First, you find a passion. Then you put into hard work. Those words seem clichéd and repetitive enough, like an overplayed hit song or advertisement on television. But it’s the formula for success along with meeting the right people which Manila-based fashion designer John Ablaza has utilized to reach his status as a trailblazer in the fashion industry.
Coming of the recent success of Toronto’s inaugural Canada Philippine Fashion Week, John took the time to sit down to talk about his life, career, and of course his passion for fashion. I interviewed him at the house of Carlito and Elizabeth Del Rosario of Scarborough, where he stayed during his Toronto stopover.
“The first Filipino fashion week in Toronto was a huge success. Toronto is a great fashion destination; it has the potential to rank up there with the likes of New York, Milan, Paris, Madrid, and Tokyo.”
His humble beginnings started in De La Salle University where he studied Horticulture, where it eventually landed him a job in Taiwan as a florist decorator. During his gig as a florist, he was able to contribute in a Horticultural Garden Project for Imelda Marcos. But his first big break arrived at a fashion show in the Asia World Hotel in Taipei where he was a wardrobe assistant. This gave him the first taste of the industry, which fueled his passion to pursue a career as a fashion designer.
“I had the opportunity to become a wardrobe assistant. From that moment, I developed the passion and knew that I wanted to be in this industry for a long time.”
Mentored by Chico Antonio, John participated in his first fashion show in 1987 called the “4 plus 1” fashion show in Manila. Before reaching his current success in the world of glamour and glitz, he had to learn things on his own and experience the tough times financially.
“As an upcoming designer, I had to work on my own. I was strapped for cash at one point in the 90’s.”
He pointed out that his career’s turning point materialized in 1998, the Philippines’ 100th anniversary of its independence.
“I was approached by the Philippine Centennial Movement. They asked me to design a replica of Jose Rizal’s clothes which was a great honour. I considered that to be the turning point of my career.”
John describes his fashion style as haute couture — garments that cater to the high-end market such as evening and wedding gowns. In addition to this style, he is very active in creating native Filipino clothes made from indigenous materials.
“The inspirations of my designs come from my travels, seeing the world and its beauty. I don’t look at fashion magazines or high-end stores. I can get inspired by looking at museum exhibits and just by meeting new people.”
His fashion exploits have been seen in such places as France, Belgium, Germany, and Spain. He is well-travelled indeed. As a sought-out fashion designer, he has taken advantage of his success by writing his first book, Ramp Diva: Filipina, published in 2012. The book (which took him two years to complete) profiles top Filipino models of the last five decades — all of which he contacted personally — some who live overseas even flew back to the Philippines for the interview. Current top Filipino models that are in Ramp Diva include Angel Aquino, Patty Betita, Marina Benipayo, and Ria Bolivar.
With so many accomplishments, John manages to represent the Filipino culture with class and style. His current project is working with the Mangyan tribe women in Mindoro by teaching them embroidery. He considers himself to be more of an artist than a business man.
“As a fashion professional, I am not cosmetic deep. It is important for me to stay cultured.”
John’s next stop is New York where he will be meeting with the Philippine Consulate for a possible fashion show and exhibit next year. In five years’ time, he would like to continue sharing his talents to those interested, maybe setting up workshops and starting his own school of fashion.
“To be successful in this industry, you have to stay grounded all the time. The fashion industry is tough, it takes a lot of sacrifice and once you are at the top, you have to work even harder than before to maintain your success.”
For the past three decades, John Ablaza has left an indelible mark in the Philippine fashion industry. He represents our culture with class and sophistication, and continues to make extraordinary pieces with a cultural touch.
Quick Facts About John Ablaza:
Favorite Designers: International – Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Gianfranco Ferret; Filipino – Auggie Cordero, Inno Sotto, Albert Andrada
Favorite Books: Biographies of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, or The Royal Family
Hobbies: Gardening, Cooking, Travelling