Defining Fashion Salvacion Lim Higgins

In this day and age of the celebrity fashion designer, when the names and faces are what you remember and not the clothes, there is one visionary designer whose body of work stands alone and speaks volumes.  Salvacion Lim Higgins: the one Filipina designer that has had the greatest impact on Philippine fashion up to now– twenty-five years after her passing.

The Artist

Her prolific body of work includes ternos that completely broke away from tradition, leading the experimental movement that brought them further into the area of couture.  Black-and-white Maria Clara costumes in an era when color was the norm.  Gowns for Filipino and American First Ladies, and pieces that hang in the world’s great museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as the Smithsonian.  Clothes that even to the untrained eye, even from a distance, are awe-inspiring works of art that are still relevant to this day–stunning and avant-garde yet well-made and wearable– even the ones dating as far back as the 40s and the 50s.

US First Lady Mamie Esienhower’s gown,
now in the Smithsonian.

Known for breathtakingly elegant designs that belie their staggeringly complex construction, she was more than just a designer:  she was an artist, technician, architect and engineer.  And more than that, she was a teacher and a visionary.

The Educator

Many would say, however, that the most important aspects  in Slim’s body of work are not the clothes, but people. The people she mentored, as well as students and graduates of the institute bearing her name, the Slim’s Fashion & Art School, include many notable figures in the world of fashion.

These include those we have grown up with such as Oskar Peralta (student number 1, 1961), Cesar Gaupo  and Gang Gomez and current stars such as Michael Cinco, whose name is now recognizable even by those who know nothing about fashion as the rock star designer who made the amazing wedding dress in Jupiter Rising.  Larger-than-life sketches of their designs grace the school’s “Walls of Fame”, while students rush to their classrooms to seriously pursue their art, hoping to someday have their own sketches alongside those of their predecessors.

Her favorite gown, now in London’s Victoria
and Albert Museum. It is gray, which no
one at that time would dare to wear; it
looks simple aelegant, yet incredibly
complicated, in its construction, and there
will never be another one exactly like it
again. Just like Slim.

Still, her influence extends beyond those in high fashion– many of the people in the clothes industry, from designers to pattern makers not just in Manila but throughout the country and abroad – are graduates of Slim’s, owing their craft and their lifelihood to the institution.

Slim’s, The Visionary

Here’s the thing about visionaries who leave legacies: they don’t go on and on about their vision and the legacy they will leave behind. They just do it. According to Sandy and Mark Higgins–Slim’s children, and the custodians of the legacy that informs a large part of the Philippine fashion industry and its work today– their mother never set out to be the icon we know today.

Salvacion Lim Higgins at Work: Her children say that when
she was working, she was very quiet, lost in the vision of
what she was creating.  

Sandy speaks of a time when they were compiling the book about their mother’s work,  siting on the floor, all red-eyed due to the late hour, going through boxes for photos and thinking of captions, when something occurred to her. She turned to her brother and said, “You know, Mark, if mom were alive today she’d be laughing at us and say ‘Why are you going through all this trouble?’ For her, it was all about the work.”

Mark says, “She never set out to deliberately influence the fashion industry.”  Yet she did.

She worked with the strong belief that the Philippines could be a fashion center, and had faith in the creativity and the artistry of the Filipino. She was very interested in young minds, and was very involved in those she mentored, often checking up on promising Slim’s alumni long after they graduated.

And until her last days, she was creating. Her work remains relevant– the gowns and dresses to this day, still original and innovative, and infinitely wearable. The products of Slim’s are still rigorously trained under standards she defined: an adherence to the basic principles of art and design, as well as construction and engineering.

At the beginning of the interview, I was shown a dress that young people gravitated towards– one that many are surprised to discover was made in the 60s. It had just one seam– and one would be hard-put to find it. It occurs to me that Salvacion Lim Higgins is like that one seam– quiet, well hidden, but holding up the beautifully complex design we know as the Philippine fashion industry today.

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