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Ben Farrales: When genius creates and shares

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The designer Ben Farrales is known as “mataray” or grouchy  or ill-tempered. Look up the dictionary and thesaurus and you will find all the words that describe that specific trait of the Dean of Philippine Fashion.

Simply said, he is not one to mince his words when you displease him. He tells it as it is, and when he so desires, even accompanies them with the appropriate action, not necessarily with a middle finger kind of gesture, but something as disconcerting as throwing away something that has been delivered late, or when peeved with a matron who kept complaining during a fitting session, pricking a client’s body with a needle.

Another time, when caterers to his party arrived late, he threw them out and made his guests wait even longer because he had to order food from a nearby restaurant. When he and another socialite were fighting over the length of her dress because he thought it should be longer and she, otherwise, he ended up cutting his creation apart and turning it into tattered rags of silk and lace.

Whether these stories be true or apocryphal, Mang Ben’s reputation as a no-nonsense designer, boss, friend, mentor, and organization head is well-deserved. It is, we believe, a temperament that goes with the discipline that brought him to the top, starting from when he would shine neighbors’ shoes and sell broiled corn right in front of the family home in Manila’s Sta. Cruz district. When insulted by an elder brother that he would end up a vendor selling goodies, he didn’t answer back and instead kept in his heart to succeed by all means.

Not that he took the straight road to the summit. In high school, he was having difficulty with his Math subjects and had in fact flunked a subject or two. This led to his “exile” to Mindanao where his elder sister, Aida, had married a beloved promising leader, Salipada K. Pendatun, who would rise to the halls of the Philippine legislature. Meantime, Ben would be inspired by all indigenous finery of the Moslem women, colorful, elegant and exotic and they would the hallmark of his creative output in the coming years.

Ben went on to apprentice with some of the uppity department stores in both Escolta and Mabini where he designed show windows, wrapped gifts and, more importantly, assisted in designing the dresses that were made out of the fabrics sold in the store. Fast forward to when he was encouraged by the shop owner herself to put up his own atelier. “There is nothing more you can learn here,” said Nene Gatchalian of Aurelia’s Department Store.

Thus began Mang Ben’s journey, whose grumpiness can only be matched by his generosity of spirit, which he has exhibited through his many good works for various philanthropic and humanitarian organizations like the Philippine Red Cross, for which he has raised millions of pesos. We all know, of course, his mentorship of young designers including Goulee Gorospe and Danilo Franco who eventually made names for themselves. And then, too, Mang Ben has promoted Philippine arts and culture and given  impetus to young designers from the farthest reach of the country through the Flores de Mayo that he started at the Manila Hotel. Of his numerous spiritual undertakings, Mang Ben is recognized for leading the Congregacion del Santisimo Nombre del Nino Jesus which holds an annual fiesta and procession in honor of the Child Jesus.

As a promoter of Philippine arts, culture and tourism, he has travelled all over the world showing his creations. One grateful tourism attache, Edu Jarque, recalls, “Mang Ben always found time to eagerly participate in the several promotional activities around the world of the early days of the Department of Tourism in the 70s, to include sales missions and marketing blitzes, complete with extravaganzas of singers, dancers and models. He has been a part of the launch of the highly successful Balikbayan program, to convince old-timers to visit their motherland — and country bids to host conventions and congresses in our islands.

“I have never seen anyone like him who worked hard backstage to make certain a flawless show was in order — a truly professional perfectionist. The outcome: loud applause and jeering cheers. He made our lives promoting the Philippines a lot easier.”

While Mang Ben, today, is retired, his many good deeds are remembered by people whose lives he has touched. Even those he dressed up as brides and debutantes are grateful, among them socialites and daughters of the powerful, but used as he is to his uppity clientele, Mang Ben too has graciously dressed up working girls and provincianas who, with a limited budget, approached him and shared their dreams of being Ben Farrales brides. No, Mang Ben has not forgotten where it all started. Even his fashion shows would not be complete without a Muslim or Mindanao suite, which harks back to his youth.

His love for his country and its cultural traditions has served him well in turn. No less than the grand belle Conching Sunico named him the Dean of Fashion. He was named Outstanding Filipino, and has received accolades from the Philippine Red Cross, his alma mater San Beda, among other institutions.

His greatest and loudest praises, though, come from his clients and models through generations. Of the social set, these include Chona Ysmael, Dolly  Potenciano,  Edith Rabat, Elvira Manahan, Olga Martel, Nedy Tantoco, Menchu Concepcion, Chito, Pacita and Ising Madrigal, Letty Syquia and Fe Dolor Serrano, Melly Ablaza and daughter Czarina, Margie Moran and Tingting Cojuangco.

His models, in turn, who remember him with fondness and real or feigned fear, are Apples Aberin, Tweetie de Leon, Alta Tan, Annette Coronel, Abbygale Arenas, Melanie Marquez and Tina Maristela Ocampo. Of an elder generation, they are Techie Ysmael Criselda Lontok, Barbara Perez, Ping Valencia, Dayang-Dayang, Elsa Payumo,  Margarita Romualdez, Imelda Pagaspas, Nini Ramos, Bessie Badilla, Jenny Peña, Aurora Pijuan, Guadalupe Sanchez and Tina Romualdez.

Today, 1 July , his friends, clients, models, fellow designers and students will greet Mang Ben a very happy birthday. He may not remember all of them now, but what matters most is they remember him for the outstanding designer, true friend, and a generous patron that he has been through the years.

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