Fashion designer Lito Perez’s fascination with history and culture has always fueled his creativity.
His latest Barong Tagalog designs combine the grand styles of the Philippine colonial period and contemporary silhouettes and fabrications to offer a refreshing take on the national costume.
“The barong endures through the years because it is constantly evolving,” explains Perez.
Perez gives a modern twist to the classic piña barong by utilizing linear and abstract embroidery trimmings, and dyeing it in greige—a blend of grey and beige.
For the popular pleated barong style, he goes beyond piña and jusi and matches silk with linen in offbeat shades of salmon pink and citrus yellow. For elegance, he uses a high, oversized collar—a detail reminiscent of turn-of-the-century Fil-Hispanic fashion.
On a short-sleeved polo barong in natural, hand-woven piña, Perez recreates through a special silkscreen process the painting of the first Filipino master, Damian Domingo, depicting Filipino maidens in Maria Clara costumes holding their parasols and taking a leisurely stroll.
He, then, cleverly pairs this with a contemporary white suit patterned after the Emilio Aguinaldo “vintage Americana,” whose design also features a remarkable 19th-century print of the Singer Sewing Machine advertisement.
The now -classic ad shows young women in stylish Maria Clara creations, eagerly trying out the latest sewing machine from Singer.
A Damian Domingo fan, Perez is a proud owner of the artist’s album on Filipino costumes, circa 1800s, dedicated to Englishman Daniel Baboom—a priceless collector’s item. Considered the country’s pioneering art educator who established the first Philippine art academy in 1821, Domingo was the favorite of the prominent class, the ilustrado, as well as then Governor-General Mariano Ricafort.
Perez turns his design work into wearable modern-day canvases. His Maria Clara pieces, just like his barongs, have updated silhouettes evoking red carpet glamour. The signature panuelo is modern and simple; the sleeves are exaggerated; and the drop-dead glam skirt is either in full- balloon or in trumpet style showcasing the piece de resistance—the printed artwork of Damian Domingo.
Perez has made this art-to-wear collection available at Camp Suki, the popular costume-rental shop he established 33 years ago and where one can actually find an extensive selection of Philippine period costumes.
He finds fulfillment in the fact that the bulk of his clientele, the young, is starting to show interest in and appreciation not only of colorful local costumes and their modern takeoffs, but also of our rich cultural heritage.
The outgoing president of the Fashion Designers Association of the Philippines (FDAP) recalls he had a similar “cultural re-awakening” in the Unesco Heritage site of Vigan 10 years ago. There, he found some decrepit houses.
A graduate of Interior Design at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, Perez has refurbished 10 such structures in different parts of Luzon, and has managed them to become self-sufficient and self-sustaining, the only way to cover the high costs of regular maintenance work.
Up north in Ilocos, there’s the Arce Mansion in Vigan and the Villa San Vicente in the nearby town. Down south in Quezon and Laguna, there’s Villa Sariaya and La Demetria in Pagsanjan.
But the heart of his advocacy is another Heritage Town, the historic Taal in Batangas. Here, Perez, with balikbayan friend Rogie Reyes, has turned two erstwhile kamalig into a thriving relic shop and a busy crafts center.
They also maintain four antique houses—the famous Villa Tortuga and its annex Casita, Casa Asinas, and Casa Vitrola—each one offering bed and breakfast, and the one dream of a lifetime: You get to relive the splendor of the colonial days, complete with period costume and fine dining in an Old World ambience.
Perez, with FDAP, will mount an exhibit of barong and sagala creations in time for the town’s celebration of El Pasubat Festival on April 27. The annual festival, held every last Saturday of April, pays homage to the popular products of Taal: ensaimada, longanisa, panutsa, suman, balisong and tapa/tawilis/tulingan.