Manual Magazine, August 2003
There was a time eleven years ago when I treated Mario Katigbak like my father. This wasn’t a good thing, of course, because a week after he hired me, I ran away from home and stayed away for ten years. Katigbak eventually fired me in exasperation, and it was this that turned out to be a good thing, because—as my therapist later pointed out—I tended to click with my mentors only after I broke their hearts. But that’s another story.
Katigbak wasn’t yet the face of Bulgari when I met him. Back in the summer of 1992, he was a vulnerable man, trying to recover from a triple-whammy that would’ve broken lesser mortals. His father the ambassador had just died; communist agitators had recently caused his factory to close down; and he was in financial ruin because he had thousands of evening shoes consigned with Rustan’s when Manila’s party scene ground to a halt. Back then, he was the fallen king of shoes, Imelda Marcos’s shoemaker, erstwhile local assembler for Christian Dior and Charles Jourdan, erstwhile designer & producer of over 90% of the shoes in Rustan’s, including his own legendary brand Maro.
For my part, I wasn’t yet an art-world vivisectionist back then either; not yet the writer BluPrint Magazine now calls call Eric The Merciless. I was just a confused philosophy-school-dropout whom Katigbak housetrained and sent forward to represent him. He literally clothed me. He didn’t need to, really; I could well afford my own clothes. But my tastes back then were flamboyant to the extreme, and he was obviously mortified to be represented by a hyperactive teenager wearing vintage 1970’s bottle-green bell-bottom corduroy with pink-and-aqua gumamela prints, white doily-lace hems, and a half-kilo lacework-steel belt-buckle that read THOMMY—a gift to my father by the Batang City Jail. Thus, Katigbak gave me some of his own suits, and he occasionally shopped for me as well. And I literally wore his shoes: We had nearly the same hard-to-find shoe size, so he gave me the prototypes for the aborted men’s line of Maro (which were done his size), hoping in vain that I’d give up my magenta python spectator wingtips, or my yellow-ochre vinyl triple-monkstrap derbies.
There was a professional reason for Katigbak’s sartorial alarm: He had hired me to manage a new store named Simply, and I was anything but.
Simply was his post-Rustan’s flagship, and it was a breathtaking store. Powder-pink, Persian-rugged, ornately chandeliered and mirrored-all-over, it looked like an antique-filled boudoir from an Ilonggo sugar-baron’s mansion. It smelled of coffee and roses, very Matriarchal Old Money, and we fastidiously cultivated a relaxed and homey atmosphere, with the implication that if Mrs. Marcos herself ever visited, she would fit right in (We even kept her personal shoe-last in the backroom; I used it as a talismanic paperweight). Sadly, she never did get to see the store. But her daughters did. We even named a best-selling slipper after Irene.
Simply’s merchandise mix was revolutionary then, not for its opulence, but for its severity. Because of shoemaker’s pride, we only carried classic pumps, which were the hardest to produce, because they had to fit perfectly. Only we could pull it off, because Katigbak was no ordinary shoemaker; he actually graduated from the Calzotura in Milan. Admittedly, I was an awkward match for those pumps. But I came into my own for the schizophrenic, deliberately over-the-top made-to-order line. That was my baby. My clients and would I think up increasingly bizarre challenges for Katigbak, and his technical solutions burned themselves so deeply into my mind that I still remember them now, eleven years later.
Our supportive clients would’ve been the envy of any sculptor: There were architects who wanted funky stilettos to match funky bags they commissioned for their document folders. There was a teenage Muslim princess in jeans and pigtails who walked in one Sunday morning and commissioned 21 pairs of gold-leafed python stilettos. There was a society matronette who really loved the Autumn 1992 Ferragamo signature print—she already had all the bags—but didn’t like the flat shoes they came with, so she bought the biggest duffel bag Ferragamo still had, and commanded us to slice it up into a shoe. There was one lady who left me part of a leopard—or was it a cheetah?—which I immediately dispatched to Katigbak in the factory, because I didn’t know if it was even legal to keep the pelt in Greenbelt, or if we could slice it thin enough for use in a stiletto anyway (I remember this incident well, because before I even caught my breath, a young Sari Yap strode in, egged on by then-writer Alfred Schröeder, to ask me to write a fashion column for a new magazine called Mega. I chickened out). I even remember a pair of heirloom cushion-cut diamond earrings we stitched onto black suede stilettos.
But most memorable was the early morning when an ethereal morena dropped by with her Spanish boyfriend to order a shoe. We so amused them, that they stayed on to chat long after their order was finalized. Only after they left did Katigbak announce that our client’s boyfriend was Fernando Zobel de Ayala. FZA soon broadcast our encounter to his other tenants, saying that everyone else’s customer service should try to be as good as ours. For weeks after that, I was besieged by strange women with strange feet who never bought anything.
Alas, those glorious days didn’t last. Towards the summer of 1993, communist agitators again infiltrated the factory, sabotaging quality control first, eventually monkey-wrenching production altogether. Then, Katigbak’s brother died in a car crash, the same week his business partner’s sister died of cancer. A few weeks after this, my grandmother also died from cancer. Lola couldn’t be buried without me around, so her funeral was postponed until I could go home to Vigan one month later.
I returned to Katigbak numb and spaced-out. He eventually fired me that May, saying, “Eric, I am not your father.” I didn’t understand him then. But in retrospect, I probably did want him to fire me, because the whole time I was out here having a life, my grandmother was apparently dying in my blankets, on my pillows, calling out my name.
I started arts classes soon after, but dropped out of UP-Fine Arts when I couldn’t find a mentorship as intense as the one with Katigbak, who drilled me about my drawings, morning and evening, six days a week, for practically a year. How should I have known that such a mentorship was a rare privilege, even among sculptors, when I so easily found it with a shoemaker?
Besides, paintings & sculpture seemed boring anyway. Exceptional shoes had palpable electricity to them, an intoxicating cocktail of defiance, sin, danger, refusal, decadence, and unrepentant drop-dead gorgeousness that was rare elsewhere, even in the fine arts, sparing Juan Luna. Much art I saw seemed eager-to-please. Stilettos, though, stared imperiously from shelves, challenging the worthy and the brave.
And so, over the years, I cobbled up a plan to elevate shoes into art, to make them worthy of a museum exhibit. Not in the Rachy-Cuna-at-the-Met, pagbigyan-mo-na-lang sort of way; not even in the Costume Institute sort of way; but a real show to stun shoe fetishists and cultural theorists alike. I wanted to build on Katigbak’s legacy, to codify the dense visual vocabulary of shoes into a rigid set of meanings; like Gregorian Chant perhaps, where one scale meant laughter, and another, sorrow; where composition followed strict rules of progression and accent. I wanted well-fitting shoes with social relevance. I wanted to recode The Sistine Chapel frescoes into stilettos.
And so I studied everything I could. I dissected sculptors’ production setups, tracked down specialist tanners (thinking, what could i make barracuda-skin mean?), and used a 1999 art congress in Palawan as an excuse to investigate the Crocodile Farm’s harvest cycles, even staying in Puerto Princesa for a month to evaluate the viability of training Iwahig prisoners in tannery or leatherwork. Back in Manila, I learned to produce transparent paint from powdered glass, and — armed only with a toaster oven and a candy thermometer — updated a two-century-old matador-costumer’s formula for gold-leafing cowhide, so I could make shoes that looked like Russian icons if I wanted to. I even learned to flay rabbits for fur. So when Miuccia Prada, Rene Caovilla, and Cesare Paciotti started releasing increasingly bizarre shoes in the late 1990’s, I instantly decoded their gene-splicing, and knew I was on the right track somehow.
In early 2001, I took the plunge. When cultural workers including Ayala Museum Directress Dr. Nina Baker assured me that my shoes wouldn’t have problems finding gallery representation and critical support, I packed my bags and moved to Marikina. Through the help of TESDA and Aglipayan priest Fr. Medardo del Castillo, I apprenticed in a real boot factory, working every bench except the scary steel-toe machine. I didn’t mind the hard work or the numerous grisly accidents inflicted by my shoe-knife. But I was bleeding money, and was terribly lonely because nobody understood what I was doing on the factory floor. There were neighborhood rumors that I was actually either a shabu wholesaler in disguise, or a communist infiltrator. But what devastated me most was the realization that the atelier-type production setup I wanted was unsustainable versus the flood of cheap Chinese imports. Thus inconsolable, I packed my bags again in the summer of 2002, and finally returned home to my father.
Katigbak gave up on shoes as well. He closed Simply in 1994 and opened Bulgari in 1997. Presumably, he spent the three-year interim grieving. He really, really loved shoes.
He and his partners started Bulgari off by retailing just the watches, renting space at the Silver Vault of Rustan’s Makati, and expanding six months later into Rustan’s Tower. But sales were good, so Bulgari offered them in 1999 the franchise for an entire boutique. The 6750 outlet consequently carries the whole Bulgari line, including neckties, cufflinks, watches, eyewear, bags, scarves, jewelry, and perfume. Later this year, they’re opening a second boutique in Greenbelt 4.
During the interview for this article, I asked Katigbak some sensitive questions: what his client demographics/ psychographics were, why they can afford Bulgari during an economic crisis, why Bulgari is such a strong brand here, and (most importantly for me), if he was happy. He needed time to think of answers, so we ate lunch first, and talked about shoes.
He raved about the black Cesare Paciottis he was wearing, amazed at their fit, arch, and detailing. Like a kid giddy over a new toy, he even gleefully propped a foot up (in the Makati Shang lobby, of all places) so I could examine its seams, soles, and a gunmetal fleur-de-lis ornament pinned under the shank. Between bites of a hamburger, he confessed to still peeking at shoe books occasionally, though he tried not to, “because they bring back so many painful memories.”
He asked me if I still followed shoe trends. I pointed to my ratty gray sneakers and shook my head. It’s just too painful, I said. And it’s true. I only buy P75 rubber slippers now, and don’t even remember my shoe size anymore. Luckily, it’s impolite for artists to dress well, so I wear sweaty cigarette-vendor outfits even to meetings in museums and the CCP. I just try not to dream of the crimson-and-saffron wingtip cross-trainers that Yohji Yamamoto had just designed for Adidas.
Back in his office, Katigbak and staff arrayed before me several outfits accessorized with Bulgari products, to illustrate how men’s professional wardrobes can be livened-up while remaining credible. Katigbak’s style suggestions logically revolved around dress shirts: dark tones for doctors (to contrast against white coats), light blue for bankers (to suggest stability), and complex pastels for architects (to suggest creativity). Visually, the accessorizing worked. The style solutions looked classic from afar; individualistic at close range; impressive at arm’s length. Even the ladies’ jewelry, I noted, was designed with the same point of view. There was a timelessness and stability to it. Simple, but not minimal, not “refusing.” There was pride of craftsmanship, but it was a serene pride, a humble respect for the dignity of materials. There were no gimmicks. Even the quirkiest of the bags exuded effortlessness.
On the whole, I suppose, the product array exuded not luxury, but a certain grace, a certain nobility. It’s definitely not my aesthetic—Victoire de Castellane’s defiantly insane jewelry for Dior is more my type—but I respect Bulgari’s point of view.
I asked about market positions, if Bulgari’s volume was truly head-to-head now with its more established rivals. Katigbak wouldn’t comment, but he smiled. He paced me through Bulgari’s setup, showing how they databased even their clients’ spouses’ birthdays, and tried to anticipate their preferences. I saw how his customers could grow so loyal: the tenets making Bulgari a runaway success now, were essentially just ultra-sophisticated variants of the same lessons in customer service that he hammered into me back then: Don’t sell, just present; the products are good enough to sell themselves.
I asked if the artist in him was happy. He nodded. Bulgari apparently allowed him creative freedom, and client feedback was instantaneous; unlike in shoemaking, where he had to wait six months to gauge responses to the collection. He brought out house photos of Bulgari’s events. For one recent no-Press-allowed launch, for example, he designed column-shaped cocktail tables made of carved ice. He commissioned color-coordinated food. He even changed Cheval Blanc’s furniture.
I went home deflated. Because Katigbak always told me the truth anyway, in both good times and bad, I guess I was hoping he’d tell me Bulgari was just a compromise, just a day job; that he was secretly plotting to become the King of Shoes all over again. But he seemed genuinely happy, so I felt abandoned and betrayed. It was he who started me on this long solitary journey after all.
As the days went on, however, I felt strangely lighter and lighter.
“But you went for it, Eric,” he had consoled me during the interview.
Maybe that’s all I really needed to hear to set my spirit free.
Friday, March 16, 2007
Manual Magazine, August 2003