In the early 1990s, I met fashion designer Auggie Cordero through my boss and friend, former Inquirer Lifestyle editor Thelma San Juan, one of Auggie’s closest friends. I was eventually privileged to join them for dinner in Auggie’s home in Manila, enjoying the famous adobo, my jaw dropping at his encyclopedic knowledge of everything fashion and everything film. He was an endearing combination of low-key snobbery (read: katarayan) and a gentle, obviously generous heart that made you really want to listen to him and get to know him.
Around 1995, when he learned I was supposed to relocate to New York, he gifted me with a pair of gorgeous cold-weather suits of such impeccable fit, I never realized the power of a well-made suit until then. Gifted, because he adamantly refused payment, probably knowing that I couldn’t afford his clothes back then. Instead, I remember coming home from a trip and bringing him a book on the little black dress, with Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly on the cover. He was delighted at the gesture.
Auggie died on Oct. 21, and Thelma was at the very private funeral. She was in a daze for a while, probably still wrapping her head around the enormous loss. Still, she said, his death was “a mere inconvenient interruption in our continuing friendship.” After all, she called him “a life partner” who saw her through her life’s many chapters; her sons, JJ and Gambe, called Auggie “Tito,” as they grew up running around the atelier that was sacrosanct to others whom Auggie didn’t allow in.
Thelma spoke those words last Dec. 13, before an audience of around 100 people at a function room in One Rockwell. She may have been dazed, but not dazed enough to not doggedly push through with a tribute only she could have organized, with much help from Auggie’s sister Neng Cordero, and simply called “Auggie Cordero: Friends’ Tribute.”
Thelma says she wasn’t sure how the event would materialize, until friends who learned about the project, and who themselves had loved Auggie, expressed support, as well. In particular, retail king Ben Chan, whom Auggie helped bring into the world of fashion, and Auggie’s muse and leading model, Menchu Menchaca Soriano, generously backed the project. Thelma’ son JJ was all over the place, shooting videos, conducting interviews and organizing a young technical and photography team to work, while being Thelma’s exasperated gofer. The venue was decked with Tiffany chairs, peach, pink and yellow roses embraced by dainty baby’s breath, and some of Auggie’s beautifully constructed, beaded gowns, displayed on platforms. Outside the entrance to the venue, beside a vase of lush peach roses, an acrylic sign simply read, “Auggie Cordero.”
A giant LED screen dominated the room, and all around were poster-sized photographs on easels of his well-known brides, from Margie Moran Floirendo, Katherine Tan, Sallie Laurel Lopez, Viel Aquino-Dee, Liza Macuja-Elizalde, Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, Monique Trinidad-Toda and Margarita Ongsiako-Tan Climaco, to the late Maggie Go, Pin Cojuangco-Guingona, Christina Oben-Nazareno, Laurie Jimenez Westfall, Nina Lagdameo, Maya Batac Lagdameo, Rina Go, Jennifer Jane Go, Maia Lagdameo Alvarez and Tess Oben-Reyes.
Most breathtaking, however, was the sight of Auggie’s large wooden work desk, draped with white flowers and baby’s breath and adorned with his small framed portrait, but still showing his two pencil holders full of sharpened pencils, the rectangular lampshade with an antique sewing machine as base, a book on “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and his very own sketches, as real as when he first imagined those creations.
Guests began arriving before the scheduled 3:30 start of the program. Friends also brought food, and Destileria Limtuaco’s Olive Limpe-Aw carted along an entire bar featuring their famous cocktails and liqueurs.
I had been enlisted to emcee the show and keep things moving, but by the time I got in at 11 that morning, designer Tonichi Nocom was already there, helping set up Auggie’s gowns, stuffing the ballroom gowns’ sleeves with tulle and carrying the mannequins himself.
Neng Cordero arrived by noon with Auggie’s faithful seamstresses, followed soon after by director Jackie Aquino, who volunteered to sit beside the technical crew’s desk and cue all of us on music and entrances.
The tribute opened with a vintage clip from the Inquirer Face-Off fashion show in 2007 featuring Auggie’s dramatic designs worn by the runway goddesses of the time—Romina Urra, Joann Bitagcol, Raya Mananquil, Jasmine Maierhofer, Tweetie de Leon Gonzalez, Marina Benipayo and more. What followed was a short video on his style and life, featuring vintage photographs of the designer with colleagues Joe Salazar and Inno Sotto, on the milestone cover of Asiaweek magazine, his memorable designs inspired by Yves Saint Laurent and Coco Chanel as well as Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn, and a line-up of show-stopping gowns—including bridal gowns shot through with black.
Next followed live testimonies from friends, including read messages from France Dionisio and Chan; designer Lulu Tan-Gan, who remembered Auggie’s generosity; Soriano, who recalls how she forgave Auggie anyway for skipping her wedding; Floirendo, whom Auggie convinced to join the Binibining Pilipinas pageant; model Joyce Oreña, who remembers the valuable life advice Auggie gave her; Magsanoc-Alikpala, who reminisced on memories around that famous desk with her mother, the late journalist Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc; a favorite Auggie bride and model Margarita Ongsiako Tan Climaco; lifelong friend Kenneth Go, whose late mother Aurora was one of Auggie’s dearest friends, as well; flamboyant fellow designer Oskar Peralta, who had been Auggie’s friend since the ’60s; Thelma’s son and stylist JJ San Juan, who learned the ropes of fashion from Tito Auggie; family friend Maryann Ojeda; and a touching Zoom testimony from model Anna Bayle in New York.
Thelma then took the mic to recall a lifelong friendship with Auggie, who had been a constant in her life ever since she, as a hotel intern, ironed his clothes for a fashion show in the ‘70s. She pulled along Neng, who chuckled bashfully even between tears, before introducing a final Zoom message from Auggie’s oldest sister, Zeny and husband Larry Cole, who thanked guests for the tribute. “How I miss Neng,” Zeny said, which brought quite a few people to tears.
The event wound down with recorded video messages from more friends: designer JC Buendia, Mike de la Rosa, Loretto, and Tonichi Nocom; close friends Rina Go and journalist Melinda Quintos de Jesus; Auggie “protégé” Larry Leviste; director Joey Reyes, who had known Auggie since the latter’s first shop in Herran and who called Auggie “eternal”; model Nol Cueto; and finally, longtime friend and model Marilen Ojeda.
The video ended with a moving image of the door to Auggie’s atelier opening, a shot of Bitagcol in a breathtaking Auggie white bridal gown with white feathers and black trim from Face-Off, and finally, the door closing on the atelier for the last time. Auggie’s face then appeared on the screen and as “Moon River” rose to a final crescendo, the audience was asked to give Auggie Cordero one final standing ovation.
It was the kind of tribute—nothing flashy, no marquee or publicity-hungry society names, but a classy crowd—that Auggie himself would have approved of.