Paying tribute to Criselda,  Rustan’s bestselling iconic fashion designer

In her lifetime, Criselda Lontok epitomized the kind of woman for whom the legendary Glecy Rustia Tantoco established her home-based establishment that would grow into the country’s foremost luxury department store.

No wonder that the Rustan’s Department Store founder, known for her keen understanding of the ladies of Manila’s 400, whose discriminating tastes and preferences she kept to heart when choosing the store’s one-of-a-kind merchandise, offered to Criselda, one of Manila’s most beautiful women and smartest dressers, a beauty queen and a fashion model, an exclusive line intended for her kind.

Criselda, who had served initially as a buyer and merchandiser, and spearheaded a number of homegrown Italian-inspired Rustan’s labels, accepted the challenge, keeping in mind her friends and acquaintances, the quintessential upper-class Filipina – fashionable, committed to philanthropic and civic causes, herself engaged in an enterprise or a profession that fits her collegial or finishing school education and, of course, prominent and socially-adept. Having seen the world and constantly on the go in the jet-setting era, these women, like Criselda herself, knew the best of foreign brands and were accustomed to wearing them.

Taking her cue from the composite personality traits of her intended clientele, Criselda went on to create dresses that appealed to the ladies’ fine sensibilities anchored on a lifestyle of privilege, comfort, grace, and sophisticated aesthetics.

Her ingenuity could not have been more apt, as proven by her designs hogging the limelight, the topic of conversation among socialites who finally found the dress that fit them and their style, and, becoming the best-seller of Rustan’s.

From its beginnings in the early 1980s, the label Criselda went on to grow as among the top offerings and go-to brands of the country’s sole purveyor of high style. And even as Rustan’s aimed for inclusivity to address the needs of professionals and customers who aspired to the good life within their budget, Criselda remained the top choice for those who sought to be attractive and stylish, while being practical and wise in their choices. A Criselda was always a good investment.

Through the decades, just like a select few things that get better as they get older, Criselda, the exclusive clothing brand, has transcended fashion trends and social seasons and has maintained its eminent position in the country’s pret-a-porter sector.

Criselda’s recent demise might have led to a void, especially in the firmament of Philippine fashion, but her eponymous brand, Criselda, just like her name, has endured. She may be gone but she is remembered, first by her Rustan’s family led by Zenaida R. Tantoco, CEO and Chairman of the Rustan Group of Companies, her friends, devoted clientele, and the many others whose lives she touched through her professionalism, kindness, friendliness, and warmth, which she generously gave especially to those who came to peruse her creations, mostly cut along classic lines but not sacrificing women’s desire to be chic and trendy.

Her career with Rustan’s is a story worth telling as it is inspiring, one that would encourage our young women to pursue their dreams. As a young wife and mother who believed she could contribute to the world out there, Criselda applied for a job at Rustan’s. The grand lady of the number one purveyor of luxury in the country, Glecy R. Tantoco, took her in despite her initial doubts as to whether Criselda, who comes from a good family in Batangas and married into another good family from Laguna, would stick it out despite the rigorous requirements of the job. Glecy Tantoco was known for her insistence on the efficiency of her staff, along with a strong sense of service and an overall image in terms of personal looks and demeanor that defined the Rustan’s style of appropriateness, class, and good breeding.

Thankfully, Criselda proved herself worthy, even as she had had to deal directly with her tough and no-nonsense boss. In fact, they clicked, as Glecy turned out to be a supportive mentor. Taking Criselda under her wing, she gave her additional responsibilities and assigned her to the forefront when dignitaries and international socialites shopped at Rustan’s.

More than the label and the prestige, what Glecy Tantoco gave her were the right work ethic and belief in herself. Criselda remembered her mentor, “ GRT (as Glecy was called) was so very hardworking,  you just had to be as hardworking, too. I truly admired her foresight. She had the drive. She taught me that I must be sure of myself and only if I was sure should I pursue whatever I wanted to do.”

It did not take long for Criselda’s outfits to become a must among Manila’s prominent women who love to wear them not only when attending big parties but also when visiting with friends, shopping at the mall, or relaxing with the family at home.  Whether these were day dresses,  afternoon outfits, cocktail dresses, or ravishing evening gowns, they lapped them up, happy at the thought of not having to bother with fittings and the encumbrances that went with wearing haute couture.

If they wore her creations, it was because they believed her when she spoke to them of fashion sense and carriage and, of course, compatibility with what they wore. She once said, “It is important to consider your age. An 80-year-old woman should not even wear mini skirts…just a little above the knee is permissible but not one that shows her prominent varicose veins and other unsightly parts.”

Anyone of senior age, or any age, for that matter, “should always consider her personality and the occasion when she chooses her clothes. Always be neat and use a little perfume,” she admonished women who want to be proper and pleasant.

But if she shared her thoughts, she herself was her best example. Criselda used her own brand all the time, whether for office work, lunch, or dinner with friends.” She declared, “I wear Criselda long gowns to formal affairs. This is one way of showing my line. I got good results because some of my friends and even new acquaintances would ask me to reserve that same style for them. I promote my brand by wearing them.”

Two years ago, Criselda moved on, leaving behind a cache of unused personal outfits and haute couture creations, for which Rustan’s management and Criselda’s children conceptualized the CRISELDA RETROSPECTIVE to pay tribute to the designer who dressed Manila’s power and privilege set.

Last 14 September, the Criselda Retrospective opened at the premier flagship store, Rustan’s Makati. Currently on display at the Gallerie on the second floor of Rustan’s is a curated selection of the iconic fashion designer’s creations along with 53 of her formal gowns. Tomorrow 21 September, Thursday, 108 of her masterpieces will be made available to her clientele in an auction, proceeds of which will be donated to Bantay Bata 163.

Started in 1997, Bantay Bata 163 caters to child protection and family development. Its flagship programs include Helpline 163, the pioneer hotline for reporting child-related cases. For decades, Bantay Bata has served more than 2,000,000 Filipino children and families. They have also extended their services to include interventions that cater to mental health for the youth and families (through Project MIND) and help schools and communities be safer spaces for children (through the Child Safe Schools Project).