That was James Reyes’ last text message to us, in early November. We had just talked on the phone about his new gig as creative director of Bergamo, the upscale bespoke men’s wear brand. He had presented his
debut collection for the brand in a private dinner a few days earlier, but we didn’t get a chance to talk at length.
He was hired just two weeks before the dinner and had yet to sit down with Mel Meer to discuss what the Bergamo founder wanted of him as new head designer. Thus, the text: typical James—as those who knew him remember him—a little mischievous, witty and also irreverent.
He was thrilled to get the job. It was added responsibility, on top of his own atelier and his costume projects for theater, but he welcomed it with gusto.
Reyes was known for his women’s designs, but he had been wanting to do men’s wear. He found that it suited his temperament, giving him an avenue to put his clever twists on otherwise boring men’s shirts.
His first Bergamo collection included citrus-colored suits and patchwork-tattooed barong Tagalog. Still, he wouldn’t mind doing the occasional tailored women’s power suits, if that was what Meer wanted of him, he said.
Those creative ideas came to an abrupt end on March 16, when Reyes died suddenly of cardiac arrest. He was 48.
The day before, on March 15, Reyes posted on Facebook about eating comfort food at Floating Island in Makati Medical Center. We would later learn from friends that he had undergone an endoscopy and ultrasound, after complaining of pain in his upper back and stomach two weeks earlier.
“He would get worked up and anxious whenever he was unwell, which probably triggered his hyperacidity,” said his close friend and former advertising agency colleague Bess Howe. “The tests, however, found nothing remarkable. On Friday, he said he felt great.”
That night, however, his condition took a turn for the worse, and he was rushed to the hospital. He died after midnight.
When his longtime partner confirmed on Facebook the news of his death at noon on Saturday, it sent friends and colleagues from fashion, theater and advertising reeling in disbelief. Well-liked as a person, and respected and admired as an artist and designer, he was young, seemingly healthy.
Reyes comes from a line of artists. He was a great-grandson of eminent writer and playwright Severino Reyes (aka “Lola Basyang”). Reyes’ father was the famous actor of the ’50s and ’60s, Johnny Reyes. He was a first cousin of another actor, Efren Reyes Jr.
Reyes was an award-winning art director at Campaigns & Grey, when he enrolled at Slim’s Fashion and Art School, to pursue a career in fashion. He competed in the Young Designers Competition in 2002, which qualified him to present his design in Paris, France.
He was a graduate of the University of the Philippines-Diliman’s College of Fine Arts, so his aesthetic was grounded in the fine arts, his silhouettes often architectural. There was wit to his style that was reminiscent of Japanese avant-garde.
A few years ago, he began immersing himself in costume design for the theater, working for productions of Tanghalang Pilipino and Ballet Philippines at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). He won accolades for his work in theater. (See related story on this page.)
He was also an illustrator who taught at F.A.B. Creatives, the fashion school set up by his friend, fashion designer Jojie Lloren.
Reyes served as president of the Young Designers Guild, and was secretary of the Fashion and Design Council of the Philippines. He was also a featured designer of several editions of Inquirer Lifestyle “Face-Off.”
His remains were cremated last Saturday. The wake is until today, March 20, at St. Alphonsus de Liguori, Magallanes Village, Makati City.
Friends and colleagues remember James Paul V. Reyes:
I met James at Campaigns & Grey in 1994. We became very close, and even after we both left advertising, we talked every day.
I remember him most for his kindness. He had a childlike heart. He saw beauty in everything. He was also very helpful—he often helped me with photo shoots (at Holiday Inn Makati, where Howe now works), and he did those for free. We had so much fun.
He was also close to my mom and sisters, so at Rustic Mornings (the restaurant and catering business of Howe’s family), he would even help with the tablescape.
James was very visual. He was very generous with his ideas and he never asked for anything in return. He had a wealth of knowledge, and he’d whip them out when the occasion arose.
Whenever I wore his design, I was always best dressed.—Bess Howe, hotel executive
Why Philippine fashion will not forget James Reyes
James and I were part of three chat groups but it was in our chat group with Floy Quintos (which we call Couture Manille) that we shared the juiciest stories and the most hard-to-find fashion videos. James always had the funniest quips, often with witty references to the ’70s and ’80s.
We became close after working together in “Fashion Watch.” I told him his collection of flowing chiffon gowns reminded me of Lotis Key (an actress from the ’70s who I can’t forget seeing at the CCP in a powder blue chiffon kaftan). We laughed a lot from then on, palumaan kami ng reference.
James is most thoughtful: one birthday, he gave me a vinyl record of Leah Navarro’s greatest hits because we once gushed about how Leah pronounced “conscious” in her hit song “Patingin-Tingin Lamang.”
There are so many happy moments with James, I will
miss him dearly.—JC Buendia, fashion designer
James was part of my creative journey. We worked together a lot, especially during his early years in fashion. We worked together for the last time in the Bergamo show. He helped with the artwork in my book, “Rituals.” He was a gentle and soft-spoken guy. We were like family. We had a Tuesday and Thursday group in Jojie Lloren’s atelier, before in San Miguel Village in Makati, and later in Pasay when Jojie moved. We met to relax and enjoy each other’s company. We celebrated birthdays together. When everyone became quite busy, we would just text and reconnect through Facebook and Instagram.—Patrick Rosas, makeup artist
No mean bone
James was a good friend and one of the kindest persons in the industry. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. We shared the kind of silliness, which some don’t get, and we always had fun and laughed a lot. I liked looking at his sketches whenever he posted them. He truly was very talented. I will miss my dear friend.—Ivarluski Aseron, fashion designer
James was my blockmate at the UP College of Fine Arts. Even back then, he was soft-spoken, quick-witted and was always smiling. We all admired his talent for drawing. I reconnected with him when he joined the fashion industry after several years in advertising.
I’m glad that James was able to pursue his passion for costume design in theater and ballet. I’m sure it wasn’t financially rewarding, which is why most designers don’t get into it. But James being James, was happy and fulfilled doing it. That’s what I found so unique and admirable about him, on top of his good taste and creativity. —Patrice Ramos Diaz, fashion designer and entrepreneur
James and I first crossed paths at the Paris design competition back in 1999. I remember James being very helpful backstage. He was always there to lend a helping hand. He would crack jokes to ease the stress of everyone.
A few years later, we became good friends when I got accepted into the YDG, my first fashion family back in the early 2000. He was the president back then and meetings would always be in his Makati atelier. His laughter was contagious those meetings during his term were fun moments, puro tawanan lang, no dull moment. And after those meetings, he would show us his latest creations.
His work always had an interesting story behind it, and as a young wannabe designer, I was amazed at the creativity and the construction of his pieces.
Around 2014, when I decided to quit designing, I visited James in his shop and told him my plans. I remember him saying, “Hay naku basta when you decide to come back, nandito lang kami to help you.”
Even when I was living abroad, our love for Madonna always kept us in touch. He was one of those who would always comment on my Madonna posts. And yes, we always saw each other at every Madonnathon event at Club Government.
The day I heard the news about his death, I was out running errands. (Former fashion designer, now painter) Patty Eustaquio texted me. I was stunned. I had to look for a place to sit down to process everything.
I will always remember James for his creative energy, his love for Madonna, his contagious laughter and his overflowing amount of positivity.—Louis Claparols, fashion designer
James’ visits to my shop is what I will miss the most. I know how he knocks, gentle, faint and patient, very much like his personality. He would show up consistently a little after lunch, hungry but always happy and loaded with stories.
James was an excellent storyteller, well-read, observant and he remembered everything, down to what people wear. He had a very sharp memory. Things that we don’t think of, he would remember them exactly, to the last detail.
How he loved making costumes for plays in CCP! For him it was not just about clothes and construction; more importantly, it was about identity. He loved the challenge imposed by the parameters of his research. I became aware of characters in plays, their personalities, how one should dress them up, because of his stories.
We collaborated on the present CCP uniforms. It was his design and he explained to me how he envisioned them. We brainstormed on fabrication and my shop took care of the production.
James was a good cook, as well. His specialty was Pancit Puti, which he learned from his mom. This became his signature dish as we cannot have it anywhere else.
James was fiercely loyal, consistently supportive and always ready to help. He would make headpieces for my collection whenever I asked him.
We planned how we would celebrate our golden year, together with Ivar and Joey. We were all born in 1970, Year of the Dog. We planned to be at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics next year. That’s how we should celebrate, we all agreed.
And yes, I will be there next year, and when they light that torch, I will remember James, my sweet friend.—Dennis Lustico, fashion designer
James Reyes is a creative designer, both in fashion and in costume. His style is quite distinct: graphic, linear with fresh, whimsical details and often Japanese-inspired. I remember his big smile and chinky eyes. He was always soft-spoken, bringing warmth, lightness and beauty to those around him.—Lulu Tan-Gan, fashion designer
I only got the chance to interact with James on a more regular basis in the past year when I became president of the FDCP and he was our secretary. He really had a commitment to the growth and nurturing of the Filipino fashion industry. Despite everyone’s busy schedule, James always made himself available for FDCP meetings. There were several occasions when he was the only one available to meet.
We actually just met last week to discuss FDCP activities for 2019, and we were hoping we could get key activities off the ground this year. I will surely miss his constant readiness to lend a helping hand and contribute to FDCP. I will miss his gracious nature. —Amina Aranaz Alunan, accessories designer
I consider James Reyes as one of my closest friends. His thoughtfulness and helpfulness endeared him to me. Most of the time, he would offer help without my asking him. When we were together we would laugh at silly things we always thought of. I’ll terribly miss that.
James was one of the designers I respected. He was a talented and intelligent professional. I remember telling him that he would be another Badong Bernal, another master of theater costume design, another national artist.
We will miss you, James. You will always be in our hearts.—Jojie Lloren, fashion designer
I am upset. I am angry and I am extremely hurt. I am confused and I demand answers from God. The last time I felt this way was when my mom died.
James was too young, too good, too jolly, and the lives of the people he touched are still hungry for more of him. His talent and his silly, sometimes corny, jokes was always a hit at our parties.
James was generous and kind. He would often offer to do my shop window because he was just overflowing with ideas. He would never charge me, just happy with a lunch treat.
I am shocked and my soul is bruised. James Reyes will always and forever own a huge chunk of my heart.—Candy Dizon, jewelry designer