Not even my happy pill that is BTS could ward off the sadness I felt Thursday night two weeks ago, when I got word that dear friend Albert Almendralejo had passed away. Up to the end, Francis Flores and I prayed that he would pull through.
Not many know that the multihyphenate Albert, who in recent years has been one of the movers in the indie film industry, helped get Philippine fashion back on its feet in the early 2000s by sponsoring the biggest fashion series of that decade—and by doing so, revved up the fashion design scene with some cutting-edge creativity.
Metrowear ran the mini collections of the country’s foremost designers—the top ones year after year and coaxed out of their gilded comfort zones, the likes of Inno Sotto, Auggie Cordero, even Pepito Albert.
The first Metrowear shows were sponsored by Unilever’s Ponds, of which Francis was senior brand manager, and Albert, with his own agency Apogee, was marketing consultant. The two believed in Metrowear, the concept we in ABS-CBN Publishing (magazines) cooked up with Randy Ortiz, Lulu Tan-Gan, Tonichi Nocom, Jackie Aquino around Dec. 27 or 28, 2003, a few nights before New Year’s Eve, at El Cirkulo, after bottles of red wine. The name came to our inebriated brains right there and then. The dinner table remembered the pioneering fashion rag of the ’70s, Manila Women’s Wear, and the fashion industry bible, Women’s Wear Daily, so our tongues effortlessly rolled into Metrowear.
From Metrowear, Albert moved on to bigger branding ventures that involved not only big cities, but also the entire country. Unilever’s Closeup’s Lovapalooza and Vaseline’s Christmas parol remain unparalleled to this day. Lovapalooza gathered huge throngs of kissing couples that filled the country’s big plazas, from Rizal Park to Baguio. They made those huge synchronized smacks at an appointed hour; I don’t quite remember if it made the Guinness Book of World Records.
At around the same time, he turned the Philippine holiday season into a Vaseline Christmas by hanging Vaseline Christmas parol on street lampposts from here to the provinces. We never thought the Filipino’s Pasko would come to be associated with Vaseline (was it for the launch of its shampoo line?), but it was, that year, and Francis and I would kid Albert with envy about that stroke of marketing genius.
“Grateful and positive. Problem solver. Digital curator of full feature films and documentaries”—his Facebook profile reads. The profile didn’t say that he did all this with a chuckle and a laugh.
I had known Albert since his San Beda college days—he was a proud and loyal Bedan, and he would also nudge my son on to be proud of his Bedan roots. When our Metrowear concept was firmed up, and Albert, who himself was a good friend of the fashion designers, learned we needed sponsors, he introduced me to the marketing minds of Unilever. That was how, in 2004, I met Francis, who would rise from Ponds senior brand manager to Unilever marketing director in 2007.
With Albert and Francis at the helm, Ponds bought into the Metrowear idea. We wanted the first gathering of top Filipino designers in a long time to be innovative and unforgettable. So with the nod of our Publishing head Ernie Lopez, we held it in the new studio of ABS-CBN (which became the home of “Showtime” and “Asap”). There, with the state-of-the-art lighting and sound and a very long runway, the models paraded the designs of Filipino designers. It had never been done until then.
Guests drove all the way to the ELJ Center of ABS-CBN or commuted, yes, commuted, because MRT had just been launched and people wanted to try it. This was the early 2000s, when the drive down Edsa was still within survival limits, and riding the MRT was a novelty. Many of the VIP guests like Bea Zobel Jr., Virgie Ramos, Tim Yap took the MRT to get to the show.
Such headline-worthy stunts wouldn’t have been possible had Albert not brought Unilever to us. Yet atypical of marketing gurus, he stayed behind the scenes. He didn’t power trip. Even if they held the funds, he and Francis respected our creative concept and the needs and quirks of the designers. It was a mammoth production that gave us no headaches, because, while the two perfectly knew how to brand their product, they also truly understood the story that was Philippine fashion design—and believed in it.
That was Albert—he genuinely was a problem solver who chuckled while he was at it. He had the people skills to gather artists, designers, creatives and connect them to big business. Most important, he knew when to step back and give people their creative space. It was thus no surprise that he left a mark in filmmaking in his last years.
However, Francis and I weren’t prepared for that surprise—that he’d go into filmmaking. Since Metrowear we had had catch-up dinners, usually before Christmas, where each would bring the latest personal update, the bigger surprise the better.
That night at Chelsea at Serendra, 2007, Francis broke the news that he was leaving Unilever for another big firm. Surprise. Then I announced that I was leaving ABS-CBN Publishing to go back to the Inquirer. Surprise, and Francis chided me for eclipsing his surprise. Having heard our year-end surprises, Albert, who was wearing a smile all that time, announced his—he would stop everything and would study filmmaking and would be a director and producer.
Francis and I met that with stunned silence. “Kabog tayo,” Francis said, meaning Albert outdid us. Francis and I were switching employment, Albert was switching careers.
In 2009, at our year-end dinner, we were all excited about the presidential campaign that would be under way. Francis talked about how he would appear in one of the campaign ads on TV. We were truly impressed—until Albert said what he was up to: He would join the Benedictine monastery, not as a monk but in a lay capacity. “Kabog na naman tayo,” Francis and I stared at each other—where did that come from?
In later years, as our dinners became few and far between, and each of us got busy—Francis is now Global Brand CMO for Jollibee—Albert pursued filmmaking and documentaries with his characteristic focus, perseverance, and won acclaim for it (“Journeyman Comes Home,” “Malamaya”).
He was trying to complete a documentary on Filipino supermodel Anna Bayle, now based in New York.
“I’m still trying to process all this,” Anna told us on the phone the other day, about Albert’s death.
She recalled how in 2018, Albert brought her and her son Callum to Davao and to Siargao for some private time. “We never enjoyed isolation and relaxing as much as we did then,” Anna told us. The two kept in touch.
Francis and I now realize we didn’t even have selfies with Albert. We can’t find photos of us in Metrowear—no images.
But we keep his laughter in our hearts.
Breaking out of ‘prison’
People are breaking out of the “prison” that is their home—into virtual get-togethers, Zoom birthday dinners. They’re fun to watch, especially if it’s Tim Yap hosting.
I wasn’t able to attend, but I watched, as I multitasked, the belated birthday dinner of Air Asia boss Sheila Romero last week as she served the Nara Thai packed dinners delivered to homes of the Zoom guests—consisting of chicken pandan, bagoong rice, soft-shell crab.
No pandemic could bar Filipinos from bonding. I’ve always loved people-watching. I told a friend how much destressing it was to watch the latest society sport in this pandemic: “Zoom climbing.”