Saturday, March 31, 2007

46. Meanwhile Back At the… Alma’s Venture

After more than 12 years with Solid Bank, Alma, my wife, quit her job to pursue her pipe dream, the establishment of a high fashion business.
Fashion designing and clothes-making were among her hobbies. She had taken up sewing lessons together with cutting patterns even when she was still employed with the bank. There was a short course on fashion designing offered by Slim’s, one of the popular schools of fashion at that time which she attended.

With her fondness for what is fashionable she naturally gravitated towards this trade and just a few months after her resignation from the bank she ventured into the fashion business by opening a dress shop along Shaw Boulevard in between EDSA and Wack Wack Golf. It was her intention to tap the Mandaluyong market which included the affluent residential subdivisions and the growing office going population in the developing Ortigas commercial area.

Her first year of operations was a flop as the income from the shop was not even enough to cover the rentals of the outlet space. The positioning of her shop was that of mid-price range customized gowns and dresses. This went on for almost a year without any sign of it ever picking up. Undeterred by this, she asked me for additional capital with the intention of trading up the business from a mass based business to an upscale one. I was hesitant to sink in more money into what seemed to be putting in more money after bad.
Alma was one person who cannot be deterred from pursuing her aspirations. Always the supportive husband, I acceded to her entreaty or should I say importuning. Still hurting from the initial failure I had to warn her that the second investment represents the last of our savings, money for the kids’ education and an emergency fund that would only be used in case of dire need.
Most of the second round of investments went into the cosmetic uplifting of the shop premises. We invested on first class furniture and other tasteful and expensive bric-a-bracs. Some items in our personal collection of artworks in the house were commandeered to grace the walls of the new establishment. After all the changes the shop emerged somewhat looking like a Rodeo Drive boutique.
In the fashion business it was the practice to have a grand opening to merit press space. Thus the shop “Alma Roa” was introduced into the business community amidst flashing light bulbs, noisy cocktail chitchat, flowing drinks, sprinklings of holy water in benediction of the premises and a sumptuous array of edibles in a generous buffet table. With the image uplift a price lift was also done to make its transformation into a snobbish and expensive shop complete. As if like magic the business prospered and this made Alma even more confident and aggressive. The dress shop funded the establishment of a tailoring shop for men, a beauty parlor and a small canteen all in the same building. In addition to her booming customized trade she started pushing bids to do office uniforms for banks and other large companies.
All these businesses thrived and it seemed that there was no limit to what she can achieve. The world was her oyster. In the meantime, I was doing very well in my career and already a senior manager in a major multinational company at thirty-two. This, indeed, were happy times for us. In less than two years we were able to buy a lot in Loyola Heights on the same street as my brother’s and parent’s house. Our cherished dream of owning a house came true. We built a five-bedroom bungalow from a housing loan.
Almost as quickly as we have acquired these blessings they were taken away in a fire that engulfed the entire building that housed Alma’s businesses. Nothing can compare with a fire in its thoroughness to wipe out everything. Not a pin was saved and all that remained were twisted sewing machine metal frames and burned debris of other equipment. Nothing of value survived the fire. Even the big earthen replica of the Kamakura Buddha that served as a coin bank was not spared. Someone, presumably a firefighter, broke the base and scooped out all the contents of the Buddha. There were no traces of the tall heaps of bolts of textile materials in storage. What were left of several completed uniform sets were melted plastic bags fused with blackened cloth materials.

The fire happened on Labor Day. We were enjoying ourselves in a private beach in Ternate, Cavite. With the exception of Alma’s sister there was nobody in the shop. She stopped by the shop to make ready the completed sets of uniforms for several major clients scheduled for delivery the following day. Insurance coverage was at a minimum. Because of the phenomenal rise of the business we were not quick enough to update the insurance coverage proportionate to the increased size of the business. What was damaging was the destruction of the completed uniforms that were about to be delivered. The clothing materials used in the uniforms were on credit and the labor costs all paid for. In anticipation of more contracts coming in, the textile storeroom was filled literally to the rafters…all these on credit.

Alma with self portrait

This was a major setback in our lives. Despite her strong determination to get back on her feet success was denied her. The vagaries of life are never explained. Just like grace it visits you without any forewarning and for no apparent reason. We have experienced His grace several times prior to this calamity. We had graciously accepted His blessings in the past, so, in like manner we had to endure the trials that grimly faced us. The prospects for the future were dim. We were faced with the problem of making good the delivery of all the contracted uniforms that were consumed by the fire. While the corporate clients were understanding and patient the onus of delivering the goods as contracted had to be faced. It took me three years to completely settle our accountabilities with the various textile suppliers.

As if these problems were not enough, we also defaulted on the loan that we got into to build our dream house in Loyola heights. We had to sell the property at a loss to salvage whatever value was left after paying off the accumulated interests of the long period of arrearage. Looking back, I feel grateful for the strength He has given to help me perform creditably in my job despite the constant pressures from creditors I had to endure day to day. Both my wife and I were terribly distressed and had at several occasions made erratic decisions on almost everything that we did during those times. The attempts at bouncing back were haphazard and poorly thought of. Somehow good judgment eludes you when you need it most.
Alma decided to quit the fashion business but only after the disappointments and the anguish of a failed dream took its toll on her health. She underwent surgery to correct a collapsed lung that was congenitally weak and aggravated by excessive smoking. At the height of our adversity she was smoking three packs of super king menthol cigarettes a day.

Despite the physical setback that almost debilitated her, Alma just couldn’t remain idle. She had so much time in her hands and being a natural born doer she looked for ways of expending the energy that had welled up during the years of inactivity. She found a way of venting her creative fire that was now hissing like a steam boiler by returning to her erstwhile alma mater to take up a non-credit course in painting in the University of the Philippines’ School of Fine Arts. She did some creditable oils but this clearly was not an area that she could excel in. However, the years spent in the college of painting have greatly refined her fashion sketches and had sharpened her artistic sense and these became manifest in the designs that came after her interlude in the arts.

In addition to having found joy in artistic expressions she cultivated friendships in the art circles. Among her close acquaintances were the master abstract painter Benjie Cabangis, the much sought after portraitist Gig de Pio, and the young Michael Cacnio, the son of the watercolor master, Angel Cacnio. Michael blossomed into a masterful craftsman in sculpture. Since she was a non-credit student she joined the art classes of regular students most of whom were half her age. Other noted artists in her coterie were Nestor Vinluan who was the dean of the School of Fine Arts then and the late Jose Joya, the undisputed master painter and national artist who was also a former dean of the school. Her acquaintance with these artists allowed her to add to our collection of art works paintings that were of higher quality. The Joyas in her collection were paid for in easy installments that the master extended only to those close to him. Out of friendship and pure appreciation as well, she included the works of her friends in her trove of art works. After painstaking piece-by-piece acquisition and month-by-month payments the collection is worth a minor fortune now.

It was fourteen years after she closed her business that she decided to reopen at the imploration of a former employee, her master cutter, who desperately needed help after losing all his belongings in a fire that gutted his house. It was easy to empathize with this man’s plight. More out of a desire to help she reopened the shop in a modest commercial apartment in our subdivision, a far cry from the fabulous appointments of her former shop. The second floor served as the residence of the cutter and his family. Much more relaxed and operating without pressure she made the business flourish again. Her short excursion into the art world had a marked influence on her fashion creations. The vibrant colors, their tasteful combinations and classic lines became hallmarks of her new designs. In a few years the business expanded with branches in the main commercial avenue of Alabang and in Shaw Boulevard in Mandaluyong. She also did fashion shows on a regular basis among the Filipino business and socio-civic organizations in Honolulu, Hawaii.

In retrospect, the fire that stemmed the rise of our fortunes at an early age seemed to be more a boon than bane. We were both young, reaping successes and enjoying unrestrained freedom in our separate fields of endeavors. We gave each other space because we both understood that this was necessary in order to attend to the numerous responsibilities, obligations and activities concomitant to success, but then again, maybe we just wanted the freedom. Had this gone on for a few more years a drifting away from each other might have occurred before we even realized it. We got nudged before it was too late. Thank God

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