Celebrating Beauty | Gilda Cordero-Fernando

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Words Sam L. Marcelo. Roundtable discussion moderated by Joan Orendain. Photography Jonathan Baldonado assisted by Arvin Somera. Hair and makeup by Genstein Yuzon-Griffin.

“Old” is having a moment. Writer Joan Didion added “face of Céline” to her résumé at the age of 80, when the French luxury house known for its cool minimalism used her slight countenance, swallowed by a pair of oversized sunglasses and a black sweater, for its 2015 spring campaign. That was also the year that Wang Deshun, a 79-year-old grandfather with a full beard and flowing white locks, sent hearts into tachycardia when he strutted shirtless down the runway during China Fashion Week. Last year, Iris Apfel, 94, was tapped for an advertising campaign by Australian fashion label Blue Illusion. And this year? Carmen Dell’Orefice, 85, closed the show for Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei in a blood-red ensemble that crowned her queen of the Parisian catwalk. Take that, Gigi Hadid.

To figure out this “trend” — if one can call it that — which has Millennials asking gray-haired grandmothers where they got their hair done (they didn’t), High Life invited sculptor Agnes Arellano, writer Gilda Cordero-Fernando, and painter Betsy Westendorp to a chat moderated by author Joan Orendain in Annabel’s Restaurant along Tomas Morato. All of them are over 60, considered to be retirement age in the Philippines; and all of them are still making, doing, and waging a war against idleness. On the agenda for that Sunday afternoon in April: finding out what fuels their creativity and where they find beauty.



Ever the dilettante, Gilda Cordero-Fernando is a writer, publisher, painter, impresario, and aspiring cosplayer, among many other things. She arrived, wild-haired, in silver shoes and a striped ensemble — flouting the only directive given to the three invitees (no stripes, please).

Her artistic endeavors are all over the map, reflecting a mind that is as curious about aswangs as it is about adobo. “My painting and writing have nothing to do with each other. Nothing I do has anything to do with each other,” she said. “This is my theory in life: Some people create the same things over and over and over — and they make masterpieces. I don’t like doing the same thing again and again, ever. Sometimes I’m doing a play; sometimes I’m doing a fashion show; sometimes I’m doing whatever. I will never do the same thing. My happiness is the change, the movement, the difference in the things I do.”

The breadth of her ideas defies description. In one of her columns for The Philippine Daily Inquirer, she reminisced about Jamming on an Old Saya and how difficult it was to find sponsors for a project that even she couldn’t describe. “Is it a play? Yes, but more than. Is it a drama? Of course, but more than. A fashion show, I was told. Not quite,” Cordero-Fernando wrote in “My love affair with the ‘saya.’” Jamming on an Old Saya, staged in 1995 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, was all those things and more. Designers, couturiers, and artists reinterpreted the traditional dress for an anything-but-traditional event that included “dancers and an almost-nude man painted gold climbing a rope.”

She did the same thing for wheelchairs, when she gathered artists and asked them to turn wheelchairs into sculptural objects of whimsy. A parade and exhibition celebrating the birthday of Apolinario Mabini, the Sublime Paralytic of the Philippine Revolution, included a golden-winged wheelchair, which Cordero-Fernando chose as her throne, and a many-breasted wheelchair by — who else — Agnes Arellano. “My job had been to coax, wheedle, threaten and plead with the artists to finish their work on time,” wrote Cordero-Fernando in the Inquirer in 2013. 

Despite her many creative achievements, the 86-year-old Cordero-Fernando wrestles with a dilemma common to dabblers: “I’d be happier doing better stuff, creating nicer things,” she confessed, and was right away greeted with dissent. The world would be a much poorer place if she settled on just one thing. No more cloth collages. No more fantastical wheelchairs. No more beautiful paintings. At one point in the conversation, Cordero-Fernando mused: “‘Beautiful’ is the wrong word. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is a dangerous word.”