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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Plants, Paws, and Pot Bellies: Pick A Plan For Prosperity.

It can be argued that one can be too rich, too smart, or too good-looking, but one can’t ever be too lucky. Luck is the one thing we all can use a little bit more of. But how can we bring more good luck into our lives? Throughout the ages people have believed that good luck can be found, bought, made, or even grown.

Well, if you want to grow your own luck, you have the choice of either tending to a plant or caring for a pet animal. It depends on your temperament which one you’ll find to be more fun or less demanding. If you prefer a good luck charm that doesn’t move about too much and sprouts leaves instead of fur, then you’ll be better off growing a Money Tree or a Good Fortune Tree. This unique tree’s scientific name is Pachira Aquatica. The legend goes that there was an old farmer from Taiwan who never seemed to get any luck. He had worked hard his whole life with nothing to show for it. But one morning, he found a strange new plant growing near his fields. It was a hardy, resilient tree that didn’t seem to need much care or water. The plant began to sprout multiple stems that then grew charming light-green leaves. He decided to collect the tree’s seeds, grow them and sell the young plants at market. They were a big success and he soon grew very prosperous. From then on the plant became known as the Good Luck Money Tree or Good Fortune Tree. They are now being sold around the world. The luckiest plants are said to be the ones with 7 leaves on each stem. They are very easy to take care of as they thrive even in low light and dry conditions. They only require watering around once a month or when the soil they are planted in has completely dried out.

If you want a more interactive good luck charm though, then you might consider taking care of a Good Luck Cat from Thailand. Many Thai superstitions are focused on the spirituality of animals. The Thai people have an ancient belief that certain types of cats bring good fortune to those who look after them. The Tamra Maew or Cat Book of Poems, which was written in the 1300s, lists and contains paintings of 17 kinds of “good luck cats”. It also advises the reader to:

Hurry and find a good cat to prosper and gain results, rank and slaves because of the good cat with the correct characteristics…

two eyes like diamonds business meets success with prosperity, like a priceless jewel…

…white whiskers, as if applied so fine-luck is not slow coming to the house

This ancient manuscript was recovered from Ayudhya, the capital of what was then Siam, and shows how long cats have had a special relationship with the Thai people. Their King Rama V adored animals and was known to hold a state funeral when one of his cats died. Siamese cats were rarely sold to foreigners, but because they are considered good luck they are a favorite gift to visiting dignitaries. And in Thailand, if a pair of good luck cats is given to a bride on her wedding day, it is said to ensure a happy marriage.

This maneki neko beckons customers to purchase...

This maneki neko beckons customers to purchase takarakuji tickets in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you don’t have a green thumb or the space for a pet, then growing your own luck could be a problem. No need to fret though as there are a few things you can buy to improve your lot. If you still want a good luck cat but don’t think you can manage to take care of a real live one, then you might be content to keep a Golden Lucky Money Cat or a Beckoning Cat. These cat figures are popular in Chinese and Japanese businesses. You can usually find them prominently displayed, one paw auspiciously raised up, as if hailing you to “live long and prosper”. The left paw is to beckon customers, the right paw attracts money and good fortune. They may also come in different colors for different kinds of luck. Black is to ward off evil, pink is for love, gold is for money (of course), and red for good health. These lucky cats are customarily “fed” with coins and paper bills. In China there is a charming legend told about the arrival of a cat who fought the rats and protected the silkworms that a family depended on for their wealth. Traditionally, cats also symbolize protection from evil. This is supposedly because they can see in the dark and frighten away bad spirits.

Budai - Laughing Buddha

Budai – Laughing Buddha (Photo credit: Natesh Ramasamy)

But if you’re after a more anthropomorphic symbol of good luck, then a Lucky Buddha could be what you’re looking for. Also known as Hotei in Japan, Pu-Tai in China, Laughing Buddha or Happy Buddha, these Buddha figures always feature a big smile and a large belly. His fat stomach is a symbol of happiness, generosity, and the good life.  Legend has it that if a person is to rub his belly, it brings forth wealth, luck, and prosperity. It is said that the Hotei is based on a Buddhist monk by the name of Pu-Tai. Because of his benevolent nature, he was regarded as an incarnation of the bodhisattva (the future Buddha Maitreya), but due to his fat stomach and jolly personality, he was caricatured as the “Laughing Buddha”. The name Hotei actually means cloth bag or glutton. Another item that is usually seen with the Hotei figure is a begging bowl.  This represents his Buddhist nature. Many Buddhist temples will have Hotei located at the entrance or in the courtyard. Most of these figures depict Hotei as a wandering monk who goes around and takes away the sorrow from those he passes.

Once we’ve chosen a charm it is best not to question its powers too much if we want to see any effects. Falling prey to skepticism and pessimism just won’t do you any good. At the very least, it’s always a good idea to hold on to something that makes us feel better about our chances in life. Taking care of a tree or a pet cat is always a worthwhile endeavor, and can also be very enjoyable. If you believe that keeping a lucky figure makes you feel more fortunate, or adds a more prosperous tone to your home or business, then by all means get one and display it in full view. And who knows, seeing Buddha laugh and rubbing his fat belly everyday might be just what you need to put a smile on your face and some stuffing in your bank account. As long as it makes you happy and brings you hope, who is to argue? In the end, we only have as much luck as we believe, but every little bit helps.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manila Bulletin, 2003

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