Robbie Santos: Going from the academe to the fashion world in pursuit of a dream

As his first major fashion show, Devenir, finally unfolded on 25 October showcasing the 84 looks that represent Santos’ ‘business in front, party at the back’ design aesthetics, it was clear the designer did not only conquer the Marriott Grand Ballroom but also won the hearts of the audience.
FASHION designer and founder of Septième Rebelle, Robbie Santos.
FASHION designer and founder of Septième Rebelle, Robbie Santos.

The decision to mount his first major fashion show on the seventh anniversary of his brand Septième Rebelle (meaning "seventh rebel" in French) came naturally to designer Robert Bjorn O. Santos, nicknamed Robbie. That's why the first thing he and his team did was book the venue as early as May 2023 for the event that would take place five months later at the Marriott Grand Ballroom of the Manila Marriott Hotel in Pasay City.

But when Santos stepped into the empty ballroom for an initial ocular visit, he felt intimidated by the vastness of the place famous for spectacular events, such as Michael Cinco's extravagant Metaverse fashion gala last September. He likened the experience to being at the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon in US state of Arizona.

"Anong gagawin ko dito? (What am I going to do here?)" he recalled asking himself, taking note of the past fashion events where "everything is in a grand scale with wedding gowns" and added, "My aesthetic is sleek and sexy. How do I compare?"

As Devenir finally unfolded on 25 October showcasing the 84 looks that represent Santos' "business in front, party at the back" design aesthetics, it was clear the designer did not only conquer the Marriott Grand Ballroom but also won the hearts of the audience. Each piece was truly impressive and well applauded.

Never late in the game

"I'm very happy," the visibly pumped-up Santos said in the post-show interview with DAILY TRIBUNE and other publications. "It took me 15 years to realize a dream." All that time, he worked as a teacher and took charge of the Basic Education department of the family-owned Our Lady of Fatima University, which has several branches in and out of Metro Manila. "I knew there was something missing. I gave myself a five-year plan that I'm gonna be a fashion designer."

In 2015, the determined career shifter, then about 37 years old, flew to Europe to gain education on top of earning his bachelor's degree in Liberal Studies (major in American Studies) at St. Joseph's College of Maine in the US and several certificates from various institutions. These include the Asian Institute of Management (for the Managing the Arts program), Harvard Business School (for the Families in Business program and Leadership Communication), Alliance Francaise de Manille (for French language courses), Sotheby's Institute of Art (for Art History as well as Acquiring and Taking Care of Art Collections) and Our Lady of Fatima University (for Professional Education).

Santos first landed in the English capital city of London to study Fabrics and Fibres at Central Saint Martins, then he moved to the French capital city of Paris to take up Fashion Design at Istituto Marangoni Paris. The following year, he went back to Central Saint Martins for further studies in patternmaking and hand-sewing techniques.

He soon gathered enough knowledge and confidence to venture into couture with Septième Rebelle. But he continued his education in London, taking up classes in Haute Couture Embroidery, Bra Pattern Cutting, Fashion Business and Tailoring-Menswear. Later, when he had returned home, he opened the couture line for children he named Vares Jeune after his last name, Olivares, and the French word for "young."

Looking back now, Santos couldn't help feeling grateful that he's able to do what he really likes doing. "Every day, I wake up in the morning and I'm grateful," he exclaimed. "I'm gonna go to work and I'm gonna sketch, choose fabric. In the afternoon, I'm gonna fit a client, fit a model. I'm happy. I'm happy to share what I can give to my clients, to my friends, to my partner, to my family. So, it's with a grateful heart that I do what I do."

He admitted, though, he sometimes wonders why he took so long to become a designer. Ultimately, he said, "I think it's because being a teacher taught me how to be professional. Otherwise, I'd be late for my deliveries. For example, you're wearing an outfit on 2 November. I'm going to deliver your outfit on 29 October.

"That's how I work. I'm not the type of designer who will deliver to you at the last minute. Nasa simbahan ka na, at saka ka lang magga-gown (You're already in church, when your gown arrives.) I'm not the type, so I always manage my time… I applied the best practices of the academe to running the operations of my atelier, my workplace. So we're never late. Never at all with our deliverables."

He went on pointing out, "Mahirap 'yun (It's difficult to pull off). At the same time, I would rather pay more for overtime and maybe take a cut from what I'm supposed to earn because reputation is more important than money. My name, the brand, is number one. Whatever I earn is just secondary. The brand has to speak of quality. It has to speak of professionalism and customer service."

What's next?

After the success of Devenir (meaning "to become" in French), Santos said he's already planning the next fashion show and making it an annual affair. The 44-year-old designer pointed out, "I started really late, but I feel I've just began and I'm actually doing it 'cause I'm happy doing it and to make myself happy. I want to share my happiness to people, surprise people."

He went on sharing his secret to getting excited for work: "I look at books. I look at the works of my idols. It makes me happy to say that at least part of what they do, I can actually do myself. I cannot do everything that they can do or did when they were alive. I'm happy at least some, through my team, I'm able to do it also."

Those idols of his include the late master designers Gianfranco Ferre and Hubert de Givenchy, as well as the contemporary designers Donna Karan (known for practical dressing) and Tom Ford (famed for exuding sexiness and sex appeal in fashion).

Santos said he's raring to go back to work right after Devenir and already has ideas for his kids' line. But he would only do so when his team returns from a much-deserved break. He nonetheless knows and is excited to execute the first item on their agenda: "First week of November, magpa-go-see tayo ng kids!"

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