Whether he’s judged by his clientele or by his awards, Oliver wins. His dresses have adorned Emmy Rossum of “Shameless” and “Phantom of the Opera,” Melissa Rauch of “Big Bang Theory,” Victoria Justice of “Victorious,” Rachel Leigh Cook of “Perception” and Black Eyed Peas diva Fergie. Blake Jenner of “Glee” and hit singer-songwriter Cee Lo Green are among a growing number of men sporting Oliver Tolentino creations. Within the three years since he opened his Melrose Avenue boutique, he has been selected a 2010 OSCARS Designer Gown Challenge Finalist. He also won a 2011 SMGlobal Pinoy Award, first prize at Bali Fashion Week Carnivale and a 2010 Sustainable Eco Fashion Award.
The latter award represents an endorsement from tree huggers in every clime. Oliver’s palette features plant-based fabrics--Manila hemp, jute, water lily, raw silk and pineapple fiber. Those choices would prevail even in an era without environmental footprints.
“I use Philippine fabrics because I’m Filipino,” Oliver explains. “But I use Philippine fabrics in America in order to promote our industries of weaving and embroidery so that future generations will be able to provide an income for their families.”
Manila on His Mind
The Bataan native has toured Aklan and Lumban, Laguna and expects to visit Palawan soon to advise locals on which natural materials will please Western consumers. “With each outfit I get an actress to wear in Hollywood, that is another step towards keeping thousands of my kababayans practicing these centuries-old skills so their knowledge will get passed on to the next generation.”
With his first boutique still thriving in Manila, Oliver is never away from the Philippines too long. “I go back two to three times a year and for up to a month on some trips.” When he is in his home base of Los Angeles, he says, “I am on the phone every night with my Manila shop and clients, so I don’t feel like I ever left.”
The western side of his dual life also has its advantages: “As any Filipino who moved to the U.S., we like the orderliness of life here—orderly traffic, for example, and how orderly business is conducted here.”
Starting Young, Working Long
At age seven when most kids were waiting for the tooth fairy, Oliver designed and sewed his first dress. His publicist keeps mum about Oliver’s current age, but if Fashion News’ year 2011 claim of 39 is true, he has surely surpassed the 10,000-hour threshold that Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Outliers specifies to achieve mastery of a profession. Let Oliver be a lesson to the kids who spend their evenings and weekends on Minecraft rather than developing the skills that would one day enable them to hang out with “America’s Next Top Model.”
Besides time, home support from his parents Ricardo and the late Lydia Sioson and three older siblings was crucial to his success. Oliver spotlights the influence of his polymath mother. “She was like a Renaissance woman. She was a horticulturist, chess champion, marksman, boat racer, photographer, and she oversaw fishponds. She is my inspiration, and she knew early on I was going to become a designer. She encouraged it but insisted that I get a college degree first.”
Oliver went to school in the Philippines but his learning didn't stop there. He’s self-taught in that he never apprenticed or worked for another designer. “A boy from the province doesn't have a lot of doors open to him in the Manila fashion industry or high society,” he explains, “so I just started designing for friends, kept my head down over my work and focused on doing the best I could. Referrals are how I built my business."
Psychology is an underappreciated art he brings to the table. Oliver never enters the first appointment with preconceived ideas on what will please the client but learns it through observation and conversation.
“Usually the client is shy at first so I try to make them comfortable by getting to know them a little,” he says. Once they relax, he can study their characteristics and body to get an idea of the areas they are proud of or may be insecure about. “By doing this, I usually get inspired and sketch what I think they'd like. As a result, there are many times I only have to do one sketch to please the client.”
His publicist won't reveal the typical price of an Oliver Tolentino gown. The underlying vibe is “If you have to ask, you can't afford it.” But he will share Oliver’s leading designer influences: Valentino, Christian Dior and Chanel. With sketchpad, needle and thread, Oliver is busy banking the hours he needs to make this hallowed trio a quartet.
Anthony Maddela serves disadvantaged communities through the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. He and his wife, Susan, are raising Charlotte, age 10, and Gregory, 8.