One fashion designer who knew her market was Criselda Lontok-Fernandez. Taking after her boss and mentor, Rustan’s founder Glecy R. Tantoco who, it had been written about, knew which customer would most likely buy a particular accessory or garment that she chose in a buying trip, Criselda designed her dresses keeping in mind her friends and her friends’ friends. While she made sure her designs were up-to-date, she did not totally depart from the classic lines that they preferred. If she became adventurous, it was only with a little print here, a lace or patch there and some ruffles, but it was basically Criselda all over. And yet, her dresses were never boring because the personality of the wearer always surfaced.
The second part of my story highlights more of her closest friends and most loyal customers, each praising Criselda for what they like about her outfits. But again, it’s not just about the dress, but about feeling confident because the designer had always known them, the reason being that they too were her tried-and-tested friends and clients. One socialite said, “If you took a chance with one Criselda outfit, most likely you were hooked for life. That’s because she was reliable. She somehow knew what fit you.”
These ladies, all accomplished, well-traveled and passionate about their causes shared with us stories about their friend and fashion icon Criselda.
Feminine and refined
Frannie Jacinto, a lifestyle columnist and, in her youth, a Karilagan model, shared that she was a Criselda Lontok fan “long before I became a friend.”
She spoke highly of her friend’s “privileged Batangueño lineage that includes well-bred and beautiful sisters, Menchu Concepcion and Ching Montinola.”
Of Criselda’s designs, Frannie said, “They were as feminine, refined and stylish as she was. One could wear them in a variety of ways and remain fashionable even if the ensemble had been a decade old. It was no wonder that she was the top seller in all Rustan’s stores.”
Frannie and her then teenaged daughter, Natalia, modeled Criselda’s clothes in a mother-daughter fashion show in the late 1990s. This would have a repeat 20 years later during Criselda’s grand 35th anniversary show at the Peninsula hotel. The audience consisted of the well-heeled ladies who had been her fans through the years.
For Criselda’s 2021 fashion line, Frannie recalled, “Criselda asked me to wear three outfits for her catalog. As usual, they were spot on with the Criselda touch.”
‘Marylike’ fashion show
International beauty queen and Filipiniana book author Gemma
Cruz-Araneta harkened to her and Criselda’s Maryknoll high school days “when we participated in a ‘Marylike’ fashion show. I was in first year high school and she must have been in fourth. She outshone all of us with a dress that she herself designed. It was plaid taffeta, red white and blue, with beaded leaf-like designs on the shoulders. She modeled with aplomb which made me feel like wanting to go home.”
Of recent vintage is Gemma’s recollection of arriving in a party wearing an outfit that was the same as Criselda’s. “Yet, we looked different from each other because she wore hers with a red tank top and pants while I chose black for a dramatic contrast. It was an influence from Le Rouge et le Noir, one of my favorite novels by Stendhal.”
‘Old money’ favorite
Two upper class ladies, in turn, purely heaped praises on Criselda’s clothes. Marivic Vasquez, entrepreneur and “old money” socialite whose closet boasts of a number of Criselda’s, said, “I like Criselda’s outfits as they are very versatile. I can mix match them and they are very kind to any shape of a woman.”
Chona Lopez, financial expert who, by birth and affinity, is a certified blue member of both of the country’s premier social clubs, Mancomunidad and Kahirup Clubs, said as a
matter-of-factly, “Criselda created clothes that mature women are able to carry well. Her designs were classic, timeless and elegant.
Testament to friendship
Nympha Javier Valencia, a retired banker and Criselda’s travel companion to a number of countries, finds Criselda’s dresses very elegant. She said, “I love her bouffant skirt or ball skirt and I love most her collection of dresses evoking the style of Audrey Hepburn. I find it very elegant and I feel so queenly when I wear them.”
“Her gowns have a very distinct character. You could tell if an outfit is a Criselda, including her flowery tops. Her signature is very evident.”
She is proud of her favorite Criselda gown which she considers “a testament to the beautiful story of our friendship. It speaks of the affection we had for each other. We’re both Batangueñas and we laughed a lot.”
She walked her talk
Criselda’s clothes were lapped up by her own ilk because she knew them from head to foot, inside and out, as the expressions would go. A frequent visitor to Criselda’s piece of queendom in Rustan’s Makati was Peching Gomez, 1960s top fashion model and today the torchbearer of her Tito Ramoning Valera’s legacy. She shared, “Criselda herself had so much elegance and flair. She walked her talk. She was always dressed elegantly anywhere you saw her. She was a lovely sight to see, very gracious and soft-spoken. I will miss her in Rustan’s where we usually had lunch or merienda at East Cafe which is just next to her shop.
“I will miss having relaxing, nice chats with her in her beautiful boutique. I would often leave with one or more Criselda outfits in my Rustan’s package.”
Grand dames’ choice
Finally, representing the grand dames of Manila’s 400, Menchu delas Alas Concepcion shared photos of herself with daughter Rica and granddaughter Natalia Araneta showing them in an article about Criselda as a Rustan’s best-selling brand.
Menchu recalled that she and Criselda had known each other for many years. “We called each other ‘prima’ since my mother is also a Lontok.”
She shared that “even at a young age, Criselda was already fashionable and very entrepreneurial. She had a shop, named Meysel, that offered made-to-order shoes.”
“When she moved out to Rustan’s in Makati, I was a regular patron. Criselda would call me ahead so I could have the first choice of her creations. I was a perfect size. I especially liked her clothes since they were comfortable, wearable, not overbearing and, most of all, stylish. To this day, my wardrobe is still filled with her creations.”
Menchu’s message is crystal clear — both Rustan’s and Criselda’s have transcended generations of patrons as mother and children and grandchildren patronize the same store and its best-selling brand. It has become a given that daughters who initially pick a Criselda or two from their mothers’ closets will eventually go to Criselda themselves. How this will continue for generations to come, even without the lady who was first a friend, and then an iconic fashion designer, we can only wonder and look forward to witnessing.