How Glecy Tantoco Created A Filipino Shopping Empire

Heir to Rustan’s, Rico Tantoco talks to Jerome Gomez about the beginning of an empire.

by Jerome Gomez

“There’s only one very good life and that’s the life you know you want and you make it yourself.”

 

 

It’s possibly one of the lesser-echoed bon mots from the great style dictator Diana Vreeland, owing to its being almost bereft of her usual penchant for madcap fantasy (this is the same woman who advised: “Why don’t you rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne to keep it gold?”). But it may as well be the adopted credo of every single person coming from not exactly the most picturesque of situations, yet looking for a way out—a familiar story arc in the fashion world. It could have easily been the compass that Gliceria “Glecy” Rustia-Tantoco followed in her own journey, except that the St. Scholastican was already starting to make the life she wanted years before Vreeland quotes suggested any whiff of gravitas.

 

Tantoco is the original Lady Rustan, the one who started it all sometime in 1952, when trading luxury goods still fell under the unglamorous-sounding operation called “buy and sell.” There was very little glamour in those days anyway, Manila being just a few years from the devastation wrought by the Second World War and raring to get back on its feet. With the dearth of beautiful things in the landscape, Tantoco used her gift—a great eye for fashion and fine objects—and dove right into a business that would reintroduce an aspirational lifestyle to an environment ready to dream again. Today’s mammoth 65-year-old retail empire Rustan’s (a moniker that combines her and husband Bienvenido “Benny” Tantoco’s last names) now includes five department store branches, the SSI (Stores Specialists, Inc.)brand that represents some of the most famous fashion houses in the world, the department store Adora, and other lifestyle-oriented interests.

 

The Rustan’s story is the story of Glecy, who died of cancer in 1994. As her daughter Zenaida Tantoco, or Nedy, chairman and CEO of the company, recently said in a speech delivered during the 65th anniversary celebration of Rustan’s, “It’s the story of a strong-hearted woman who had a God-given gift, which she used fully to pursue her dreams for the Filipina, whom she believed has every right to be tastefully dressed by only the finest and most coveted names in style, whose home should be impeccably furnished by the best the world has to offer.”

 

Despite its dreamy ideals, the enterprise actually began quite unassumingly, in the living room of the couple’s home on Manila’s San Marcelino Street, across the Masonic Temple, two blocks away from Taft Avenue. The property originally belonged to Glecy’s parents, but Benny would consequently earn enough money to buy the lot next to it and build a house there to prove he could indeed be a good provider to the Rustia folks’ daughter. The two houses would eventually become one, serving as both business address and residence to Glecy and Benny’s young family. A portion of it would be taken over by Glecy’s lifestyle and fashion offerings, attracting a clientele that included her network of friends, members of Manila high society, and even the country’s First Ladies. “She approached every First Lady as a client,” says Rico Tantoco, the first child and only son of Glecy and Benny, although he would later say that Eva Macapagal and his mother became very close indeed, and that Imelda Marcos, who would follow Eva, was almost like a soulmate. “I think they knew each other’s secrets. She was rejected by the Marcoses in the beginning because she was close to Eva Macapagal. They wouldn’t let [my mother] in their clique.”

 

“It was also out of necessity,” says Rico, now Rustan Supercenters Board Chair and runs the Sta. Elena Golf & Country Estate, of why his mother got into the retail business in the first place.

 

 

 

While stable enough to run a sizable home in a reputable location, Rico’s parents weren’t exactly wealthy to begin with. Both were survivors of the war; Bienvenido’s father died at a young age, and his mother had to seek the assistance of the more financially equipped Fabella family to help put her children to school. The young Benny finished Accountancy and worked as head cashier for the Rufino-owned theaters in Manila: State, Rialto, Ever, Capitol, Lyric, and Gaiety. “He was the most trusted man of the Rufinos,” says Rico, proud of the reputation his father earned, and cheered by childhood memories of being granted the privilege of going in and out of the theaters after school for free. “I used to see a movie 25 times,” he says, eyes brightening at the memory.

 

Like Benny, Glecy didn’t come from privilege. Her father was known to be an excellent lawyer and an upright man. “He decided to fight for the poor, so he didn’t have money because he was always fighting for the landless to get their lands, actually from the friars, [and he was] bumping up against Quezon and Vargas,” Rico recalls. (Coincidentally, Rico would marry a Vargas later in life.)

 

 

So when Glecy decided to put up a buy-and-sell business, then the smartest venture to get into, she started small—growing from occupying the Tantoco living room, until the family needed to give up the dining area too, to make space for more merchandise. When the idea of buying goods from other parts of the world struck, inspired by a trip abroad with her husband, she sought the help of Benny’s employers. “Can you give me some money?” says Rico, echoing his mother’s words to the Rufinos. “Everything she bought was sold immediately. From there, she started growing.”

 

She may not have had the biggest capital on her hands but Glecy had a loyal group of friends—among them the Youngs and the Rectos—and a network of society-types who were only too happy to find something among her loot that they thought was only available abroad. “Her barkada was so well-off,” says Rico. “But her clients were not her barkada—they were higher in society.” She’d call on them to say she had found something she was sure they would like, and the women would show up on the San Marcelino steps, saving them the time and effort of making a trip to, say, Paris or New York. Needless to say, she possessed a sharp eye for what her clients were likely to lust after. “She knew what they liked—all the rich people, the sugar barons, she knew each of them,” her son recalls. Indeed, no one else had veils as beautiful as the ones that could be found among her wares. And in those days, veils were not only a must for brides, but for church-going women. She knew what the ladies would be clamoring for. She was the first to bring stockings to the Philippines, particularly the seamless ones that were a craze in the 60s. “Lola Glecy was a trailblazer,” Katrina Tantoco-Lobregat told the Philippine Star’s Millet Mananquil in September. “She was always a couple of steps ahead of others in the industry.”

 

In the days when image endorsers were not exactly a thing, Glecy might have been the best influencer for her refined offerings. In photographs of her during those early years, she is always impeccably put-together: a matching tailored blouse and skirt to meet with Rene Lacoste; a black dress accessorized with heavy pearls for an evening with Karl Lagerfeld; a black sheath over a white turtleneck for a visit to the Yves Saint Laurent headquarters in Paris, a thick belt cinching her waist and a regal brooch perched on her dress’s neckline; kitten heels and a polished leather handbag to meet with the principals of Dior. She was always business-like, yet possessed a quiet panache—a style so relatable to the women she aimed to please.

 

Her son Rico, being the eldest Tantoco, was witness to the growth of the family business and his mom’s balancing act of raising children while attending to the needs of her clientele. He and his four siblings—Nedy, Menchu, Marilou and Marites—were assigned tasks in the store early on: unpacking crates, wrapping gifts, tidying up the shop, the occasional cashier duties. Christmas time was always the busiest in the household. “The place would be packed with shoppers,” Rico remembers. “It was pandemonium.”

 

Rico would also prove a big help to Glecy when she started traveling abroad for her buying trips. “My mother was 22 years older than me, so when she first went buying, she was 28 years old. She would get bothered by men, so she brought me along para huwag siya guluhin ng mga lalake. When I wasn’t in school, she would bring me and she would get bothered less.” At just six years old, he would watch his mother go about her business.

 

When he was much older, he would brief her on a meeting they were to sit for, and she would quickly pick up on the necessary details in no time. When on her buying tasks, her secret, he says, was that she would go to a store with a very clear picture of her target market in mind. “Her market was [really just] a few people, not many, but they were the trendsetters, the ones everybody followed. So those following them would also go to her.” Entrepreneurship seemed also innate in her. Following the success of the San Marcelino location, she would open a store in Banawe, Quezon City in the late 1950s, convinced that the area’s Filipino-Chinese community would become a significant market. She knew them well, too, and offered a totally different merchandise from what she bought for the Pinoys and tisoys of Manila.

 

Like many who knew wartime life, Glecy had a deep awareness of the value of money. On her buying trips, Rico tells Rogue, she was very frugal, favoring cheap hotels and avoiding the fancy restaurants—these luxuries would be indulged in only later in her success. “But she would give me treats,” the unico hijo reveals. Not wanting to disrupt her buying activities at, say, Wyndham Street in Hong Kong, she would consume her prepared sandwich, then hand Rico money and send him to nearby Jimmy’s Kitchen. “Imagine, I was seven years old [asking], ‘One table, please. Give me the Chicken Maryland.’”

 

Being around his mother taught the young Rico to be more conscious of the art of dress and presenting oneself—something vital to their business, where image is always key. Glecy may not have been tall, but she was a commanding, if impressive presence in meetings with top New York bankers and men of similar stature. “She knew how to present herself and they knew this girl knows what she was talking about,” recalls the son.

 

“I remember meeting the Dior people with her. The head then was Marc Bohan, and guess what, Bernard Arnault”—now chairman and CEO of LVMH, the world’s largest luxury goods company—“was an office boy who was following my mom around. He was so impressed by her,” continues Rico, delighted at the recollection.

 

 

The timing of Glecy’s entrance into the luxury business couldn’t have been more perfect. Japan and China in the 60s and 70s had yet to stake their claim on the international luxury market, and the French and American houses were more than forthcoming to modest businesses, welcoming to interested companies like Rustan’s who could open doors for them in Asia. “During my mom’s time, they were all hungry,” Rico offers. “No wonder you could meet all the big shots. Asia was new to them, except Hong Kong.” When Rustan’s started licensing international labels for distribution in the Philippines, Glecy would become close friends with the people that represented the brands, especially the families behind Oleg Cassini and Salvatore Ferragamo. She was closest to Christian Dior, whose house would make the wedding dress of her daughter-in-law, Nena Vargas. But the company she considered “holy,” Rico says, was the French entity Chanel, taken over in the early 80s by Karl Lagerfeld.

 

Rustan’s would open its first Makati store in 1959, a two-story affair located at what is now 6750 Ayala Avenue—just a few steps from where it would eventually relocate ten years after, its current address connected to the Glorietta mall. It was Colonel Jaime Velasquez—chief zoning planner of Ayala who also happened to be Glecy’s uncle—who convinced her to make the move, giving her the privilege of choosing a premium spot in what would become the future business district of the country. Her husband Benny would eventually leave the Rufinos and go full-time with Rustan’s, taking care of administrative matters, logistics, and government relations. Glecy, for her part, would focus on the department store and the merchandise, keeping close to the pulse of the consumers, tapping designers to make ready-to-wear lines when the market was moving further away from the culture of the suddenly cumbersome business of made-to-order. She was also very serious when it came to molding her employees. “She was a good trainer,” Rico states. “She would get people from anywhere and make them excellent shopgirls.” Once they’d passed Glecy’s exacting standards, it was believed they could go on to work anywhere in the world.

 

It is perhaps this personal touch, this Glecy imprint that one still sees—feels—in every Rustan’s Department Store that has kept people patronizing the business after all these years. “Perhaps only Rustan’s will assist you from the time you buy a product till you get into a car,” wrote lifestyle editor Millet Mananquil in Philippine Star. “Rustan’s was the first to specialize in really good service and offer personal shoppers for clients.” Gigantic malls have taken over the landscape, housing a plethora of stores catering to a wide variety of tastes, ages, classes, but one always comes back to Rustan’s. For the informed store attendant who knows exactly when help is needed. For the always courteous and thoughtful men by the entrance who used to—when sparking a cigarette in Makati was still allowed—spring an ashtray out of nowhere for smoking shoppers waiting for their chauffeur. For the thought that one is surrounded by only the best—chosen and curated now, of course, by a new generation of Tantocos, Glecy devotees all, who are only too aware of the legacy they have to live up to.