Slide Is the era of the ego-centric designer over? Inno Sotto and CJ Cruz think so

There’s no doubt that the pandemic is changing the fashion industry. From nearly eliminating all the conventional reasons to dress up to compelling brands to manufacture PPEs for survival, the pandemic has driven designers to pivot over lockdown. What used to be a race to create pieces based on seasons became a challenge to adjust to the change in consumer habits.

During his time in isolation after the hectic schedule of his mentorship at TernoCon, Manila’s Prince of Fashion Inno Sotto takes a step back and opens up to buzzworthy designer Carl Jan Cruz, an admirer of Sotto’s, about a newfound calmness in the current industry. 

Like sitting through a podcast, we got to listen to the two catch up and drop hot takes via Zoom about the countless lists of “Best Dressed Women,” designing the terno and whether fashion schools are still relevant.

Purging of the fashion scene

Carl Jan Cruz: Hi, Inno.

Inno Sotto: Hey, CJ. How’ve you been? 

CJ: I’ve been OK. I mean, we were messaging—I forget when, time is a social construct now. How about you? How have you been?

Inno: It’s been quiet. It’s a learning experience for me. I mostly read, play with fabrics—I’ve been actually happy. There’s this, what I call purging. All of a sudden, it’s like everything’s going to start on a clean slate and fashion will probably have to reinvent itself. I’ve been trying to figure out what the scene’s going to be like after the pandemic, and I’ve been spending more time thinking and really analyzing things. 

CJ: What about in terms of work, how has it been?

Inno: I have a lot of unfinished work. [But] I like where I am now. I don’t necessarily get people talking to me about the next order [for] the next event they’d like to go to and [asking] if I could possibly make something for them. There’s a calmness now in the whole scene.

Prior to the pandemic, there was TernoCon, there were some orders I had to finish and a wedding I did during the weekend before we were all asked to stay home. And then it [was] like somebody just switched off the light without telling me and I was really surprised by all of that. I didn’t like the way that happened. When my clients came around and ordered things for their wedding anniversary [in July], it felt good and it sort of woke me up. 

I think it’s going to be up to me and, perhaps for most of us designers, to actually sort of decide what we want to do after the pandemic. I don’t think I’d sit and wait to be told that this is what’s going to happen.

CJ: Yeah, I really, really agree with that. I was certainly in shock when March happened. We also [had a client] who wanted to get married at their house. But in our case, they wanted to get married in jeans in April. It was exactly the same feeling that yung energy mo, it doesn’t feel kalat. I realized that this is how I want it to be every time I kind of take on a project or make clothes. 

Slide “I think it's going to be up to me and, perhaps for most of us designers, to actually sort of decide what we want to do after the pandemic.” INNO SOTTO

The countless lists of “Best Dressed Women”

Inno: One of the funny things I realized, and this was way before the pandemic, was the countless, countless, countless lists of “Best Dressed Women.” Why do best dressed women, who are known for their taste and having the knack for fashion or putting things together, actually need a stylist? Will you let me know, CJ? I don’t think Marie-Chantal had one, I don’t think Jackie Onassis had one, I don’t think Audrey Hepburn had one. 

CJ: Right.

Inno: But some women were so dependent on somebody to actually make them look good. I don’t know if being on that list reflects the tastes and the ability of a stylist [more] or the innate taste of that woman [on that list] to actually express herself in a choice of clothing and in the way she entertains. You know, for the major editorials abroad or the editorial sections, there is a stylist for that because they’re working on a concept.

CJ: I get what you mean. On a lifestyle basis, right? My logic is that style really was able to define power. But because of how society or the world has evolved, unfortunately, power [now] defines style—and usually with power, you can afford certain things. That would suggest that these people can shop at certain places, but you miss the chance of finding out what these people could do with what they [already] have. For personal style, it’s nice to look at what’s going on, but it’s really different when you stumble upon it yourself and you have a response to it. To be honest, in the past six months, I don’t know about you, but I have this deep, deep fear of not really liking fashion anymore. But I mean, I realized that it wasn’t just fashion. I guess I’m finding more bliss now that I just love creating things.

Slide “My logic to it before is that style really was able to define power. But because of how society or the world has evolved, unfortunately, power [now] defines style—and usually with power, you can afford certain things.” CARL JAN CRUZ

Has the terno been tampered with too much?

Inno: I think everybody got a little too excited about fashion. When I was designing [for TernoCon], I would often say, “You know, guys, if there’s anything you should stop doing as designers, stop designing anything that’s supposed to be ‘bongga.’” I also realized that if it’s a terno, it’s worn on special occasions. But the word “special” is taken totally, totally out of…

CJ: Right. Was it like a constant fine line with costume and the terno?

Inno: It is a costume. It is a national costume.

CJ: Yeah, it is a national costume. I guess what I mean, in a sense, is that it doesn’t feel like the national costume anymore.

Inno: I think it’s been tampered too much. Everybody just started to do things with it. Unless you can make it really better and still manage to identify yourself as a Filipino wearing a national costume, I don’t think you should really change too much about the terno. Ang nangyayari kasi, the terno is worn by women who actually play a role. You have to be a Reyna Elena, a Hermana Mayor in a fiesta or a town fiesta queen.

Fashion is more than just the designer

CJ: On a local scale, I hope people get to see the value of fashion. Yes, it is classist, it’s elitist, it is defined by social class. But at the end of the day, I hope people see it as something that can be a vessel or like an engine that could cultivate culture that has defined part of history. I get that the fashion industry has evolved into something very problematic and that could be addressed. We have to be accountable for things and improve them.

To isolate it and not to be as vague, people have always asked, “Why is being a fashion designer all about you?” And it’s not just an external conversation, but an internal one, too, for me as a designer or a company owner now. Hopefully, I can take in some of those structures from people before who tried to create something really good—you can’t take much of it or make it so big that it’s possible for everyone to have it. I’m making peace with that because I also came from an educational system where there was a lot of pressure that you have to be at a certain scale already.

Slide “I hope people get to see the value of fashion. Yes, it is classist, it’s elitist, it is defined by social class. But at the end of the day, I hope people see it as something that can be a vessel or like an engine that could cultivate culture.” CARL JAN CRUZ

Inno: But I think in whatever kind of school, there will always be that pressure to have to excel. Otherwise, you miss the opportunity to be challenged and to be, how do I say, creative or more skillful in whatever you’re doing. But you know, I understand it when you say that a lot of people actually think that fashion is about the fashion designer. I, on the other hand, have always thought that it’s about the woman who comes to me. I realized, even having gone to school and all of that, the bulk of the things I know now really more have to do with all of the women who have come through that door to actually ask for an appointment to sit down with me. I think going to a fashion school helps, but I also think it’s important to actually allow your mind to wonder and to be very curious about many things.

WATCH: Inno Sotto and Carl Jan Cruz dish on style, power and terno

CJ: I guess it’s something also in the relevance of fashion schools now. As a business owner or brand owner in RTW, I keep getting asked, actually, what I look for in a resume. I do get a lot of proud submissions that they may have attended this or that and it’s good. But again, from experience too, nothing beats just what they bring to the table. It’s more about the synergy of what they can do. I get rin kasi messages or emails sometimes that say, “Sana you can consider it, wala akong diploma,” or “I didn’t really do fashion.” I don’t want people [to bring themselves down] before they [even] get started. If you think you have something, go for it.

Writer’s note: This conversation has been edited for brevity

Written by Nadine Halili
Produced by Nadine Halili
Creative direction by Nimu Muallam
Art direction by Tricia Guevara and Dana Calvo
Layout and design by Tricia Guevara
Video by Michael Yabut
Assisted by Neal Alday and Lia delos Reyes