Bergamo: A Cut Above

from Bergamo’s 2007 line. photo provided by Bergamo

A true renaissance man, Bergamo founder Mel M. Meer has re-imagined himself through several guises, finding success in every one. Meer was based in New York City for 20 years where he nurtured thriving careers as a financial consultant, CPA, interior designer, and the proprietor of his own fashion boutique. In December 1986 he came back to Manila to create what would eventually emerge as the leading brand in fine men’s apparel in the Philippines – Bergamo.

from Bergamo’s 2007 line. photo provided by Bergamo

Named after the picturesque city in Italy, Bergamo debuted on the fashion scene at Greenbelt in Ayala Center, Makati. The shop was backed by a team of highly-experienced personnel of master-cutters, sewers, and a dedicated sales force. The world-class custom-tailored suits, jackets, pants, shirts, and that staple of every Filipino gentleman’s wardrobe, the barong tagalog, crafted and displayed at the boutique, impressed men of good taste all over the country and even abroad with their unprecedented level of quality. Despite being a neophyte in an industry already dominated by well-established players, the Bergamo brand’s esteem rose through careful planning and inspired marketing. Thus, after 10 years Bergamo reached its goal of achieving leadership in the men’s fine apparel market in the Philippines.

Today, Bergamo operates a total of eight elegantly designed boutiques all over Metro Manila and two in Cebu. Its roster of loyal patrons includes high-profile executives, politicians, celebrities, and other well known figures in Philippine and even international society. These well-dressed gentlemen have all come to trust and appreciate the distinctive quality and uniqueness in style that is proudly Bergamo. Today, the name Bergamo connotes a look that is elegant and classic, with outfits that feature a clever nod to the latest fashion but never stray from the bounds of good taste. But beyond design, what ultimately keeps clients coming back is the personalized service and meticulous care that goes into every Bergamo garment, whether ready-to-wear or custom-made.

Airline men wearing Bergamo. Expat magazine’s 2nd issue cover feature. Photo by Richie Castro

Bergamo Vice President Roland Magalang shares that made to order garments account for 90 percent of their business. Wedding packages, which covers the groom and two fathers, are a popular option among customers. “Even if, for example, the fashion these days are single breasted suits or dark pinstripes, in the end it’s the classic, elegant, tapered cut of our designs that our clients appreciate,” states Roland.

Recently Bergamo has embarked on a new venture, Bergamo Casa, which offers fine furniture and home decorations as well as interior design consulting to their clients, bringing the same high levels of taste and service to the home.

Bergamo’s main store and executive offices are located at 5510 Osmeña Highay corner Valderama Street, Makati. For inquiries call 888-0072. They have branches at the Shangri-La Plaza Mall, the Peninsula Hotel, Rustan’s Makati, Alabang Town Center, and Legazpi Village. They have expanded to Cebu, opening branches at Rustan’s Cebu and at the Banilad Town Center.

Mel Meer himself. photo provided by Bergamo

Sidebar: No Meer Menswear: A Conversation with Mel Meer 

What is your design philosophy?

The key word is simplicity. Men’s clothes do not need much embellishment. Our designs are very classic but we try to update them by injecting the latest style yet still stay very wearable. I love clothes and I know what I like and Bergamo shows how I would dress myself. Normally we start with something simple. But then, “simple” is easier said than done. Then we put a little twist. It could be embroidery, or we modify the cut. That extra twist is the Bergamo flair.

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by what I see around me, by what people wear in public, even women’s clothes. That’s how most designers work. You see something, and think of how you can use it.

What sets Bergamo apart from other clothing houses?

First and foremost it’s our impeccable workmanship. We do our best to get the best craftsmen. Some of the work on our garments can only be done by hand, and only a few people know how to do it. We use the best fabrics, no cheap materials.

What also sets us apart is that we try to educate people. I tell my people that during fittings, when they see problems, to point them out to the client and remedy them. To be honest, and not just be all praises and flattery, be true to the customer. Make them feel they have been well-served.

We’re a couture house so we have people come in and ask us to make a garment to their specifications. But if they insist on using bad material or colors and it doesn’t fit the Bergamo look, then we won’t accept the job.

What do you think are the chances for Filipino designs to further break into the international fashion scene and what can be done for this to happen?

To break into the international market, the barong should be marketed not as a national costume but more as a shirt that’s made of very unique material, one that’s perfect for the summer and can be worn for both formal or casual occasions. Piña fabric is very delicate and expensive. It’s unusual so we can capitalize on that.

We have very good designers here in the Philippines. But our problem is getting good materials. The only way to compete with international brands is to tap an exclusive market. Bergamo does that by featuring our unique native materials, fine workmanship and design.

the blogger in Bergamo. Photo by Richie Castro

-text by Jude Defensor,some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2007

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Measure of A Man: Joji Aguilar finally fits in

Designer Joji Aguilar

For celebrated fashion designer Joji Aguilar, moving into his new condominium in San Juan was a fortuitous occasion in more ways than one. “I decided to move in on January 22, which is the Chinese New Year, since they say its lucky,” he reveals. “I’m turning forty this March. Life is supposed to begin at forty. So I really hurried to get settled in my own place by my 40th birthday. I’ve wanted to be on my own for a long time.”

Joji used to live with his parents at their home in Quezon City. But his clients who lived south of the metropolis complained that it was too far. So, as a compromise he chose San Juan, “which is kinda in the middle,” as he puts it. “I found this place and I loved the view. It’s also very convenient for my clients.”

He then asked for his parents’ blessing. “They were reluctant at first, I’d been living with them for forty years, and they felt it wasn’t necessary for me to move. But I talked about it with them and they eventually understood, I showed them this place, and they loved it as well. I told them that I was going to get a 3 bedroom unit, with one for them if they want to stay over, one for my work, and one for me.”

It took a month and a half to remodel the space to Joji’s satisfaction. “At least I finished by my target date,” he states with relief, while sharing some hard-earned construction sense. “When you decide to fix a place, plan it well. Decide where you want everything before you tear out the walls or put the ceiling up. It will eventually cost you to have things opened up again and repainted. Plan out where you want each area to be, so that you can properly position the lighting.”

The ceiling previously featured a latticework that was eventually covered and incorporated into a cove lighting scheme to better highlight the dining room centrepiece. For his fitting room, which is Joji’s favorite space, partitions were constructed and a wall extended. Joji installed a museum-quality sculpted wooden divider, which was custom-designed by Lor Calma in 1963, and lit it from behind as an impressive wall accent, thus cleverly disguising the extension. This philosophy of creative camouflage greatly influenced the condo’s construction. “For example, I didn’t want to have a big stereo component in my sala because it will eat up the space and add unsightly wires. So I had it set up in a way that the music is piped in from my room to speakers in the sala’s ceiling and you can’t see the component and wires.”

Reminiscent of his fashions, Joji’s home is dramatic but not melodramatic, stimulating but not outlandish. “My clothes are very simple, with very few accents, just like my house. I like things light and airy, simple and elegant. I don’t want cramped rooms full of things you can bump into. Same as with my clothes, I don’t want a lot of decoration.” Splashes of vivid reds and greens are tempered by bouquets of white lilies and the earth tones of vintage wood and wicker. “My active color is red, even in my clothes and fashion shows I always use red, black, and white. I chose very simple white flowers, such as lilies and baby’s breath flowers because they complement the red.” The dining table centrepiece of green-colored fruits came about from a happy coincidence. “I have a best friend who loves green mangoes, while my sisters love dayap juice. That’s why I always have these fruits on the table.”

Most of Joji’s furnishings were generously given by his parents from their ancestral home as a grand housewarming present. The modernist influence of Filipino design legend Lor Calma can clearly be discerned in the classic lines of Joji’s vintage divider, chairs, sofa, dining set and coffee table. An avowed jetsetter, Joji added a few pieces from his travels. Various examples of Asian art from Thailand, China, and Japan, add an intriguing oriental tone to the rooms. “I love Asian pieces and icons, I don’t worship them but I like how they look. It makes the place feel exotic.” Buddhas serenely recline on endtables, painted porcelain urns stand tall beside dressmaker’s forms clad in Joji’s creations, and a truly stunning kimono woven from silk and embroidered with real gold hangs framed on the wall across the sofa. “This is a ceremonial kimono, used as a bridal gown by Japanese women,” Joji explains. “It’s the topmost layer which is the most ornate one. The pattern of birds has a special meaning. When I first went to Tokyo I promised to myself that I’d buy a kimono no matter how much it cost. I had it framed to preserve it. I used to visit Tokyo frequently back in the 90s and I was able to buy some very nice things from there like the kimono and some kitchen and dining things.” His glassware and the balcony set he shopped for in Makati. Some of Joji’s décor were contributions by grateful clients. The vases filled with sipa balls came from an interior designer whom he designed a wedding gown for. She thought that the rattan balls would go perfectly with his motif. He is also grateful for the support of his best friend Gerard Mendoza, who helped him out with some of the details.

Because of the careful placement of each object, there is no sense of clutter. “I picked out things one at a time. I want to remember where and why I got each piece,” advises Joji, “Don’t buy things in bulk. Buy things one by one so that you won’t end up with things that you don’t like. Space is easily eaten up so only keep the things that you want and give everything else away to someone who can use it. Don’t buy bulky things. Buy things with more than one use, like a sidetable that also has cabinets. Even in the washroom you can put in cabinets where you can store things.”

Since moving in, Joji has discovered the joys of solitude. “Peace of mind,” is what he declares the best thing about living by himself. “When you come home you’re so excited and everything you see you like because you placed them there yourself. It’s quiet, and you can do whatever you want. I love the freedom,” he beams. “If you live with somebody else you always have to take their tastes into consideration. If you don’t like how the house is arranged you can’t really do much. If you’re by yourself you’re able to fix it according to your taste.” For single people shopping for a new address, Joji recommends getting a condo. “It’s easier and cheaper to maintain. I can easily clean the place everyday, I don’t even need a maid. Another big convenience is that if I have problems with my lights or plumbing I can have it fixed right away because they have in-house maintenance. It’s also more private than a townhouse.”

Solitary life does have its pitfalls. Joji admits that getting freshly-cooked food is the biggest hurdle of living alone. “I don’t know how to cook and I’m too lazy to heat things so I often end up eating cold food straight out of the refrigerator. Sometimes, I end up with spoiled food, because I don’t know enough to put food into the refrigerator when I’m supposed to. But there’s always delivery.” Aside from sustenance, another basic human need, companionship, also takes some effort to obtain. “Sometimes, when you feel sad you have no one to talk to. Unlike at home you can just go out of your room and talk to your family. There’s the phone but it’s not like a face-to-face talk. That’s the price you have to pay for living alone.”

But Joji is emphatic about how much he has learned and improved as a person since going solo. “I see myself becoming more responsible. Now I have to pick up my own mail and see to it that the bills are paid. Living alone requires you to be extra responsible. You can’t leave without checking if you turned everything off, or you might end up burning your house down.”  Being away from his parents has also deepened his relationship with them. “I can appreciate the love of my parents more now. I used to take it for granted when we lived together. Now they really have to exert the effort to come here. I’ve become closer to them. Now we call each other everyday. And we talk for hours, which I never did when I lived at home.”

Asserting one’s independence can be one of the most fruitful and important decisions one can make. “Life on my own is fun. I’m enjoying it immensely. Almost every day I entertain guests, friends and family here at my place, serving them dinner, inviting them for wine and cheese. Unlike before when I lived at home I’d always find a reason to go out. But now I always find a reason to stay home. I’ve found my peace here. I’m forty now and I’ve been looking for my own identity. As a designer, I’ve found it in my clothes. But as a person, I’ve just now discovered it in my home.” In Joji Aguilar’s case, moving on meant settling down. Coming home became his greatest journey, and starting out became his grandest design.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

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