Kababayan Connections: Oliver Tolentino

By Jonathan A. Valdez

Kababayan Connections aims to connect conversations with Filipinos in the diaspora and UH Manoa students in how the study of the Philippines can be applied in different disciplines. Our first Connection is Oliver Tolentino.

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Hollywood fashion designer Oliver Tolentino was born in Bataan and attended college and fashion school in the Philippines.  After years of hard work as a designer in Manila, Tolentino gradually came to dress a “who’s who” of Filipino entertainers including Arnel Pineda, Lea Salonga, Kuh Ledesma, Lani Misalucha, Cherie Gil, Zsa Zsa Padilla, Regine Velasquez, Pops Fernandez, Sam Milby and former First Lady Imelda Marcos.  Tolentino’s creations have also been featured at the Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, Grammys, SAG Awards, American Billboard Awards, People’s Choice Awards, Cannes Film Festival, Monte Carlo TV Festival, and on TV programs American Idol, America’s Next Top Model (cycles 17 & 18)ExtraDick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s EveThe View, The Early Show, Live With Kelly & Michael, and E!’s Fashion Police.

In 2009, Tolentino became the first Filipino designer to expand operations to the United States when he opened a boutique on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles while maintaining his Manila boutique in Makati.   Tolentino soon attracted Hollywood’s attention, and was honored as a 2009 OSCARS Designer Challenge finalist, chosen as the prestigious “2011 Designer of the Week” at the El Paseo Fashion Week in Palm Springs and chosen the next year as the first featured designer of San Diego Women’s Week.  In the Philippines, ABS-CBN & Metro Society magazine honored him as their prestigious MetroWear Icon in 2011 and eco-ethical endeavor Rags2Riches selected him as its 2011 Featured Designer.

In 2013, Tolentino became the first Filipino designer in 53 years to have a gown worn by an Oscar winner with director Jennifer Lee winning for the smash Disney animated feature “Frozen.”  Only Tolentino and Pitoy Moreno, who dressed Puertorriqueña Rita Moreno when she won “Best Supporting Actress award for West Side Story” in 1961.

Oliver answered some questions for us about his personal and professional life:

What was your first experience with Philippine fabrics and what was it?

OT      I was born and raised in Bataan province so my first experience with wearing the fabric myself was my baptismal dress when I was one year old.

What influenced you to use Philippine and environmentally sustainable fabrics in your designs, and also where do you see this advocacy leading the Philippines?

OT       Being a Filipino designer, I’ve always worked with Philippine fabrics in barongs and ternos for clients.  When I opened my main atelier on Melrose Avenue 5 years go, I decided to promote our local fabrics on the international stage, and especially in Hollywood, in order to help all the weavers and embroiderers back home who pass these skills down from generation to generation.   But first I had to modernize the look of the fabrics so they’d be popular with non-Filipinos.  In 2009, I introduced the fabrics with my Oscars Designer Challenge gown, and in 2010, I showed pieces at Bahamas Fashion Week where I introduced the dean of the Parsons School of Design in New York to our fabrics.  He had never seen them before.  

More recently, I have gotten Hollywood celebrities to wear our fabrics.   Carrie Underwood, Jessica Alba, Emmy Rossum, Sophia Bush, Maria Menounos, and Tara Lipinski wore my dresses made out of Philippine fabrics.  Carrie wore my peach piña gown to perform on American Idol, Tara Lipinski reported live from the Kentucky Derby in my pink dress, and Maria Menounos put 3 of my gowns up for a vote to Extra TV viewers and they chose my blue piña gown for her to host Extra‘s Emmy Awards red carpet.  These things provided high-profile exposure to our fabrics.  I’ve shown Philippine fabric pieces in L.A., Palm Springs, New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Bahamas, Bali, Barbados, Hong Kong, Milan, and even at the U.N.’s Palais des Nacions in Switzerland, and I hope this will lead to our fabrics becoming more popular in the world, mostly because it benefits all the hard-working people back home who depend on this for their livelihoods.  I want to keep these centuries-old industries alive and prospering.

You mention briefly growing up and self-teaching yourself all about the fashion world in Bataan and visiting Aklan, Lumban, and Palawan, is there a dream spot in the Philippines you want to visit and why?

OT      I spend several months of each year in the Philippines.  I enjoy my time there and traveling to all our beautiful beaches and cities, but my dream spot will always be my home in Orani, Bataan.

Where do you see the Philippine fashion industry going?

OT      I think the Philippine fashion industry is always going to be healthy because we Filipinos are so interested in beauty and fashion.  I hope my presence in Los Angeles and Hollywood helps open the doors for Filipino designers, and I think some of that has happened in the past 5 years.  I made a decision when we opened the L.A. boutique to put up on the display window in big letters “MANILA * LOS ANGELES” under my name so everyone driving by and any actress or stylist coming there would know where I’m from.  I speak about being a Filipino and our food and beaches with every actress I meet and dress.  That opens their minds to the Philippines and to wearing Filipino designers.  In a small way, I’m trying to be an ambassador not just for Philippine fashion but for the Philippines.  And I’m humbled that visiting Filipinos pass by my Melrose boutique and take photos in front because they are proud.

For aspiring fashion designers what advice would you give them that has served you well?

OT      Fashion is not all about glamour like people think.  It’s a business where you have to work long hours, learn, know your craft, and constantly challenge yourself.  The greatest advice I can give anyone wanting to be a designer is to study and know everything about your business, not just how to draw.  Keep studying and learning every day.  And love what you do.

You can find more about Oliver Tolentino at http://www.olivertolentino.com/

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A special thank you to Oliver’s assistant Andrew Carutthers for being our go intermediary and helping CPS launch our first Kababayan Connection.

And another special thank you to Eileen Blancas for advice in writing this post.

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