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An Artist to the very end

After working as a fashion illustrator soon after graduating from UST, it didn’t take long for Danilo Franco to enter the world of fashion design. But he never turned his back on fashion illustration. He remained, until his death, one of the industry’s best illustrators


By Alex Y. Vergara

Soon after the Miss Universe beauty pageant last Monday, veteran journalist and psychic reader Rene Bisquera was texting good friend Danilo Franco so that they could meet up and have dinner. Bisquera, who just came from Bataan to conduct a series of forecasts for the Year of the Rooster, was trying to make up for being unable to join Franco two nights ago for Chinese New Year’s dinner.

“I texted him about how close my predictions were regarding certain candidates, including Miss Canada and Miss France,” said Bisquera. “I didn’t receive any reply, which was unusual. The next day, Tuesday, I texted him again to ask him if we could meet up and have coffee. Again, no reply. But after about an hour, it was his brother Joey who texted me back using Danny’s phone. He told me that Danny was in the hospital and was already in critical condition.”

Danilo Franco during an exhibit at SoFa of his works late last year

Danilo Franco during an exhibit at SoFa of his works late last year

Bisquera, who lost no time texting and messaging common friends to pray for Franco’s healing and full recovery, never saw his friend again.

Franco, veteran designer and master illustrator for more than 40 years, died Tuesday afternoon at the emergency room of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Hospital. The Fine Arts graduate from UST and one of the pioneer educators of Makati-based School of Fashion and the Arts (SoFA) was 65.

One of Franco’s last public appearances was almost two weeks ago at a fashion show at Conrad Manila’s grand ballroom, where he and more than 80 other colleagues dressed up delegates to the recently concluded Miss Universe beauty pageant. He did Miss Canada’s white serpentina dress with a halter neckline.

Miss Canada Siera Bearchell wears a Danilo Franco creation at a Miss Universe-organized fashion show

Miss Canada Siera Bearchell wears a Danilo Franco creation at a Miss Universe-organized fashion show

According to long-time assistant Amy de Ocampo, Franco went to the hospital early Tuesday afternoon with his driver for a routine medical checkup. He also wanted to see his doctor to have one of his swollen knees checked. Franco was known to suffer from arthritis and occasional bouts with asthma, but he didn’t have any major health or medical issues, said De Ocampo.

“But while waiting for the doctor, he started complaining that he was feeling hot,” she said in a phone interview. “All his driver could do was fan him. When he complained that he had difficulty breathing, he was rushed to the hospital’s emergency room. When we came at around five in the afternoon, doctors were trying to revive him. He was already in a coma. I wasn’t able to talk to him anymore.”

A gown for Ben Ferrales

A gown for Ben Ferrales

According to De Ocampo, Franco began to limit his workload as a designer in recent years. He only did dresses occasionally for long-time clients “he couldn’t say no to,” she said, like actress-politician Vilma Santos. At the time of his death, he only had two sewers who were on call at his shop in Singalong, Manila.

As early as his student days, Franco worked as a layout artist atthe now-defunct Philippine Daily Express. He later applied as in-house illustrator of designer Ben Farrales.

His stint with Farrales introduced Franco to the world of fashion. It didn’t take long for him to make the shift, showing his designs alongside contemporaries such as Barge Ramos, Danny dela Cuesta, and Chito Vijandre.

“He was a quiet artist who shared his talents and, in equal measure, always saw the artist in everyone he met,” said Bisquera, who has known Franco since the mid ‘70s. “Since he was always known for his handpainted designs, Danny was the artist behind the many fabulous handpainted clothes by the late Joe Salazar, whose clients included then First Lady Imelda Marcos. He once told me that he considers Ben Farrales as one of his mentors.”artist mb2

Franco’s good friend Tria Villasis-Ramolete, who rushed to the hospital as soon as she learned about the designer’s condition, attested to his artistry and unassuming ways.

“He saw art and beauty in everything,” she said. “He was very humble, unassuming, and never called attention to himself. Apart from being generous in sharing his knowledge about fashion and the industry, he was full of wit and humor. Just like his illustrations, he was very precise yet free in the way he communicated. He was also very articulate.”

As a friend, “he was very thoughtful and put a lot of thought in selecting meaningful gifts,” said Ramolete. “He was always easy to be with and made you feel at ease.”

Those who didn’t know Franco would probably think that he was aloof and too serious. But Ramolete disagrees, “He delivered the best jokes because you would never expect him to break out of his mild demeanor and laugh gregariously.”

A Danilo Franco sketch for Inno Sotto

A Danilo Franco sketch for Inno Sotto

Designer Joey Samson has had the privilege of working with Franco as his assistant designer for seven years. It was Farrales who told him that Franco was in need of an apprentice. Samson applied and was accepted. In due time, he became his assistant.

“He was a very kind, gentle, and sincere person,” said Samson, one of the country’s best designers when it comes to tailored pieces. “Most of what I know I learned from him. He was very supportive and would even make time to see my early shows.”

Samson continued: “From Danny, I learned that nothing beats hard work, patience, perseverance, and humility. You have to love and to continuously be passionate about your work.”

Despite his success as a designer, Franco never turned his back on fashion illustration. In fact, he and Loretto Popioco were the two go-to guys of certain designers to illustrate their designs for them.

Aside from illustrating the designs of colleagues such as Ramos and Farrales, Franco used to re-illustrate drawings submitted by various designers to such local fashion magazines as Woman Today and the now-defunct Manila Women’s Wear.

“I used to re-illustrate the works of almost everyone—MangBen (Farrales), Mang Pitoy (Moreno), Auggie Cordero, Cesar Gaupo, Rusty Lopez, Mike dela Rosa, Edgar San Diego, Jun-Jun Cambe, Dobie Aranda,” he said in an interview we did with him almost four years ago.

It wasn’t that their drawings weren’t good. He cited Gaupo, for instance, as one designer who could really draw. The magazines just wanted drawings featured on their pages to have a certain “uniformed” look, he said.

“The talent for drawing is innate,” said Franco in the same interview. “You only have to revisit it. Remember, all of us started drawing when we were kids. And we all produced honest, graphic drawings because we didn’t have inhibitions. The details themselves oftentimes became symbols.”

As a designer himself, Franco knew the importance of good illustration. It’s a tool, he said, that designers need in order to communicate their ideas to clients, and in the case of hired talents, owners and investors.

“And even if you don’t end up as a designer, knowing how to illustrate would serve you well as a merchandiser or stylist,” he said. “Again, it’s a skill you would need to convince and influence other people.” In recent years, he became more involved as an educator.

“Sir Dan was one of the pillars of SoFA,” said bag designer and SoFA’s executive administrator for marketing and admissions Amina Aranaz-Alunan. “He was one of our first few faculty members and he eventually became a major member of our education team. He was one of those we relied on to deliver the SoFA method of design education. He understood the value of the design process and managed to mentor our students through it. He was extremely generous, becoming a lifelong mentor and friend to his students even after graduation.”

“In spite of his full load as a SoFA professor, Dan still continued to serve his clients,” said good friend Richard Papa, also a designer and fellow faculty member of SoFA. “He always wanted to retire from designing and move from Malate to a smaller place in Makati near SoFA. But how could he do that when clients like Vilma Santos wouldn’t stop ordering? He was always busy, but always found time to dine out, hang out with designers, co-teachers, and create artworks when his schedule allowed.”

“I also learned from some of his students at SoFA that Danny would go out of his way and even work beyond class hours to tutor them or give his opinion on such matters as style, technique, coloring, and even accessorizing,” said Bisquera.

Franco, whose late parents hailed from Malabon and Pateros, left behind five siblings. His remains lie in state at Sanctuarium, Araneta Avenue corner Quezon Avenue, Quezon City.

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