Joanne Reyes sketched cartoons and animals at age six. At nine, she was drawing dresses and making clothes from scrap fabric for her toys. She recalls hanging out in her family’s bridal boutique in Covina, California, watching clients come in and out of the shop with clippings of their dream gowns. “At first, I wanted to be an animator. I would send letters to the Walt Disney company saying I was ready,” she recounts. Being exposed to the family business “inspired me to sketch clothes.”
Later on, she learned to appreciate the symmetry and grandeur of architecture, and thought she’d design buildings. After all, architect was one of the professions that had the family’s stamp of approval, along with doctor, lawyer, banker or engineer. “But I realized in my first year of college, I was sketching clothes after class, not buildings,” Reyes says of her brief stay in Seattle’s University of Washington as an architecture student. She pursued her passion and moved to New York City in 2000 to take up fashion at Parsons School of Design.
Internships at prestigious fashion houses such as Vivienne Tam and Jill Stuart, design jobs for Reem Acra’s Spring 2005 evening wear and J. Mendel’s evening and luxury wear from 2004 to 2005 followed, along with a stint at Monique Lhuillier for a Fall 2007 collection. In 2009, Reyes joined Carolina Herrera's elite group of designers.
HER OWN "LOLO" LABEL: VICENTE VILLARIN
Throughout this exposure, she nurtured a desire to design her own label. Inspired by the tenacity and talent of her maternal grandfather, a well-traveled music composer who came to New York City in 1971, Reyes launched her line named after him—Vicente Villarin. Reyes describes her clothes as graceful and timeless; the Vicente Villarin woman is “sophisticated yet edgy, classic yet modern.” In less than a year, she was able to catch the attention of fashion and women’s magazines in the US such as Elle, Women’s Wear Daily, and Shape.
“Most just ask why I didn’t use my own name. I believe a company relies on the name to stand for and sum up the entire brand philosophy behind it. My grandfather sacrificed part of his passion for a better life for his family,” Reyes says, which is why “the brand is based around him.”
GROWING UP PINOY
Reyes has yet to set foot in the Philippines, though she and her four other sisters and brother were reared on the West Coast amid Filipino traditions. “I love my family and have family everywhere, but it was difficult growing up with Filipino traditions and customs in America,” she says, recounting big family reunions where they wore T-shirts emblazoned with “Reyes” on them and the clan reciting the rosary together.
“It was difficult because we were not allowed to date and have boyfriends or even go out much. We were raised to focus on our studies and taught that family and God come first. I respect and keep these customs close to me, but at times, it was difficult,” she adds. Reyes’s father, Prudencio, was an engineer who worked overseas when she was a child to support the family. “I appreciate his sacrifice because I received a good education and it got me interested in and open to other cultures.”
Of her grandfather, Reyes relates that Villarin was born in 1912 to parents who founded Bulacan’s Meycauayan Institute. Though he had no formal music lessons, he created his first composition at 10 and never stopped, sharing his music in the Philippines, before living in Hong Kong and Shanghai, then in the US. He had nine children, and died in 2000, at 88.
“He was very passionate and loving. As kids, I remember him grabbing our hands and not letting us go. We would sit there or hours stuck with our little hands held tight. Finally, we figured out that he would let you go if you kissed him and said ‘I love you,’ she says. “Another memory I have was of him teaching us to iron properly. His closet was always organized and his clothes ironed to a crisp.”
We think of muses mostly as women, but Reyes considers otherwise. “From my grandfather, I learned the most important lesson and that’s to love what you do in life because no matter what it is, it will make you happy. My grandfather was and is my inner strength,” says Reyes.
If Villarin’s passion for his music and determination inspire her, so do architecture, music and fine art. “My design philosophy is to create timeless pieces that stand strong individually and as a whole in a collection,” she says. She got her ideas for her coming Fall 2008 collection from sculptures she saw on a recent trip to France and Italy. Her pieces, she says “are well-thought out from inspiration to execution.” John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix top her list for their “elaborate creativity.”
Reyes enjoys books on architecture, philosophy and history. Leonardo’s Notebooks, an anthology of Leonardo da Vinci, is a huge favorite. “The way his mind worked amazes and inspired me.” An avid museum-goer as well, the visual stimulation sometimes gets her on overdrive. “My mind naturally brainstorms too much and I can’t sleep,” she says. “I tend to be independent and too focused.” As her career progresses, she wants to be remembered as someone “passionate about the work.”
“Everything in life, whether work, family or relationships, happens for a reason. Nothing is ever perfect and so I always try to accept people and things for who or what they are and work around it,” she says. Her key to success: perseverance. “You have to really love what you do and be passionate about it. Trust your instincts and never give up.”
She knows there’s still a long way to go to making it in the cutthroat world of international couture, and she continues to dream. “In five years I hope to start adding a few other brand extensions.”
(First published in Marie Claire, July 2008; photos used with permission from Joanne Reyes, main photo by Danilo Hess)