Joey Samson On His Devotion To His Craft And His Latest Offering At TernoCon

Photo by Sharif Hamza

Photo by Sharif Hamza

Following an evocative showcase at TernoCon III, Joey Samson reflects on the rich history and inspiration behind his collection.

Ang ganda-ganda [It’s so beautiful],” Inno Sotto muttered to me as he clapped with gusto. “It’s so poetic,” I replied. By the end of Joey Samson’s presentation for TernoCon 3, the audience was so moved that there was hardly a dry eye in the theater. 

Entitled “Ang Mga Pag-Ibig ni José Rizal,” the 16-piece collection included men’s clothing. It was, by far, Samson’s most compelling work. Aside from his signatures, he imbued this collection with historicism, a devotion to crafts, and ultimately a love for country.

“Because I was the only designer doing men’s clothes [for TernoCon 3], I felt that it had to be a whole story,” Samson explained. “I had to connect the women and men together as a collection; not merely as an afterthought.” 

The collection drew inspiration from personae in the Philippine National Hero’s life, including the real, fictional, and metaphorical. Rizal’s nine romantic partners, the character Maria Clara from his novel Noli Me Tangere, his mother Teodora, and the Inang Bayan (Motherland) served as muses for his ternos. Whereas Rizal himself, his child version Pepe, his brother Paciano, and Crisostomo Ibarra and Elias—both protagonists in the novel—served as character sketches for his barongs.

In dressing up these characters, Joey didn’t always stick to the script and traditional notions of gender-specific clothing. He fused the languages of traditional menswear (i.e., the barong, camisa, Western suit) with womenswear (i.e., the pañuelo, alampay, tapis, enaguas, etc.). Men’s clothing found their way in women’s dress and vice versa. Despite the surprises and occasional flourishes, the combinations were somehow assembled with a natural ease and restraint, elusive qualities in this age of clickbaiting fashion. Somehow, the pañuelo (a fichu worn by women) fell into place around the shoulders of a man. The tapis (typically wrapped by women around the waist) looked like a natural extension of the barong. Conversely, tailoring techniques included shirts, which the pintucking on men’s tuxedo shirts were exaggerated to create the voluminous bodices of two ternos in his finale. 

This collection was foremost a loving bequest to the nation and a fruition of his formative years, seven years as apprentice, and more than two decades as an independent designer. 

“I attribute my signature look to dressing up at an early age,” he reminisced. Joey’s Tatay and Nanay took him to the tailor and modiste on a regular basis. “Nakuha ko sa kanila ang hilig sa pagbibihis [I inherited the passion for dressing from them],” he recalled. The father had an astute sense of fashion and gave very specific instructions to the tailor, down to the last button. “When he ordered suits, he always ordered two pairs of pants.” One to go with the coat and another for the wear and tear of more regular use. 

Joey Samson designer
Joey Samson. Photo by Sharif Hamza

Lucky Apprentice

After graduating from BS Biology as a pre-med course, Joey decided to shift gears. He took up Sewing and Fashion Design at Slim’s School for the Arts in the early 1990s. He was then referred to the late Ben Farrales, a senior designer who started in the 1950s and popularized Muslim-inspired fashion. After working under Mang Ben for two weeks, the young apprentice was told that a good friend desperately needed an assistant. “Joey, huwag mo sanang mamasamain [hopefully you don’t get me wrong]. You’d be better off with Danilo [Franco]. You will learn more from him,” Mang Ben gently advised.

The late Danilo Franco was at the peak of his design career. He was widely known as Vilma Santos’ go-to designer, and the weekly TV show, V.I.P., made Danilo a household name. He was also known as an excellent illustrator and made good use of his graphic skills to paint on jusi [silk]. “Maraming elemento na siya lang nakakagawa [There were many things that only he can do],” Joey recalls with admiration. For instance, Danilo was a pioneer in banig [woven mat] style barongs, that had manually dyed ombrés or hand-painting.

As Danilo’s apprentice, Joey was “grateful to learn doing the dirty work, everything that many designers don’t want to do today.”  Aside from the technicalities of construction, he also learned how to run a business. Danilo was a fast worker and kept a grueling work pace to churn out elaborate clothes for Vilma Santos’ show and many other clients. “There were no holidays for him. One time, I cried in frustration. We couldn’t go home for Christmas Eve because we were still finishing period costumes for the musical, Sino Ka Ba Jose Rizal.

But he still considers himself “lucky for going through that route.” Today, he’s still driven by that strong work ethic that he inherited from Danilo. But unlike Danilo, who is a known colorist, Joey “sees the world in black and white,” as Inno Sotto observes. 

Joey’s quiet aesthetic is also divergent from Danilo’s flamboyance and theatricality. In fact, when Cesar Gaupo, who was his adviser for the Concour International Des Jeunes Créatures De Mode 2000, saw his design entries, he exclaimed, “Nakakaloka ka! Parang di ka kay Danilo nanggaling! Saan mo kinukuha mga idea mo? [You’re unbelievable! It’s as if you didn’t come from Danilo! Where do you get your ideas?]” 

The piece that eventually made it to the competition was a jacket created by mitred layers of horsehair and zippers. It set the tone for an aesthetic that would eventually be associated with him… the subdued coloring, atypical use of tailoring elements, an emphasis on form, and a contemporary aura tempered by a subtle nod to the past.

Joey Samson designer collection
Photo by Sharif Hamza

Many Muses

Past 2010, Jo Ann Bitagcol crossed over to photography. Her studio was beside Joey’s old atelier in Palm Village, Makati. The two gravitated and bonded as designer-muse. In hindsight, Jo Ann’s presence solidified Joey’s aesthetic. “It was innate. She understood unseen elements of my designs. That’s why when she wore my garments, the audience also understood,” explained Joey. Jo Ann embodied the many qualities of a Joey Samson woman… someone who didn’t necessarily adhere to a mainstream idea of sexiness, someone with an affinity for masculine clothes, someone who radiated with ease and confidence… and someone who was unafraid to wear a shirt backward. 

For many years, Joey’s design choices would be influenced by his Tatay’s sartorial instincts. He often asks himself, “Paano kaya isusuot ng ama ko ito? [How will my father wear this?]” Even his late father’s extant barongs aid him as reference materials for construction techniques and vintage embroidery patterns. Despite the severity of some of his silhouettes, Danilo’s appreciation for embroidery will find its way in quiet corner of a garment. Or Jo Ann’s cool swagger would echo in both his men’s and womenswear. 

Lessons from these interactions and other experiences such as movies by Regal Films and OPM music stay in Joey’s subconscious, and he “waits for the right time to use them.” January 28 was one such opportunity. And it was certainly fueled by all these undercurrents. As the Madrigal Singers’ voices filled the theater during the rehearsal for his segment, Joey retreated to the toilet’s privacy to weep. “Emosyonal ako na tao [I’m an emotional person]. It was a full circle; from my apprenticeship with Danilo….” And it was certainly an emotion conveyed to the audience that evening by a collection of many things dear to José Rizal and to Joey Samson.

Fashion Director Pam Quiñones. Styling by Noel Manapat. Makeup and Hair: Eric Maningat, Jayson Santos, Jorge Marquez, MJ Perez. Models: Andriana Coronel, Cathy Jenkins, Dom Corilla, Ica Dy, Leila Ibañez, Martha Raagas, Moss Laygo, Queenie Salmon, Yaofa Dela Cruz. Art Director: Jann Pascua. Producer: Anz Hizon. Photographer’s Assistants: Aaron Carlos, Artu Nepomuceno, Choi Narciso, Shiela Mae Gonzales. Stylist’s Assistant: Renee De Guzman.

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