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Oliver Tolentino on the Red Carpet


“Who are you wearing?” That’s the question many fashion insiders and red carpet correspondents ask. Some will say the designer’s brand. Others might say the dress came from the archives of an industry giant.


Oliver Tolentino

In any of these cases, the designer will not refuse his dress being on the red carpet, in front of a million flashes. That is the best pedestal any designer could ever dream of, a pedestal already occupied by Filipino designer Oliver Tolentino, whom we can say is “living the dream.”


Based in California, Oliver has a long list of Hollywood A-listers who wore his creations. In 2015, the late Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher wore his dress at the SAG Awards to pay homage to her mother Debbie Reynolds. At the 86th Academy Awards, Oliver became the first Filipino designer in 53 years to dress up an Oscar winner as Jennifer Lee, co-director of the animated film Frozen, received her award for Best Animated Feature. Truly, Oliver has been the go-to for many Hollywood celebrities attending such star-studded events.


Currently in the Philippines, the Beverly Hills red carpet couturier chats with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle as he looks back on his life in fashion, and what it takes to dress up the stars.

How did your life as a designer start?

Growing up in Bataan, I already knew that I was going to be a fashion designer. I loved seeing all those Hollywood actresses when they came out on awards night. Also, my mom had seen the passion in me when it came to designing clothes. When I didn’t have to go to school, or when I was alone, I spent my time sketching and learning how to sew by hand and machine. At a younger age, I preferred to make clothes rather than playing with my friends. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very friendly. I’m just that type who’s very focused on what I want to do with my life.

OTolentino_SAG Awards 2015 (Carrie Fisher & mom Debbie Reynolds)_ Carrie in our gown for the last public photo of them together (pic by Sthanlee B Mirador)

At SAG Awards 2015, Carrie weaing Oliver Tolentino gown for her last public photo with mother Debbie Reynolds (photo by Sthanlee B Mirador)

How do you begin your design process?

Mostly when I travel, that’s the time I gain more inspiration. When I’m in front of my client, by talking to them, I let all my creativity out. There’s no dull moment with me when I’m talking to the clients because I love listening to them, learning what they want to feel. Sometimes when I look at the fabric I already know what to do because I know how to do patterns. Pattern making is my ultimate love when it comes to designing. It’s easier for me to draw, but setting the pattern makes me feel better in constructing my garments. That is my advantage when it comes to designing clothes. I understand the construction and how to turn the design into reality.


Director Jennifer Lee at the 86th Academy Awards wearing an Oliver Tolentino piece (photo by Sthanlee B. Mirador)

What’s the most challenging part of you becoming a designer?

It was in my early years as a designer. When you read fashion books, it says that you have to work first in a fashion company before you can make it on your own. That didn’t happen to me. From the time I finished design school, I have been working by myself. I didn’t know how to say no, or how to handle the business. But as you grow older, you get better in correcting mistakes, and learn from all of it.

In fashion, the artistic way of making clothes cannot be neglected. You cannot rush it. Good is not good enough.

Who are the fashion icons you look up to?

I love Valentino, Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, and the pillars of Philippine fashion, from Ramon Valera to Pitoy Moreno and Cesar Gaupo. I love the older designers and I look up to them because when it comes to construction and making clothes, their pieces are works of art. They designed pieces that you can keep in your cabinet, which you can still wear years later.

Golden Globe nominees Bobby Lopez (in Oliver Tolentino pina tuxedo) & wife Kristen Anderson Lopez (photo credit Sthanlee B Mirador)

Golden Globes nominees Bobby Lopez (in Oliver Tolentino piña tuxedo) and wife Kristen Anderson Lopez (photo by Sthanlee B Mirador)

For you, what do younger designers need to know to make it today?

They should learn more about how to do the business. In our industry, creativity and management should always go hand-in-hand. No matter how beautifully you create clothes, if you don’t know how to sell them, it’s not sustainable. That’s why after finishing fashion school, I took up commercial advertising so I would know what styles would sell, and how to put them on the market.


Golden Globes 2019, Jon jon Briones wearing an Oliver tux

What’s your best lesson?

Be true to yourself, and learn how to say no. If you cannot finish a certain project, just say no. In fashion, the artistic way of making clothes cannot be neglected. You cannot rush it, good is not good enough. I put my heart and soul into every piece of clothing that I make. Mistakes are always there. I think the fashion industry without mistakes won’t be as fun and creative.


Oliver Tolentino’s El Paseo show with muse Tutay Maristela (photo by Hydee Abrahan)

Let’s talk about your life in the US. Who are your most memorable clients?

Many of my pieces have been worn by actress Emmy Rossum. Celebrities who have worn my eco pieces or eco gowns are very close to my heart. Jessica Alba wore my piña dress for a magazine. Carrie Underwood also wore my piña dress for American Idol. I knew from the start that I wanted to promote local textiles, especially in the international market. The best representatives of these fabrics are Filipino designers. I want to use these fabrics for everyday clothes, and not just as accents.

Emmy Rossum at the Global Green USA's 9th Annual Pre-Oscar Party held at the Avalon in Hollywood, CA. The event took place on Wednesday, February 22, 2012. Photo by: Sthanlee B. Mirador_Shooting Star

Emmy Rossum wearing an eco gown at the Global Green USA’s 9th Annual Pre-Oscar Party held at the Avalon in Hollywood, CA. (photo by: Sthanlee B. Mirador)

What are the things you consider in creating a red carpet look?

First, I look at the person who’ll wear my dress. I don’t want her to look overdressed. I want my gown to complement her. These Hollywood actresses are already famous. We’re just enhancing their beauty. Second, it has to be comfortable. They should feel good wearing the gown. There must be an ease to it that allows them to move freely. Cameras don’t lie. If they’re uncomfortable, it shows. It has to be a conversation piece but not a costume. Think of the colors that would pop on the red carpet, and what would compliment the wearer’s skin. Red carpet and awarding ceremonies are part of their world. They know how to carry a dress, and showcase its best elements. It’s a partnership between a designer and the actress.

OTolentino_SAG Awards 2013 (Melissa Rauch)_ in our gown attending Pic by Sthanlee B Mirador

Melissa Rauch in an Oliver Tolentino gown attending SAG Awards 2013 (photo by Sthanlee B Mirador)

Aren’t you afraid of being criticized or ending up on the worst dressed list?

No, because you cannot please everybody. Some people will like it, some people won’t. As long as the actress loves what she’s wearing, I’m good with it.


Becca Tobin at the Fox TCA All-Star Party 2014 in an Oliver dress (photo by Sthanlee B Mirador)

What’s next for Oliver Tolentino?

We are focusing on producing more wedding gowns and ready-towear gowns. Also, we are venturing to have an online store, but still keeping our couture elements on the pieces to be sold.

Source: Manila Bulletin

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