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Criselda Lontok

Fashion Icon / Veteran Designer

Security Bank client since 2012

Criselda Lontok reveals her secret to being timeless in fashion and in life

Timelessness is more than just passing the test of time, it’s about ageing with confidence and grace. For most, it’s impossible to achieve. But for Criselda Lontok—a model turned fashion designer—age is really just a number.

Her principle to staying relevant is simple: combining elegance with practicality. “Sometimes my customers come up to me and say ‘Oh my god! It’s been 10 years since I bought this dress and look, I can still wear it.’ You can always be elegant, but practical at the same time. That’s the legacy that I want to leave the fashion industry.” Seated next to John Fernandez—her youngest son—in her eponymous Rustan’s store, Criselda begins to reminisce.

Criselda entered the world of fashion in the ’70s. “Oh it was so different,” she muses, shaking her head with a smile. “At that time we were chosen because you belonged to a good family. Our way of modelling that time was so simple—even our background music was just Sampaguita! The pace was so slow… but we had fun [laughs]”

In 1974, the former beauty queen of Batangas moved on to retail where she came under the tutelage of no other than Gliceria Tantoco—the grand matriarch of Rustan’s high-end store. Eventually, Mrs. Tantoco gave Criselda her own line, which turned out to be Rustan’s top-selling local brand for the next three decades. She points to her name inscribed at the wall of her store and recalls: “[Mrs. Tantoco] said that ‘I want you to continue this.’ That was the legacy that was given to me by her.”

As she winds her career down, Criselda’s long-term thinking is continuing to pay off—only this time, it doesn’t involve cloth and needles. “I’ve always believed in investing… With financial investments, you really have to choose the one that suits you best. With Security Bank, I’m assured that I’m putting my money in the best of banks.”

“Hold on for a moment,” the fashion veteran cuts in as she excuses herself mid-interview to greet customers entering the store. For her, the relationships that she has built with them are second to none. When asked later what keeps her going, Criselda simply replies “I love what I’m doing. If you love your work, you can go on and on. Not unless the Lord will call you and say ‘Hey you! You better come up already.’ And I hope it’s really up – not down! [laughs]”

How did you get started in the fashion industry

Criselda: I actually took up Foreign Service in college which I know is far from fashion design—how I ended up here still amazes me.

Not many people know this, but I used to be a [fashion] model during my younger days. That led me to being a fashion designer.

Modelling was so different back then compared to today. During our time, you were chosen because you belonged to a good family; there weren’t any schools for models back then. Everything was slower, from the way we walked to the way we posed. We weren’t paid, either. Sometimes, the designer will just give you a dress but most of the time, we weren’t paid at all.

But it was so much fun. There was a time when we would fly around different cities in the country just to model. The event was called Fashion on Wings. Every night was a different city and every day we would be on the front page of Manila Times. We really had fun. I continued modelling until I got married and settled down.

How did you end up working at Rustan’s?

C: How did I start working at Rustan’s… well, Mrs. Tantoco and my parents were friends and both from Lipa, Batangas so she knew me since I was young. When I applied for the position of Merchandise Manager, Mrs. Tantoco asked me “Are you really going to work? Because here [at Rustan’s] we all work hard.” I said “Yes, I’ll work.” At the time I was still young and socializing so she wouldn’t believe me. In fact, she interviewed me twice just to make sure I was really serious about the position and that I was really going to work, you know? [laughs]

So I took the test, passed it with flying colors and then that was it. That was the start. That was in 1974. Until now, I’m still here, so that makes 42 years of working in Rustan’s and in the fashion industry.

The biggest challenge for me then were the computations. I didn’t realize at first that being a merchandise manager meant I had to deal with a lot of accounting. I hate math.

What was the transition like from being a model, to a manager and eventually a fashion designer?

C: Being a model as opposed to being a merchandise manager was so different. It was a transition to a more serious role so I knew I had to learn the ropes. It didn’t help that I had finished Foreign Service which had no connection to retailing, but I got by. I handled the whole ladies and teens department–Rustan’s wasn’t as big yet at that time.

The biggest challenge for me then were the computations. I didn’t realize at first that being a merchandise manager meant I had to deal with a lot of accounting. I hate math. That part I usually delegated to someone more inclined in numbers. [laughs] Thankfully, I was able to manage the work until I got promoted to senior merchandise manager then to group manager.

Mrs. Tantoco actually started my line because she came out with impulse items. She sampled blouses and gave the designs. I added a lot of categories until it became a full department. At first, my line was called Criselda for Rustan’s, until it eventually became Criselda Lontok. Today, I’m proud to say that I still remain to be a top seller among local brands.

After the interview, Andre agrees to demonstrate how to make a proper cup of pour-over coffee. Before he begins, the former corporate consultant and coffee purveyor wants everyone to know: “Specialty coffee is not about having a fancy place, a cool playlist or expensive machinery; it’s all about having good raw product to begin with.” He tips water from a swan-neck kettle in a slow, circular motions to ensure the coffee grounds soak evenly. Even before the first wave of aroma hits us, it’s clear – Andre understands the importance of not rushing the process.

Did having your own family change your outlook in life?

C: In having kids, you have to be more serious. I’ve always been a disciplinarian taken from my parents, because they were always so strict. They [children] had to throw the trash, not make a mess, not break things in the house or play with this or that.

John: If we didn’t follow, we’d be punished by kneeling on monggo seeds which was very painful!

C: But they were only punished once–that’s it. After that, they would behave.

By the time I started working in Rustan’s, John here and my two other children were already going to school by then. Since they were well-behaved, they didn’t give me much trouble growing up.

Now, my twins both have three children of their own, while John has two. I have eight grandchildren!

It’s nice being a grandparent. I just don’t want to be called lola because I imagine myself being old and in a rocking chair and all that, so I tell my apos to call me Mamita. I bond with them a lot and we travel together.

How has Security Bank helped you throughout the years?

C: I joined [Security Bank] at the recommendation of a friend. And after all these years, I know I’ve invested in a good bank. I’m assured that at a certain point, I’m going to reap something in the end. Besides, I don’t have time to be playing with stocks and all those other things. However, I do believe in investing and putting money in the bank and personally, Security Bank is one of the best banks.

J: With Security Bank, I’ve come to know a number of past executives and how they have made the bank as successful as it is today. In terms of service, I was really satisfied [with Security Bank] when I used to run a courier company… I banked with Security Bank then and enjoyed the personal relationship.

I can open up to my mom. She probably doesn’t even remember this but when I was still in highschool, I came home drunk from a party, way past the curfew she had set being the disciplinarian that she was. I was feeling lonely and I ended up having a long talk with her about my problems at the time.

John, how would you describe your relationship with your mom?

J: I’d like to think that I was always the closest to my mom, being the youngest child. My siblings were a lot more busy than I was, so my mom would tag me along her work and social events. Maybe you can say that made us even closer.

I can open up to my mom. She probably doesn’t even remember this but when I was still in highschool, I came home drunk from a party, way past the curfew she had set being the disciplinarian that she was. I was feeling lonely and I ended up having a long talk with her about my problems at the time.

I know I’ve given her tons of problems along the way. Sometimes I have the wrong attitude when she asks for help and I become masungit (peevish), sometimes I lose patience for no reason at all. But like any parent, I know she’ll never leave me especially when I’m in trouble. She’s always been an anchor to hold onto and my pillar of strength. She’s always been there for me and I try to always be there for her.

What part did she play in your own success?

J: Let’s start with the clothing. [laughs] At one point, my mom would criticize my taste in clothes. I used to consult her and ask “Mom, bagay ba ‘to (does this look good on me)?” and she’d say “Ew!” Now, I get compliments like “Nice shirt.”

But seriously, I derive my motivation and inspiration from my mother who has been very successful in her line of business. She’s always allowed me to be free to choose what I want to do; she encourages me to explore. She’s also helped me a lot in the business that I’ve put up, even though some have already folded up. Whenever I start a new business, I’d consult her first.

Today, I’m in the LED lighting and importation business. I do design consultancy and installations, as well as advertising boards made of the same LED components. When someone consults me for a design layout, I’ve found that it comes naturally to me to know what the proper design and execution should be. I’ve developed an eye for it aesthetically, which is perhaps something I got from my mom being a designer. Now that I think about it, I probably acquired that talent from her, too.

What’s your take on fashion in the Philippines? How do you keep up with today’s fashion?

C: In the Philippines, I think our designers are really good. They’re comparable to designers abroad—they’re very innovative.

What I do is I adopt whatever I think will be applicable to my customers, because my customers are varied. We’re slowly getting the younger generation but for now, because I’m with the older ones [customers], I have bigger sizes. I keep the styles classic so anyone can use them for many, many years. Plus, the prices are really affordable. I try to keep it at that price point and still make them feel elegant—that’s what my customers like.

Is there a secret behind your timeless designs?

C: I refer to magazines and the internet–that’s where I get the trends–but I don’t take fashion the way it is. Other [designs] may not be applicable to my customers, so I adjust every time. Because I’m a practical person, I always see to it that my designs are saleable.

That’s why I’m here in the store–to talk to them. They [customers] consult me. Sometimes I ask “why, what don’t you like?” and they tell me, so I adjust. It’s also important that I have good rapport with the sales clerks. As a designer, I never go and say to them “bahala ka na (you’re on your own).” I always ask them if they think the designs will sell. If they don’t think so, I ask them why. I think that’s part of the reason why my sales have always been up.

What about your secret to being timeless in life?

C: [Laughs] Ageing gracefully?

Well for one thing, I sleep early. I sleep early but I wake up early also. I get up at around four in the morning and then I do my prayer—I can concentrate better early in the morning. I’m basically a religious person and join a lot of groups, not for socializing but more of spiritual enrichment. I also do light exercises—I walk but I don’t go to the gym because I’m so tamad (lazy).

What else… I also eat the right kinds of food. Basically, more vegetables.

Most importantly, I love what I’m doing. If you love your work, you can go on and on. Not unless the Lord will call you and say “Hey you! You better come up already.” I hope it’s up! [laughs]

In terms of the investment portfolio, looking at where Security Bank places its money, it’s easy to see where investors get their confidence from. They’ve proven it to us as our common family investment has yielded a desirable return.

What’s your view on financial investments, especially as your success has grown over the years?

C: With financial investments, you really have to choose the one that suits you best. Personally, I’ve always liked preferred shares where I can get quarterly dividends. I like it because I can compute to see how much I’ll get.

J: My exposure to investments growing up is that we’d have common family funds. My brother, sister, and I would listen to our mom discuss the directions to take. “Invest in this institution here, place a little money here and there…”

In terms of the investment portfolio, looking at where Security Bank places its money, it’s easy to see where investors get their confidence from. They’ve proven it to us as our common family investment has yielded a desirable return.

Any other passions besides fashion?

I love going to the movies with friends, travelling… and teleseryes! I watch Probinsyano to Dolce Amore until 9:30 and then I sleep.

I like to travel, but I can’t travel all the time. My favorite place in the world has to be Paris. To me, it’s the most beautiful city. I used to visit European countries twice a year and love it. But Paris just has beautiful buildings, architecture, the fashion and all those things.

Looking back at your journey, what’s the legacy you’d like to leave behind?

I’ve always wanted people to look elegant. For others to say “Wow! What a beautiful dress! You look so elegant.” That’s the legacy I want to leave them with—be elegant but practical at the same time. Classic design is something I’d like associated with my brand, as well.

My clients always consider me an elegant person, and I want to make them feel the same way through my clothes. So, whenever they ask me for advice, I gladly let them know what I think. That’s how I want to be remembered in the fashion industry.

Photography by Andrea Beldua

Like Criselda, you can also secure your future with investments.

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