The Brave World
of Chito Vijandre
“I rebel and revel in maximalism.”
Chito Vijandre’s decades-long work as a designer always reverently follows this simple anthem. From his stint in art and fashion to his mastery of interior design, Vijandre always manages to dodge much of modernity’s minimalist kink.
This year’s Red Charity Gala, in particular, will see his return on the runway. On the agenda is a parade of various feathers, kimono tops turned into cages, and some chain mail linked with lace. This is hardly the image one conjures of a show themed “Filipiniana,” yet Vijandre is always one to favor a shocking bent over cold convention.
“[Some] years ago, Slim’s Fashion and Art School had a show featuring several of their most celebrated graduates, and Chito was one of them,” says Kaye Tinga, co-chair of the Red Charity Gala. “His segment blew me away: the intricacy, the originality, the thought that went into his work was just unbelievable. Not a single detail was taken for granted. It’s something I have not seen in Manila for a long time.”
In what you could call a sort of foreshadowing during last year’s ball, an interviewer was asking Tinga whom she’d want the annual gala’s next designer to be, the exact moment when Vijandre was passing by. “I called him over and told the interviewer, ‘Chito is our dream designer.’ He laughed and said, ‘Sure, why not?’” A year later, Manila’s media was again humming with the news that Vijandre, following years of absence in the fashion circuit, is now to stage a second comeback.
“The Red Cross is an institution that has always been there when people need help most, like during calamities,” says Vijandre. “It has its roots as far back as the Philippine revolution, when Mabini encouraged the establishment of the Red Cross during the Malolos Republic—which makes it relevant to my theme for the collection.”
The term “Filipiniana” has, for centuries, connoted either the flowery flamboyance of the balintawak or the stifling piousness of the classic terno. It evoked portraits of grandmothers, churches, solihiya windows, and Maria Claras bent over terraces, listening, somewhat flirtatiously, to serenades. “I wanted Philippine history and culture to set the tone but not in a literal, predictable way,” says Vijandre, and true enough, in this particular reimagining of the national ensemble, his references range from Filipino movies preceding World War II to Nick Joaquin’s fictional characters, and carnival queens.
“They were flamboyant but elegant; it was a whole different era of gentility,” says Vijandre. The designer’s collection fuses fragments of Gabriela Silang’s rebellious force, the understated glamor of actress Carmen Rosales, and the cloistered world of spinsters Candida and Paula, spun in Joaquin’s “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.” It’s nobility and rebellion in a seamless dance.
Even the embellishments look culled from ethnic weaponry. Among the details were “velvet with metal embroidery, T’boli patterns [made] kinetic with layers of covered buttons, rich velvets and delicate lace, [as well as] silk
saris, silk chiffon, woodblock print batiks, and silk ikat from Uzbekistan, sometimes all together in one ensemble.” It’s genteel and gentle, yet also a touch anarchic; the familiar Filipina grace with jagged edges.
“It’s quite exhilarating to be back in fashion,” says Vijandre. After decades of helming lifestyle stores Firma and AC+632 with his partner Ricky Toledo, the designer’s aesthetic— on top of its obvious maximalist bent—has been widely famous for its whimsicality and eclecticism. A trip to AC+632, for instance, feels like stumbling upon the remnants of a secret carnival, the objects, culled from eras past, still alive and humming.
“Firma and AC+632 have always thrived on surprising combinations of objects, eras, and influences,” explains Vijandre. “My collection for the gala reflects this aesthetic. Tibetan brocade jackets have Victorian lace-ruffled blouses paired with a skirt of pleated Indian
sari and velvet ikat. Rebolusyonaryas wear velvet sheaths with silk chiffon linings and gold armor shoulders of metal beading.” To those tracking the references, it can be downright confusing, but the layering of thoughts and techniques is arguably Vijandre’s most memorable draw.
His works lend every woman a piece of history made tactile. Wearing his gowns for the RED shoot, entrepreneur Mika Lagdameo, whose body has been buffed by Marie France, puts it simply: “They are so rich in color, texture, and detail, that every piece is just as beautiful afar as it is up close.” Years ago, after Vijandre had created a bridal suite of fully beaded gowns, using the tiniest glass beads on tulle to create Arabesque patterns, Jane Umali, one of his models, wore one to a party in Malacañang. A visiting actor fell in love with the gown—“and probably with her”—as the two danced throughout the night. Whether the dresses are painstakingly layered or just endearingly weird, even strong devotees of the now-dated normcore trend can still be seduced by his clothes’ imaginative sway.
“That’s how it’s always been; it’s in my DNA. I’ve always been drawn to the intricate and the detailed. As a child, in art class, while everyone was doing pastels and painting in washed aquarelle, I’d do bright fauvist colors and apply paint directly to the paper from the tubes,” he says. “My style never changed. I never followed trends, and I still don’t follow them.” This isn’t so much a story of one designer’s runway comeback as it is of a lifelong romance with design’s rebellious lure, simply morphing into infinite forms across the decades.
“I rebel and revel in maximalism.”