The biggest embarrassment probably a woman can experience, especially if she is in the upper echelons of society or high up in the corporate ladder, is walking into an event and finding out another woman is wearing exactly the same dress.
It’s a fashion horror story that anyone wants to avoid. Who wants to be a laughingstock or a subject of dinner conversations? So, the option would be to scour stores far and wide for unique choices. But then, this takes out the joy supposedly one finds in shopping, entails a lot of time and is utterly inconvenient. So, why suffer?
To save them the trouble, some society women have “secretly” engaged the services of Eliza Montilla, who does the shopping for them. She is not a personal shopper though, but one with an eye for style, fashion trends and knowledge of what fits certain personal profiles. That makes Montilla a stylist.
Defining a stylist
“A stylist is someone you go to when you need help with what to wear like when you have an event and you have no clue on what to put on,” explains Montilla. “A stylist would be someone to assist you, whether it be to pull out the clothes or to actually buy them for you. With a stylist you have options, so you know you are not just limited to one thing.”
A stylist may be unheard of for those who prefer to do their own shopping for clothes as shown by the throngs of people at the malls, sale or no sale. But then, no one just wakes up one day and decides that she wants to be a stylist. Not in the case of Montilla.
“I was a consumer, so I was just buying clothes for myself. And then, people, first my family, would see me wearing the clothes and would ask where I bought the clothes and if I can get them a bigger size. Then I would suggest that I think black is not bagay (apt) for you or something like that. So, that was how I started,” says Montilla.
Friends and family started to ask her to buy clothes for them, so she thought of investing. “I decided to invest in a few pieces. I thought, ‘What if I buy five pieces and then I try to sell it?’ And in about 48 hours, the first collection that I bought was gone,” relates Montilla, who decided to leave her family business and focus on being a stylist full-time.
High society, low profile
Since then, she puts clothes on a group of women, who are considered the who’s who of Philippine upper-class society. You might have seen them as they are visible in the media or frequently invited to high-society events.
The common profiles? These are women who have no time to shop for themselves anymore due to heavy schedule and work demands and those who do not want to be bothered with shopping and would rather spend time on something more worthwhile than browsing through racks of clothes in a department store, however high-end it is. So, Montilla takes care of buying, styling, suggesting, critiquing, encouraging and editing their looks.
And with no traditional advertising to speak of, except on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, Montilla relies on word of mouth in beefing up her clientele. “Like someone will say, ‘I got this dress from Eliza’ and then I will get text messages from that person.”
There’s actually a logic behind keeping a low profile.
“We really prefer referrals because we want our clientele to remain small and exclusive.
Because the problem with women in Metro Manila is they have a stigma of wearing the same clothes to a party. So, when people discovered us, we’re like their secret shopping source.
With us, you will always find something one-of-a-kind because we are relatively small but we have good quality pieces,” says Montilla, who usually buys clothes in Hong Kong, where, according to her, the fashion industry and high-quality designs are concentrated.
A style for each client
With the style profiles of each client in mind, Montilla can confidently buy clothes whether or not there’s an order.
“When I buy clothes, I have my clients in mind. Before, when I was starting out, I would buy stuff that I would like personally then I’d say if they don’t buy it, then I’ll just wear it so I’m a consumer myself,” says Montilla, whose son helps her with styling for men.
It’s not all intuitive as she does a profile check with her clients. As she does not meet some of her clients face-to-face, she engages in long chats with them, in which she asks what are their style picks, what they like, and then that is when she starts to form an idea on how to clothe them.
“From that, I can see already that this one is conservative and this one is adventurous because you would see with their choices. So, once I determine that, I would send the clothes to their house, we set them up on racks and then we leave it overnight. If they need help for an event, they can call me and I will suggest already because I know what I sent.”
“The clients and I have a long relationship so I don’t actually have to go and I just send the clothes. But those whom I meet for the first time and really want styling tips, I can go to their place to help them with their shoes and all that.”
It’s a kind of personal relationship that has kept Montilla awake on some nights. “Everyone is different, it’s really individual. So, sometimes I have a hard time sleeping at night because I have to imagine each and every client has his own style profile.”
For someone who claims she’s mataray (sassy), Montilla is someone her clients can talk to, confide in and share secrets with on what’s bothering them. She does this to make sure she knows well the person she’s styling. It’s a relationship built on trust so she keeps everything to herself and won’t even dream of saying anything.
“My clients are not the same and they’re all different individuals. Like I said, I have a relationship with each and every one, a very personal relationship to the point that I know about their problems at home and their love life problems, if there’s any. I have to know who you are to be able to style and dress you up.”
And in this relationship, she can outright tell them if the look they want does not fit them. “Actually, I don’t know if it’s a fault of mine or it’s detrimental to me but I’m very, very frank so a lot of my clients would tell me that. If something is not bagay for them or they would look big, I would really tell them so I’ll say it doesn’t fit you or I don’t think it’s appropriate for the event that you’re going to. So, I’m very frank; I will not sugar-coat anything and I won’t say, ‘Oh, yeah, you look nice in it, you look payat.’ I will never say that, so I’m quite honest with them.”
Trends and basics
Montilla used to follow trends when she was younger, but now it is just a matter of finding one’s style and working around it.
“I think with age comes maturity, which is a good thing. You learn to follow trends but at the same time you always put in basics and classics because I always tell my clients, these are the things that you can keep in your closet until you have children and you have grandchildren. You know these are fail-safe pieces that you need to have.”
For Filipino women, among Montilla’s tips are:
Embrace one’s style, but be open to suggestions. “If you want to wear loud colors, maybe tone it down on the top, wear something solid on top, or wear maybe a jacket or a vest just to tone down the whole look.”
Dress your age and dress appropriately. “It’s not nice to see someone really, let’s say senior, and then wearing a mini skirt so just dress your age because with age comes wisdom so you know that you’re supposed to, how you are supposed to dress also.”
Dress according to the weather. “We live in a tropical country so it doesn’t make sense to wear a sweater or a coat. I mean tiis ganda, right? I mean a lot of people are like that, nag-titiis ganda (suffering for style).”
Have closet staples. “Always have the closet basics. Even if you don’t have a stylist you could always go back to that and just layer it or add on top of it and stuff like that.”
Add a pop of color or accessories and wear comfortable shoes.
Being a stylist, according to Montilla, is also encouraging the person to try new looks while embracing what their personal style is.
“I really have a relationship with all my clients because that’s the only time you can gauge how you will buy for them and, at the same time, I always try to push them also to try new things because you will never know if something fits you until you actually wear it.”
And finding what fashion style clicks for a client is a rewarding experience in itself.
“I always find gratitude and joy when I see their photos online or they send me pictures. That makes me really, really happy and I really enjoy doing that looking at those photos,” she says.
Photos by Yummie Dingding