Tingting Cojuangco — Christian Espiritu’s ultimate muse

Through the years of Philippine fashion history, Margarita “Tingting” de los Reyes Cojuangco has always been known as the muse of the iconic Filipino designer Christian Espiritu who recently passed away. Theirs is a friendship that had stood the test of time.

Tingting was named one of the 100 beautiful women of the world by the international magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, on the occasion of its 100-founding anniversary. During the early years of the 1970s, she made it to the Hall of Fame of Manila’s Best Dressed List, an annual selection initiated by the old guard of Philippine fashion, among them Ramon Valera, Salavacion Lim Higgins of Slim’s, Pilar Romack of New Yorker Gown Salon, and Imelda Reyes of Milie’s Gowns.

A PORTRAIT of Christian Espiritu by Jaime Zobel de Ayala, 1987.

In the 1980s, Tingting, who graced the social pages as a teenager and a young matron, transformed into a new woman, this time as a street activist braving the firecanons and tear gas, a Yellow campaigner in the South, and finally a graduate student and scholar specializing in the ethnic muslim communities of Cotabago and Zamboanga. She would cap this with a National Defense College master’s thesis on the then rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front. 

Through it all, she kept her friendship with the man who first showed the world her potential. Christian saw in Tingting, this gangly   yet beautiful teenager, a lady worth grooming and turning into an icon of fashion. Tingting thus became Christian’s muse. Chosen by her mother and grandmother, Christian made her outfit for her high school prom at Maryknoll College. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and collaboration that would pass through social, political and economic upheavals in this country. No matter, they were constant in each other’s lives, not minding intrigues, the cycle of fortunes and the recent demise of her original mentor and designer, Christian, brought Tingting out of her reculsive and quiet life to share with the Daily Tribune her memories of the designer who streamline Filipiniana, incorporating his knowledge as a graduate of architecture.

CHRISTIAN and Tingting photographed by Jaime Zobel de Ayala.

The interview with Tingting Cojuangco follows:

“He launched my modeling career”

Daily Tribune (DT): How did you meet Christian? Did you go to him for your teenage formal dresses, and not only during your wedding?

Tingting delos Reyes Cojuangco (TRC): My mom and grandma Lucia “Dada” admired the simplicity of his designs on the Christian Espiritu shop on their way to fetch me from Maryknoll College.

The display changed constantly but the clothes were cut simply along the revered lines of Audrey Hepburn’s and Jackie Onassis.  His below the knee dresses were sleeveless, with a boat collar, 2-pin tucks under the bust accentuated the waist and hips that ended in semi straight skirt.  Mom brought me into his shop at age 15 it was called “Christian” for Christian Espiritu. He launched my modeling career at 16 years old with Gilbert Perez who taught me how to pose.  Mother always reminded me, a pretty face looses attraction if the voice isn’t modulated or manners are impeccable and courteousness for elders.  Christian reinforced Mom’s belief, simplicity are carried off with poise, beauty and elegance.

Christian’s creativeness suggested taste with ease and wealth subdued characterizing by minimalism.

DT: Tell me about that wedding gown. Why did you choose him and not Valera or one of the stalwarts of the era? What was his inspiration for the gown? What did you tell him about your preferences?

TRC: He made my wedding gown and the whole entourage.  My in-laws wanted my wedding gown to be made by Valera a great designer of his time.  But I insisted on Christian.  

For my wedding gown he sketched the simplest white gown, it turned out he had sequins sewed on the satin fabric one by one.  He put a sheer fabric organza on top of the gown.  It was very elegant for my morning wedding as the sequins shined different colors depending on the lights. That was his precision.

For my wedding Christian was at home with his assistant Romulo Estrada.  I recall Inno Sotto as his right hand, both dressed me up constantly.

Did I have a preference in designs?  He said “bahala na ako” and I agreed. That was trust and loyalty.  He designed my dresses with simplicity, cut perfectly, shaping my thin body whether it was a day dress or gown.

“His dresses were cut perfectly.”

DT:  When you were married already, did you still see him for your outfits? Which of the dresses and gowns he made for you do you remember?

TRC: Yes, we had a friendship of two family’s compadres and ninangs.  He did China’s wedding gown of gray and pink even if he claimed he was retired.  I forced him.

DT: What made him an outstanding designer?

TRC: Simplicity. His dresses were cut perfectly and fabrics that didn’t crumple with pin tucks here and there.  With the timelessness in the designs and his execution I could wear Christian’s couture clothes for many years. 

DT: You are in the Best Dressed Hall of Fame. Was he among the designers that you admired and commissioned to do your dresses?

TRC: Yes, and our friendship developed through the years and confidence.  He never spoke bad of anybody.  He would just put his hands together and smile.

DT: Any unforgettable creation of his exclusively for you? Can you describe some of the gowns and dresses he made for you?

TRC: I had a satin dress with a round Chinese emblem and tassel. His clothes for me were stand outs…my gowns for formal functions were of full skirts.

“He said, ‘The language of fashion is refined, cultured and well-mannered.’”

DT: When was the last time you saw him?  Tell us about that last encounter with him.

TRC: At an Elegant Women event in Diamond Hotel, Elegance…Merriam-Webster defines it as “refined grace or dignified propriety; tasteful richness of design or ornamentation; restrained beauty of style.”  The Cambridge Dictionary writes “graceful and attractive in appearance or behavior.”

When the project of elegant women first came up, it was for me to make a list of best dressed women.  It had been done too many times now without a conclusion.

I figure that there are many Filipinas who have the perfect body for dressing, who dress and accessorize well – but money and a stylist can do that.  And, as the cliché goes, money cannot buy class.  So, the concept evolved and we agreed on making a list of The Elegant Filipina.  We also decided that, first, this project would be for a cause, and second, that I would be allowed to redefine the meaning of elegance to inspire others to contribute to one’s community, society and country by being an elegant example.

While the list was handpicked by me, I sought advice to validate my choices.  This panel was composed of designer Christian Espiritu, fashion entrepreneur Tina Ocampo, Monaco Consul Fortune Ledesma, Philippine Tatler’s Editor-In-Chief Anton San Diego, and Managing Editor Chit Lijauco and Pete Cura.  We defined an Elegant Filipina as:

He said “The woman at the center of attention knows that the language of fashion is refined, cultured and well-mannered; Commands respect in her chosen field; leaves a legacy of power and grace, beauty and sophistication, wisdom and compassion.”

At the first Elegant Women event, he was elegant in his suit with a scarf wearing his trade mark of silver bracelets or varied silver rings.  I called him three weeks ago and we promised to see each other.  It didn’t happen.

“He never mixed politics with art.”

DT: He turned his back on his number one client, Imelda Marcos, after Ninoy died. Were you ever with Christian during the Anti-Marcos rallies? Do you recall if he was in EDSA?

TRC: Christian was calm, well educated, schooled and respectful.  He wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.  Never mixed politics and arts.

I don’t know about that. I was not with Christian rallying.  For rallies I only wore blue jeans or khaki pants and trubenized blouses made of cotton white t-shirt.

DT: Who are his other clients from your social set? Who were his loyal customers.

TRC:  I don’t know.  I didn’t care nor ask.  That’s not my concern.

DT:  How did your relationship evolve in the latter years of his life?

TRC: I love him.  He was part of my growing up and getting old.

DT:  What do you think was his greatest contribution to Philippine fashion? How did he influence the Philippine fashion industry?

TRC: He kept piña alive and the Paranaque bordaderas working day to midnight in their livelihood of Filipino tradition.  He used muted colors of fabric.  He made women look elegant and desired without showing of their bodies.

I agreed that elegance can be expensive.  But elegance can be inexpensive too, but confidence and amiability are the key factors.