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Damian proved her worth on the runway and faces up to her battle against cancer.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Maritess Damian passed away in April 2010 after more than a decade of fighting cancer.]

PARIS, France—It was a crisp, cold afternoon, nearly sunset, but thoughts of the best chocolat chaud in Paris at the famed Café Angelina along rue du Rivoli kept me going. A queue snaked right outside the café, and I jumped it. Maritess Damian arrived a half-hour before I did and already had a table. I had already apologized for being late, and she was gracious. It was our first time to meet, though I recognized her instantly. Even seated, she was statuesque. The trendy shoulder-length bob she sported and the gray cashmere top she wore over a black turtleneck branded her as effortlessly Parisienne.

FASHION FORWARD

Before Paris, there was Manila and Singapore. Standing 5 feet 11 inches with chinita looks, Damian is undeniably a head turner. After learning the ropes of modeling in the 80s, she sashayed into the Asian arena by way of Singapore. It was there that she caught the attention of Karl Lagerfeld in 1990. Then the House of Chanel’s chief designer, Lagerfeld personally invited Damian to try her luck in Paris. She said yes, though her plans were short-term.

“I told myself I would just do one show to cover my expenses. I wanted to get the bakod of my parents’ house in Parañaque repainted,” she recalls. But Damian’s looks were in demand, and rather than doing just one haute couture show, she did several—Chanel, Lanvin, and Guy Laroche, to name a few. One day, walking along rue St. Dominique, a talent scout hoped to get her to pose for the popular calendar of Italian tiremaker Pirelli, which could’ve been Damian’s ticket to sudden fame, but she nixed it when she found out she had to appear naked.

After that one month, she gave notice she was heading home. The agency handed her the check for her work. It was made in her name for the amount of 400,000 French francs (about P2 million back then). “I asked if they made a mistake. But they didn’t. So I opened an account and decided to stay a few more months.”

“Then I went back to Manila. My father doubted me a little bit because of all the renovations going on in our house. One day he said: ‘Anak, matanong nga kita. Sino’ng pinagtratrabahuhan mo?’ So I told him I modeled for Givenchy, Chanel, but he didn’t recognize any of the names until I said ‘Paco Rabanne.’ Then he said, ‘Ay, ‘ayun. Kilala ko ‘yun,’” Damian recalled with a laugh.

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She returned to Paris, determined to test her mettle against scores of models taller and prettier, perhaps, than she was. But Damian knew how to play the game. “You need to be smart and wise to get into fashion big-time. I told myself: ‘I’m not here for nothing.’ This [job] is mine. Every time I saw a line [of models] outside an agency or a fashion house for a casting call, I would walk in there with all confidence. When you present yourself, the designer needs to see the vibes. I researched the designers and what they wanted to achieve with their looks. That was how I was able to adapt,” says Damian.

As her 20s went by, Damian knew modeling couldn’t be a lifetime career, as models begin in Paris as early as 15. “I decided to make the most of my experience by taking advantage of opportunities so I can do something big in the future. I’ll go to a place where I can earn a lot.” And this she did, personally working with Yves Saint Laurent as his permanent fitting and fashion show model until Chloé came along with a more tempting offer.

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With good friend and client, Stella McCartney in October 2007, whom she worked with at Chloé in the late 90s.

In 1997, Damian joined Chloé as its house model and consultant, putting to the test her skills in interpreting the concepts of designers and executing them. It was here that she met Stella McCartney, then an up-and-coming designer who, along with Phoebe Philo, turned Chloé around with their sporty, youthful look. “The vibes with everyone was really great. The team was cool. I had a chance to express myself and do the T-shirt and sunglasses collection with the permission of Stella. That was the beginning, when I found out my creative side.

“I told her ‘You come from a family of rock-’n’-rollers. People are looking for something different.’

“When we were working together, she would ask me for advice, if her staff were following the designs as she instructed them. And I would tell her the truth. Sometimes, they weren’t [following her], and she appreciated my advice,’ Damian said. The two remain good friends.

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Strutting for Pierre Balmain’s 1995 haute couture collection in Paris.

“A LIVING MIRACLE”

But it was more than their love of fashion that cemented their friendship. In 1997, Damian found out she had breast cancer. McCartney could empathize, since she lost her beloved mother Linda to the disease in 1998. “I was stunned when I found out I had cancer. I called my sister and I cried. It took a week for me to get back in shape. I was more concerned for Natasha, my daughter (then six years old) and her future. That was the most important factor that made me strong enough to carry on.

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“I started chemotherapy. I was experiencing pain. And when I was in pain, I needed to do something that would divert my attention,” said Damian. In 2001, she started molding and designing jewelry to while away the time while recovering. “The greatest enemy you can have is doubt.” Rather than wallow in self-pity, Damian drew her strength and support from her newfound hobby that unleashed the creative spirit she nurtured.

In spite of the chemotherapy’s side effects, Damian emerged psychologically stronger than before. We couldn’t believe the woman sitting next to us in a Parisian cafe, who spoke with such animation and passion about her life, was dealing with cancer. “In every dark situation, there’s always the light. My focus always is on the light.”

Damian has been in remission since 2000. Since then, she keeps the cancer at bay by going for monthly checkups to detect nodules.

“But in my mind, I am not sick. I am a living miracle. It is mind over matter. If you think you are miserable, then yes, you are. If you think you are strong, then you are strong.”

To confront her illness, Damian commissioned a photographer friend to take images of the scars left by various operations to remove the nodules from her right breast. “I am anonymous in the photos. We’ve been documenting everything since 2002.”

“Despite the scars I have, I believe that if you face reality, life becomes beautiful. I feel more secure and beautiful than before,” she told us with conviction.

Strength of character is what Damian possesses a lot of—starting life in a new country and overcoming a killer disease. She takes pride in being born Filipino, but is grateful to France, the country that shaped her character.

“I’ve been through a lot. I don’t have my family here. I learned the language on my own. I was in born in the Philippines but I’m French by heart. This was where I evolved. If I stayed in the Philippines, I would not have been able to create what I do now.”

Though she gave up runway modeling in 2003, when fashion week hits the City of Lights, she’s in demand by the fashion houses to train their models to strut the catwalk.

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A sample of her handmade jewelry from her “Elements of Life” collection under Tess&Tasha.

HER JEWELRY DESIGN

Spurred on by cancer and the realization she had no time to lose, she finally put into form the ideas she had brewing in her head. “You have to do something that makes you evolve, something that will last. Unlike fashion where after every season, it’s gone.”

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Making a business of it was furthest from her mind as she showed and sold her pieces to close friends. “Then soon they were telling me, ‘You just can’t make it and not get paid for it.’” Damian took her hands-on training further by enrolling in classes in jewelry design and molding to refine her techniques in 2004. Soon after, she launched the Tess V collection. V is for Vivier, the last name of her ex-husband. The collection will be renamed Tess&Tasha.

Stella McCartney, Vanessa Paradis, and Madame Bernadette Chirac (wife of former French president Jacques Chirac) are among Damian’s friends and patrons of her “Elements of Life” by Tess&Tasha jewelry line. Tasha is her daughter Natasha, now 18. "Elements of Life" makes use of freshwater pearls from Tahiti, white gold, gold, and diamonds. A note on monogrammed stationery from McCartney to Damian dated October 2007 reads: “My stunning and thoughtful necklace is cherished. Thanks so much.”

In 2007, an exhibition of primitive jewelry she saw at the Museum of Primitive Arts in Paris fueled her desire to craft, “The Pearls” which are part of “Elements of Life.”

“When we look at the past, where everything was done manually, they came up with beautiful things that have lasted all these years until now. I told myself that’s what I want to do. Then I just started beading and working with everything in front of me—chain, pearls and glass of wine in my hand,” she says.

These days, Damian is busy meeting orders for high-end boutiques such as Collette and Le Bon Marché in Paris, and the Museum of Metropolitan Art in Chicago, apart from stellar clients like Madame Chirac. “She came over to my stand and bought four pieces including the ‘Cascade’ and the ‘Princess.’ She told me that the next time I exhibit to call her and she’ll come with her friends.”

Imitation of her designs doesn’t faze her. She takes it as a compliment. “If they copy me, it’s a sign that I’m good. The original is always the best.” She gets her inspiration from walking around Paris’ numerous museums and diverse neighborhoods. “Even looking at my daughter and her teenage friends can be an inspiration.

“I feel my work has changed. Before, it was naïve. But when I look at my work now, I can say it’s more mature. That’s what I like about jewelry design. It gives me a chance to start over again.

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“My life is so rich. The challenges make me a better person. In spite of what I am going through, my faith stays firm.”

At the interview’s end, I realized it wasn’t just the chocolat chaud that warmed me in the chilly Paris evening. It was Damian’s words and the strength of character she exudes.

(First published in Marie Claire, April 2008; photos used with permission from Maritess Damian)

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