Filipino American fashion maven Josefina “Josie” Cruz Natori looked sharp in an expensive white Yves Saint Laurent when I first interviewed her in 1997. The CEO and founder of Natori, the upscale fashion company, was celebrating the brand’s 20th anniversary, and she was girding for her piano concert at Carnegie Hall, which coincided with her 50th birthday.
Twenty-five years later, Natori is still chic, though favoring clothes from her namesake label. On her recent trip to Manila, she toured Malacañang wearing a Josie Natori knit jersey shirt and pants with floral appliqués in vegan leather.
This has been a banner year yet again for Natori. The Natori Company will celebrate its 45th anniversary here with an event in November, organized by Rustan’s.
Last month, Natori was inducted into the Hall of Fame Accessories Council’s ACE (Accessories Council Excellence) Awards which acknowledges international brands and fashion leaders, this time, for navigating the pandemic.
“We lasted this long, and we are still at the top of our game,” said Natori in a phone interview.
Likewise, Natori has always been admired for her understated elegance. She recently received the Style Icon Award from Dress for Success, a nonprofit organization that teaches women in low-income groups how to conduct themselves and dress appropriately for job searches.
Through the decades, Natori has been widely interviewed by the American press for her fashion choices. Before the pandemic, she was the only Filipina to be included in “International Best-Dressed List: The Official Story” by Amy Fine Collins. This was a definitive guide to stylish personalities who had the means to buy an elegant wardrobe and were not necessarily swayed by celebrity stylists.
International Best-Dressed List
They defined fashion before the era of social media influencers and marketing partnerships with designers and brands. The list chronicled social history and served as an indicator of style.
“I’ve always believed that what you wear should reflect your true personality,” said Natori.
The International Best-Dressed List (IBDL) was established by New York publicist Eleanor Lambert in 1940 to promote American fashion during wartime in order to keep the economy going. Over time, Lambert defined best-dressed as “a symbol of good taste in dress … as descriptive and worthy as the honor awarded annually to writers by the Pulitzer Prize committee, the Hollywood Academy, or any other body which tries to set recognizable standards and milestones of progress for an art or an industry.”
Before she died, Lambert, then 98, handed down the IBDL to her friends at Vanity Fair—then editor in chief Graydon Carter, deputy editor Aimée Bell, then special correspondent Amy Fine Collins and businessman Reinaldo Herrera. Lambert died in 2003 at the age of 100.
Natori said she has appeared in Vanity Fair’s list many times, although she doesn’t take it seriously. “I don’t even have Amy’s book,” she said.
She recalled that her fondness for clothes harked back to her childhood. Her mother and grandmother were elegant dressers. As the eldest of 32 grandchildren, she was pampered with clothes.
“As a child, I wore a pink crocheted dress with matching socks, shoes and a bow. When I gave piano concerts at a young age, I was always dressed up. Everything then was made by the seamstress,” said Natori.
At 17, she was sent to college in New York where she was overwhelmed by the flourishing fashion retail industry. “I would go to the shoe stores in Times Square and stock up on them because they were cheap. They didn’t last, though,” said Natori.
When she worked as an investment banker on Wall Street, she chucked the stodgy suit for dresses in varying hemlines.
“The real journey began when I ventured into the fashion business 45 years ago. I went to Paris and saw the world of couture. The techniques are next to nothing. You feel so special when your clothes are custom-fitted and executed by experienced hands. It’s an art. My philosophy then was to own one couture item that could last forever than 15 pieces of ready-to-wear (RTW),” she said.
“I could justify my splurges because what I wore in the ’80s is still relevant today. When it’s made for you, the look will be timeless. I believe in clean lines, special high-quality fabrics and attention to detail. There is so much for design students and consumers to learn when they see couture,” she said.
Natori cited Saint Laurent, John Galliano for Dior, Azzedine Alaïa, Pierre Cardin, Givenchy and Christian Lacroix as her favorites.
“I wore a lot of suits and I enjoyed the couture gowns,” she said.
She dressed up according to her moods instead of planning her wardrobe. She admits being a collector of all types of jewelry, bags and shoes—Gianvito Rossi is among her favorites.
In 2010, Josie Natori expanded from high-end lingerie to fashion and accessories. From solid-colored couture, she then started wearing her RTW which favored prints and embroideries.
“I became experimental,” said Natori. “I test the RTW on myself. I have to feel good wearing them. If it doesn’t feel right, then it goes back to the factory,” she said.
Natori admitted that she’s a pack rat when she travels. “I bring a full suitcase even if it’s an overnight trip. I want a lot of choices. When I’m traveling, I like to layer pieces. I like knit tops, a kimono topper, black suede shoes and mules. In Europe, I like to change clothes for dinner. I enjoy statement earrings—big ones. You don’t look complete without the right accessories.”
Natori believes that dressing up should be “effortless.” To her, it’s about pleasing the self, not pandering to followers to get a thousand likes. —CONTRIBUTED