Imelda Valenzuela Menguito-Sciandra | PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF Imelda Valenzuela Menguito-Sciandra

Hers might have been the typical journey of a provincial lass from an upper-middle-class family who attended a private school in her hometown, later moved to Manila in one of the convent schools, and then worked in one of the top 1,000 corporations.

Imelda Valenzuela Menguito-Sciandra might have taken a similar route, but she ended up a lot more than the quintessential young Filipina, especially of yore, who preferred to play a supporting role in whatever endeavors they were engaged in. This is not to say that there were no Filipinas who looked beyond the confines of traditions and more that have limited the role of women, relegating them to taking care of the home and children. Some did exceedingly well. And that may be said of Imelda too, for she chose to explore life beyond the confines of her privileged upbringing as the daughter of an entrepreneur-restaurateur couple. Life might have been easy for Imelda but, no, she worked hard at becoming the successful woman that she is today.

What Imelda offers us in her store, Corso Como, with its latest branch at Ayala One, are imported goods, mostly of the top Italian brands, at a friendly price and with many choices to choose from. She also offers accessories that are within the budget of our young women and professionals as well as members of the workforce who want to look fashionable without hurting their pockets. And yes, she offers non-branded luxury items and she calls them artisanal, made by the best artists and craftsmen of Florence and Milan.

Of course, if one is out to splurge and have so much wherewithal, Imelda’s Corso Como is the place to go as its first store in Ayala Malls the 30th in Pasig and the latest in One Ayala, have proven to be a mecca of sorts for our women of both leisure and purpose. Here, these ladies of varied persuasions bump into each other, as they take a look at the merchandise that they would have access to only if they went to Italy and one of the cosmopolitan cities especially of Europe. But if one didn’t have that much as the other well-oiled ladies, too, one need not be sad, for there are many items that are within one’s reasonable budget, if one took a look and assessed the items by their beauty and quality. Of course, it won’t compare to the number one department store in the country, the ultimate purveyor of luxury, but Como Corso is an option for those who shop within a certain budget.

Growing up in Pampanga  

Imelda is a proud provinciana from Pampanga who talks about being the daughter, the third of four children, of Ruben Menguito and his better half, Lely Valenzuela. If her mom’s name rings a bell, it is because they owned Café Valenzuela, a favorite dining place of travelers coming from Cagayan Valley or the Ilocos Regions, as these branches of this 1970s-to-1980s iconic restaurant, located in San Fernando and Dau (Mabalacat) Pampanga, which people frequented for its PX goods, and in Guiguinto, Bulacan, were suitably located along the highway.

“I grew up eating our native delicacies,” Imelda shared in an interview with the DAILY TRIBUNE. “My parents managed the Café Valenzuela. It was my grandfather, Atty. Maximo Valenzuela, who founded Café Valenzuela. He was good at strategizing. I grew up looking at his blueprint plans for Café Valenzuela. He knew where there would be cars passing through and so he chose those locations.”

Imelda attended the Holy Family Academy in Angeles City, where their family lived. But when Mount Pinatubo erupted and wreaked havoc on the whole of Pampanga, they moved to Manila. Imelda transferred to Saint Scholastica’s College where she graduated from high school. For college, she went to the University of the Philippines in Diliman where she took up Hotel and Restaurant Management.

Her path had not exactly been straight in terms of her interests. In elementary, “I was a journalist and editor of the school paper. I enjoyed cooking because our family owned Café Valenzuela.”

“I chose UP because if you wanted to pursue a career in restaurant management, it was the best option. There were no culinary schools then. I enrolled at the UP College of Home Economics. It maintained a coffee shop, the Tea Room, where we practiced the skills we were learning.”

Imelda made the most of her UP stay, and even joined the top sorority, UP Sigma Delta Phi (Batch 1994), the counterpart of Upsilon, the fraternity of President Marcos and Ninoy Aquino, among other statesmen and luminaries. Willie Fernandez, the DAILY TRIBUNE owner and publisher, is an Upsilonian, along with Speaker Martin Romualdez and Red Cross chief executive officer and former Senator Richard Gordon and Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan. Her sorority, on the other hand, counts among its greats Nelia Sancho, the beauty queen-turned-activist; business executive Marife Zamora, who started Convergys; and Dinah Sabal Ventura, the managing editor and Life editor of the DAILY TRIBUNE.  

Sigma Delta emphasized fine arts and dramatics, but then, she clarified, “It depends on what interests you had. What’s important is you excel in whatever you do. They teach you and support you in your chosen field. And we had a lot of outreach programs. It’s one of the strong points that make UP good. Our memories of UP are very strong because of our immersion in the communities.”

Pastry chef

Imelda apprenticed at The Peninsula Manila. “That’s where I got the inspiration to continue. I worked with expat chefs in the pastry kitchen. There was this Austrian-German head chef. Since ang dami kong natutunan sa kanya, parang ang saya nga talaga to learn, you know. So, sabi ko, ‘When I finish this, I’ll get a job, save and go to Europe and study.”

She was supposed to end her apprenticeship after six months, “but I enjoyed the experience so much that I asked to extend and they allowed me. Not only that, they employed me. I stayed for one year. By then, I could call myself a pastry chef.

“My aim was to learn how to cook in the hot kitchen. I moved to Chateau 1771 in Malate. Then, I was hired as a management trainee. For a while, I applied for a course in fundamentals of cooking and regional Italian cuisine in Italy.

“I chose Italian cuisine because at The Peninsula, there was this Mi Piace, and the chef, Andrea, encouraged me to go to Italy because it’s the best place to learn hands-on. I applied for a student visa. I was 25 years old then.”

It was a fateful decision for when she saw Italy and lived there, she decided to stay put. She enrolled at the Instituto Lorenzo de Medici in Florence. “Tuluy-tuloy na. I was supposed to go home after finishing my course and try my luck in the Philippines to open a restaurant.”

Meeting Valter

Two months of her stay in Italy, she met the man who would become her husband, Valter Sciandra. “He spoke good English so we had an easy time communicating. He was working for a multinational company as an engineer. He is older than I by 14 years. Since he was matured already, he was living on his own. I am his first wife.

“Since he worked with so many Filipinos as his staff, he knew what ligaw or courtship Pinoy style was. He knew how to court me. He somehow possessed certain Filipino traits, like mapaglambing (being affectionate), romantic and cariñoso, which are very Italian, too.”

She was 27 by then and was working with Pizzaria Davide in Florence, an establishment quite well known. “I was very fond of the owners.”

In January 2005, after three years of being together, they tied the knot. “We decided to know each other better first.” He liked her being smart and independent because he was traveling a lot. “He didn’t like me crying and sulking when he had to be away. Since he is a petroleum engineer, he is often visiting the deserts in the Middle East. For the longest time, he has been working with Technomont, an engineering firm for oil and gas in Milan. He studied mechanical engineering in Turin. He takes pride in being self-taught, though, because of his wide experience.”

“From day one, he loved the Philippines. He had been here before I met him. He was sent by a company to look for construction projects here in the Philippines. After several trips here, that was the only time we met in Italy. We were telling each other we were meant to be. ‘I’ve been looking everywhere, and it turns out you’re just here.’”

Less than a year into their marriage, they lived in the Middle East, right on the desert. “We would go back and forth between Abu Dhabi and Italy. It was fun being an expat’s wife as I got to see new places, immerse in new cultures. I joined groups of expats’ wives.”

For all her international exposure, Imelda remains a Filipina “especially when it comes to cooking. When I entertain at home, I serve Filipino food like adobo, pansit and lumpia and these are the bestsellers, so to speak. I recently introduced okoy and how they love it.”

A nice bag for 300 Euro

As early as 2002, she began sending leather products like bags to the Philippines. “I was in Florence, which has always been known for fashion and its leather products. So, I would go to the top brands’ outlets like Gucci. I would buy shoes at Prada. The prices were not too prohibitive then. Then, my friends from UP would ask me to buy this and that for them. Until it reached that point when they would ask me to buy as many as 20 pieces of a particular design. And they would take care of selling them back home.

“My husband was wondering if anyone would buy those products in the Philippines. Since I was sending them new brands or brands that are not too well known in the Philippines. He felt that they would not buy something that was strange to them, and if these were the famous brands naman, that would be very expensive. He was surprised when they were all sold fast.

“Besides I knew the crowd that would buy these things. And, unlike now that they cost millions of pesos, one could have nice bags with only 300 to 500 euros per bag.”

She alludes to the increase in prices to the fact that “people have progressed in their taste. My husband was amazed that people were buying them with cash when we met up with them. ‘Oh, these people, they have money,’ he would exclaim. ‘What do you think of them?’ I’d answer back. They know the brands, and they know what to ask from me. You won’t believe they want more than what they’ve already bought. People have become more sophisticated because the internet allows them access to the latest in fashion. They have become aware of brands that they did not know before.  

“Besides, the Italians would buy just one bag and they’d use it for one whole year. But the Filipinos would buy several bags and change them as often as they could, depending on the occasion they are attending. May pang-office, may pang party, may pang supermarket and mall. Most of my clients would buy one bag a month. And always, they want to pair it with something suitable, mahilig sa terno-terno.”

From Multiply to Facebook

Imelda started with an online store in 2008 and it lasted for the longest time. “I began with Friendster and then, Multiply. By 2011, I had shifted to Facebook. All the while, I was trying to get pregnant. While buying and shopping, I became pregnant. These activities gave me relaxation and not stress. It was like a hobby but I was even earning from it.”

The pandemic was particularly busy for her, as people were not traveling and so they ended up ordering online. “That was when I began showing them the goods in video. I would do live streaming. Since there were a lot of Filipinos watching, I would speak in Taglish. They were saying damang dama daw yung mga pinapakita ko (They were saying what I was showing was deeply felt).”

Confident person

As a parting shot, Imelda said, “You know, it’s important that you love what you’re selling. It’s difficult to sell something that I do not like or appreciate. I don’t even show them something that I do not find beautiful or attractive or suitable for their purposes. Every bag, a pair of shoes or accessory should be inspiring. It should make them feel beautiful. Even the unbranded bags from Florence, which we refer to as artisan, have to look attractive and elegant or sporty depending on what they want. But they have to be worth the price and the investment.  

“It has helped that I know the quality and the workmanship and the leather. I smell the leather. Ang ganda niya even if it has no brand. It takes a person to wear that, someone who’s confident enough to wear something without brand. Because the person wearing it is the one adding value to her bag, her outfit and her accessories. It’s not the bag adding value to her.

No one, indeed, could say it any better. As she concluded our conversation, “They’re very happy with their purchases. I think that’s because I am an effective seller because I am able to show the quality of these products, whether branded or not. The bottom line is, as we say in Filipino, nasa nagdadala and we are famous for that trait. Being able to project ourselves well and thus enhance the value of our bag, a pair of shoes, a pair of earrings or a bracelet.”