If you’ve scoured the racks of shoe sections in the country’s biggest department stores, you must have chanced upon his name. But before Rusty Lopez became a famous footwear brand, the man was first a womenswear designer. He was making made-to-order fashions during the groovy era that was the 1970s from his shop in Adriatico Street in Malate, right across the old Assumption school. But the boy from Alcala, Pangasinan really began as a window dresser in the iconic Syvel’s department store in historic Escolta.
Those who knew him remember Rusty to be very creative and business-minded. He can do everything: design clothes, design shoes, create beautiful interiors. “He is inventive and ever daring in his fashion career,” says his friend, the designer Christian Espiritu.
When most women were still going to their modistas to have their clothes made, Rusty was venturing into ready-to-wear. When society grande dame and tastemaker Conching Sunico was scouting for designers to show their clothes in the luncheon fashion shows at the Manila Hilton, he was among the select group she invited.
In the early 80s, Rusty tried his luck in the Big Apple, and fashion editors took notice. He got featured in the fashion magazines of the time, his white cotton eyelet dresses made a splash, and he created a “White Collection” for the big New York department stores Henri Bendel and Bergdorf. “I did not make much money but my name became known,” he told Tatler of that five-year New York moment.
Retail magnate Therese Coronel-Santos was an influential figure in Rusty’s career. “I’ve known Rusty since the ‘70s. I remember him visiting our new store (Cinderella) at Harrison Plaza and on his own, he meddled with the window display,” she recalled recently in The Diarist. She invited him to design for her department store Cinderella. “I guided him in his career path. He eventually helped Cinderella establish a leadership in Philippine RTW.”
The late 70s to the early 80s was a period when Manila’s fashion designers were like celebrities: living a life of glamor, photographed in parties, their travels reported in society pages. Some of them even ended up being immortalized in hit songs. Remember that Hotdog classic? “Damit mo’y gawa ni Pitoy, di nanggaling kay Eloy.”
In Rusty’s case, his name would be immortalized in jeans and footwear after he sold his brand in the early 80s. “As a clothing designer, he’s very very good,” his closest friend, the retired Rustan’s designer Larrie Silva, tells ANCX. “His shop was doing very well as a made to order business but it was his shoes and his jeans that really made his name a household name.” It was another Lopez, by the name of Lolito, together with his wife Lily, who would turn the name into one of the most recognizable shoe brands in the country.
Despite his success, Rusty remained humble and an introvert. “When he’s not close to you he can be very aloof,” adds Larrie of his friend. “That’s why a lot of people think he’s a snob but really he’s not. It’s all part of his insecurities, kasi he came from a small province so in the end, even if he’s made a lot of money, parang gano’n pa rin ang kanyang character. But when he gets to know you he makes an effort to become really close and friendly.”
The private Rusty was very family-oriented. “He loved his family. He was family first before anything else,” says Larrie, adding that his friend really doted on the children of his siblings.
Larrie was naturally devastated when he found out he lost his friend Rusty to cancer last June 19. He learned about his illness only recently. Rusty was secretive about it, says Larrie. Even when they were the best of friends and traveled everywhere. “We’re both September-born, and our close friends knew we were both “away-bati” (fight and make up),” the designer told The Diarist. “We’re opposite characters—I’m the gastador (spender), he’s the kuripot (tightwad), so that he was the one who became rich! Ha ha.”