he never showed his. Sometimes, we’d egg him to treat us and he would joke, “I’m poor.”
While Mari Lacson, Pitoy and I were crossing the street in Sydney, an ambulance suddenly rushed in front of us. The policeman stopped and scolded us.
Pitoy looked up to the tall policeman and told him off for rattling us: “We knew where we were going!” The officer blushed.
He would discipline us when we put on weight abroad. The seamstress had to adjust his designs.
The only time I saw him depressed was when the National Artist for Fashion Design (2009) was withdrawn. Things changed after that.
He became more forgetful. We often reminded Mary Jane about his luncheon, and he still forgot to show up.
We heard that he was rushed to the hospital after choking on his food. He had stayed there since 2015.
Pitoy went with the times. We came in when modeling was being professionalized. In the past, he tapped daughters of socialites as his models. With professionals, he was willing to pay fees.
I modeled with the batch of Crispy Santamaria, Malu Ramos, Carol Masibay Garcia, Aning Melendez and Arsenic Laurel in the early ’80s. The Hyatt models who joined his tours were Melanie Marquez, Beth de Mesa, Bessie Badilla and I.
Backstage, he never blew his fuse or made dakdak (incessant chatter). Still, he never hid his displeasure when the clothes weren’t ironed properly before the show.
He was old school-protective of his models. He always asked if we were okay.
In London, Pitoy collaborated with the House of Garrard, the royal jeweler, in a fashion show at Annabel’s club. We wore the jewels with his clothes. There were security decoys so that people couldn’t tell which car had the jewelry.
Our dressing room was like a vault. There was an anteroom filled with security. As we left the dressing room, we put on the jewelry and went out on stage. Afterwards, the security removed the jewelry before we entered the dressing room. I wore an emerald and diamond necklace which cost £12 million back then.
During one of the Cannes film festivals, we had a show at the Ritz-Carlton and had a pictorial on the beach. He gave us a break with a few days of vacation in Paris.
Pitoy tapped daughters of his amigas for fashion shows. I was 15 when I started with him along with Mavis Manotoc, Trisha Borromeo and Melissa Perez Rubio.
My older sister Crispy and Meg Paris were the favorite brides in his shows while we were his bridesmaids.
Crispy modeled with Arsenic Laurel as the groom in the shows. The dream became a reality. (They got married.) I then modeled the bridal gown and was placed on the cover of his book, “Kasalan” (1990).
Pitoy liked to match us with sons of his amigas or interview us about our boyfriends. He made my mother’s gown when she married at 19. He designed Crispy’s and my wedding gowns, as well.
If it weren’t for his shows, I never thought that I could travel to Brunei, Monaco, Sweden, Spain and Paris. Pitoy reminded us that we had to be our best selves as we represented the country. People applauded his handpainted designs, jusi and piña collections especially. They found it dramatic when we came out in long overcoats and were awed when we opened them to reveal the beadwork of the gown.
The fashion shows were choreographed with dance steps and we moved to the music of Hotdog’s “Manila, Manila” and “Sumayaw, Sumusod” (VST & Co.).
We had pictorials at the Great Wall of China and the plaza in Madrid. In the late ’80s, we were getting token fees for modeling and a modest bonus for a travel allowance.
I had only seven years of directing experience when Pitoy hired me in 2002. His last tour was at the Four Seasons in Washington DC in 2005, organized by then Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario. Miss International 2005 Precious Lara Quigaman was one of the models. His collection was based on his book “Philippine Costumes.”
Through him, I gained a deeper understanding of Philippine culture and lifestyle. I learned about the costumes of the tribes and the evolution of the terno. He was a walking history book as he talked about life before the war, high society and having his way with the first ladies and prominent personalities.
Because of his support of Bb. Pilipinas, I became a board member. One of my proudest moments was when he had a show during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit at Shangri-La Mactan in 2006.
In my hospital visits, the doctor told me that he was conscious. Pitoy smiled on his birthday last year.
My birthday on Dec. 23 was the last time I saw him in the hospital suite. I greeted him, and he acknowledged me by blinking. —CONTRIBUTED