Power dressing

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THE EPISTOLARY novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, published in the 18th century, bore this warning from one of its main characters, the Marquise de Merteuil: “Older ladies must never be crossed: in their hands lie the reputations of the young ones.” In context, the Marquise was in the middle of plotting the downfall of a younger, naive rival.

Criselda Lontok’s fashion shows always start and end early. Her most recent show at Rustan’s Makati last week ended at least an hour before sunset. Some kids, of course, are used to evening fashion shows which turn into all-nighter raves, but we suppose Ms. Lontok’s fans, grandes dames, have more important things to do than pass out drunk in a cubicle somewhere. After all, their empires (or their husbands’) won’t build themselves.

Ms. Lontok’s Spring/Summer collection for Rustan’s present a lightness that tempers the gravitas of the woman who usually wears Criselda Lontok. The line is also current, as reflected in voluminous tops that have been seen on the Paris runways recently. Socialites Linda Ley, Yoli Ayson, Lilibeth Campos, Suzette Hahn-Lopez, Ruth Rodriguez, and Gina Mohnani all walked the runway at Rustan’s. Bell sleeves, ruffles, and textured fabrics are all the rage in Ms. Lontok’s collection; as are bold — very bold — colors and prints: think hot pink tops, coupled with white pants printed with large pink roses. The overall effect is of a woman announcing her arrival without a word, but with a single look.

Ms. Lontok began designing for Rustan’s in 1983, but first began climbing that corporate ladder even earlier. Seeing that she’s been in the business for a long time, she keeps her mind fresh and her eye young.

“I always surf the Net, and I look at different magazines.” Of course, she says, “I don’t take [the fashions] as [they are]. I always adjust it to my clients, so they won’t be fashion victims.”

Designers don’t just sell garments. What designers really sell is a dream: how would you live your life in these clothes? Ms. Lontok says about the dream she sells: “Elegance all the way.” She does have a reputation of dressing some of Manila’s most powerful older women, who have, despite the constraints of well-bred tradition, been able to work and play. “I want them to look pretty and elegant at all times.”

These women, of course, have managed to build their families as well, and all around the nation, a young woman is now looking at her lola or her mother, building the dream that if she plays her cards right, she too, can become a Criselda Lontok woman when she grows up.

Speaking about what the young think of her clothes, she said, “At first they think that it’s only for the lolas and the mommies. But now, they’re thinking, ‘I can wear it.’ At least, they’re not looking to adapting to the lola fashions. They have their own, and they can find it here.”

At her age (it’s hard to ascertain; Ms. Lontok is as well-maintained as her clients), it’s surprising to find out that she has even expanded her line: Ms. Lontok now makes bags and shoes, the shoes with a decidedly polite but powerful stance, with expressive heels and buckles.

“It’s still going crazy,” she said. Asked about why she has lasted so long in the business, she said, “I’m a very practical person. I come out with styles that are not really out-of-this-world.”

Asked if she ever plans to retire, she said, “No — as long as I’m alive, as long as I’m strong.” — Joseph L. Garcia