By Nicole De Los Reyes
It is past noon, but my mom and I are still sitting at the dining table, telling each other stories. It is Friday, and my siblings are out. I am the homebody among the three of us, and I prefer to stay here, listening to my mom reminisce about her high school and college days.
Crickette Tantoco is a great storyteller, with a keen writer’s eye, picking up on all the subtle details and character traits that escape the notice of others. I’ve been a bookworm since childhood, a passion I picked up from her, and her life story is one of my favorite novels.
It was from my mom that I learned that style could be a language that spoke volumes about a person. She would tell me about how her father’s mother would get fully made up and wear a long gown every day even when she was at home. Her maternal grandmother loved color-coordinated outfits and would wear bright colors and pastels from head to toe. They were both fond of their eldest granddaughter, who seemed to understand the going-ons of adults from a young age.
Yet, there was always a childlike charm to my mom, who you’d often catch daydreaming, with her head softly leaned in her arms, her china-doll eyes staring off into the distance. She had a rich, inner world, and was always busy crafting a new, creative vision.
Though she didn’t see herself as an artistic person, she had a passion for making her surroundings and the people around her beautiful. These ideas and dreams were reserved for her closest, loved ones, especially her younger sister Frances Yu, who she enjoyed dressing up.
“Crickette was the fashion consultant of her younger sister, Frances,” their mother Lindy Jalbuena says. “She would dress her up and pick accessories to match, whenever Frances went shopping or had an event to go to.”
This continued until the sisters were older. People were naturally drawn to my mom’s quiet confidence, and would come to ask for her fashion advice. This extended to her sisters-in-law, nieces, daughters, etc. She dressed entire families from her wardrobe.
“What I admire most about her in relation to dressing up is that she is not content to be the only one well-dressed,” Frances says. “She wants everyone around her to be well-dressed and so she takes time to help people put together their outfits so that they will feel good about themselves, confident. She opens up her closet to so many people and if you like something, she will even give it to you.”
My aunt Frances tells me that even as a child, my mom was always aware of the latest fashions. “She knew what the trends were but did not allow trends to dictate her style,” my aunt says. “She knew what she liked, knew what would flatter her body type, and knew how fashion could bring out her positive attributes. She was also consistent in having a sense of ‘appropriateness’ when it comes to dressing; nothing indecent, dress properly for the occasion, dress appropriately for your age.”
It gives one a sense of my mom who is impossible to put into a box: expressing herself through fashion was a way of ordering the chaos of the world, but at the same time, it was a way to play and to escape. She carefully observed and learned from the way others dressed, but was never a follower. The exact opposite was true. She was the one who defined the terms that she dressed and lived by.
“Her style speaks of her confidence and decisiveness. She knows what she wants and she knows how to get what she wants,” Frances says. “I don’t think she views herself as a fashion authority even if others did. She dressed for herself. But yes, others in the family looked up to her, and not just for her fashion sense, but she was also a model for responsible action, moral uprightness, generosity, and strength of character. Her closet is a communal closet. Everyone borrows clothes from her and, in her trademark generosity, she opens up her wardrobe for everyone.”
Jojie Lloren, one of my mom’s favorite local designers, shares a similar sentiment. “Crickette instantly became my muse right after I did a gown for her. She is beautiful inside and out; a very nice and kind person,” the designer says. “Style-wise, she is a chameleon. She can go from classic to trendy to sexy sophisticate to ultra-glam. The design possibilities are limitless. Working with her is so easy and always a great pleasure. I consider her as one of my clients I love the most.”
My mom vividly remembers what she was wearing every decade. There are specific outfits tied to each, different chapter of her life.
As a high school student, she had to wear a uniform, but would put on eyeliner and powder every morning, even if the nuns would make her wash it off. It was a rebellious, carefree time and she was just discovering who she was, and how she wanted to dress.
“When we were in high school, Crickette’s style was trendy like other girls our age. But since her mom had a boutique with designer clothes, she had a choice of older, more sophisticated styles,” says one of her best friends, Monique Toda. “One of my fondest memories were sleepovers at Crickette’s house where we would rummage through her mom’s closet. Sorry Tita Lindy. We even used her designer stilettos at the cogon of the Polo Club. How we managed to do that is amazing!”
My mom and Monique have known each other forever, and she reflects on how she’s seen my mom’s style and personality evolve over the years.
“I call Crickette’s style now ‘comfy cool’,” Monique says. “Gone are the stilettos and body-hugging clothes. Her aesthetic now is stylish, a bit minimalist, but with a twist. I love it and it suits her lifestyle.”
When she was in college, my mom remembers wearing cardigans and pants folded at the ankle to cover her arms and legs, which she believed were too skinny.
Dressing to flatter her stick-thin figure was always a major concern. “It was the ’80s and it was trendy to have a fuller, curvier shape,” she tells me. She tried very hard to put on more weight, but it was difficult since she disliked strong-tasting food. Her diet consisted mostly of butong pakwan (watermelon seeds).
Later, her family would migrate to Long Island and she would work at the Ann Taylor boutique in New York. There, she would meet my dad, Donnie Tantoco and, during the summer they fell in love, she would teach him how to wear his clothes in a way that didn’t look manol, and he would teach her the joys of eating sizzling steaks, hamburgers, and bowls of creamy carbonara.
“I think the seeds of our relationship started in 1986,” my dad says. “My Lola Glecy got me a summer job at Bloomingdales. I did not know how to fold clothes properly. I could only do the admin stuff like stockroom, but not other jobs that were important. I was in big trouble.”
My mom immediately noticed this when she visited him at the store. “She probably thought ‘Oh my god! This person is going to get fired!’ I felt that way too,” my dad says, with a laugh. “She fixed my area and trained me. She was a manager at Ann Taylor so she really knew the ropes.”
Though they weren’t going out with each other yet, the Ann Taylor store she managed was near Bloomingdales, so she and my dad would have breaks together. “That’s one of the reasons our friendship evolved to a romantic level,” he says.
“She hated my style at the beginning of our relationship,” my dad says. “Thank goodness she could see past that major flaw of mine! I was not a shopper at all. I had these shoes that she would call my ‘lumberjack’ shoes. She would buy me key pieces like a beautiful, paisley tie, tan slip-on shoes, a leather jacket from Ralph Lauren… I didn’t know how to wear it! She got very frustrated, because she spent one or two months of her Ann Taylor salary to buy those things for me.”
They would go on leisurely walks together along the avenues of New York, and this was how my dad learned to see the world through my mom’s eyes. “She would show me beautiful clothes that she liked in the windows of the stores,” my dad says. “She was really passionate, and I would not only listen to her words, but would also feel her energy. We spent so much time doing that, that I began to understand her style. I could look at an outfit, imagine her in it, and know which ones she would really love.”
Their walks started in New York, but they continued on throughout their marriage to other favorite, retail streets around the world. “It’s become DNA to our marriage, though I still like my faded jeans and lumberjack shoes,” says my dad.
They have been together for 33 years now, but those long walks continue to be a deep and meaningful bonding experience for them. Over the years, they’ve influenced each other’s tastes and fashion sense to the point that they’ve started to dress alike. They both love Japanese brands that have a strong Italian or French influence. My mom has started wandering into the men’s department, buying the same items as my dad except in XS.
It’s a love story that has made me believe that there are more than five love languages, and that fashion is one of the ways my parents express admiration and understanding with each other.
“I understand what mood she is in based on what she is wearing. I love how through her style she can express many facets, faces, and personalities, aesthetics, of her true self,” my dad says. “Her creativity is something about her that endears me to her. She is a complex person who is also always true to herself.”
Like any daughter, I look up to my mom so much, and I hope she doesn’t mind this attempt to tell her story and to try to capture all the things I love about her on this special day. Wishing you the happiest birthday, Mom! It’s because of you that this column even exists.