Out of Print

The Fashion and Fantasy of Sassa Jimenez

by Toni Potenciano

Photos courtesy of Sassa Jimenez.

The fashion designer on embracing her inner whimsy and welcoming the opportunity to design for herself.

Fashion designer Sassa Jimenez and I are talking about my future wedding, over a video call, in the middle of a pandemic. A pandemic that has yet to end. By some miracle I had been engaged for a grand total of three weeks; the proposal euphoria in full swing, unmarred still by the bureaucracy of actual wedding planning. This profile is about Sassa, but whenever talk would move to my wedding, Sassa becomes the interviewer and I the interviewee. She is no stranger to wedding talk, truthfully it excites her. Have I thought about my outfit, she asks, the food I want to eat, how many people I’ll invite. She’ll begin her advice with: “In my experience,” and any bride-to-be ought to listen. Sassa has been in fashion for 13 years, and during this time she has mounted multiple collections at Philippine Fashion Week and has dressed enough celebrities to be considered something of a celebrity herself. She is the designer of choice for a different kind of Filipina bride. Brides that aren’t afraid of excess, of giving in to the fairy tale. Sassa Jimenez is known for her frothy, feminine, and whimsical gowns, and she has since learned to give in, fully, to the fantasy.

“There was a time when I really resented the word whimsical,” Sassa recalls. If you Google the words “Sassa Jimenez whimsical,” the first page of Google is full of articles which describe Sassa’s work in this manner. “Everyone kept saying, ‘oh your dresses are so whimsical’ and I was really frustrated with it. So for one season, I tried to be edgy. Pinilit ko talaga, I said oh, this collection was inspired by the apocalypse.” The collection came out in 2012, the year the world should have ended according to the Mayan calendar. This holiday collection ditched the tulle for black leather and sleek cowl neck dresses. But the world didn’t end that year and Sassa realized that edgy wasn’t who she really was. “After that, I was like okay, I got that out of my system. I just have to stay true to myself.” She tells me she no longer hates the word whimsical. “I’ve embraced it,” Sassa says.

And thus every Sassa Jimenez dress is unapologetic in their frill, froth, and femininity. Each garment speaks of her attention to detail and mastery of technique. She’s mindful of her fabrics and how to manipulate them. She once created a wedding dress which was meant to look like it was dip-dyed in paint, and she achieved this by painstakingly layering tulle in varying degrees of red to white. Another wedding dress, she tells me, was a whole event unto itself. It was a backless number with a high neck, paired with a big, heavy skirt, with almost three inches of tulle from the center. But the secret of this dress, Sassa tells me excitedly, was that the skirt came off to reveal a silk slip which the bride wore after the ceremony. “So it was a whole fashion moment at church but at the reception, hubadera na siya,” Sassa laughs. When Sassa talks about dresses, she uses gestures for emphasis. Arms wide open when she explains how big and long a train was, index finger and thumb almost pressed together to explain how she embroidered the name of the bride’s fiancé on the sleeve of a gown. A small detail, she says, one that might not even be seen by anyone at all. But for Sassa, the romance of a wedding dress is in these little details. A wedding dress is supposed to reflect the bride's personality. You need to feel like yourself, “your best self,” she adds.

The massive and complex wedding industry broke down almost instantly with the onset of the pandemic. Weddings in 2020 were either postponed or cancelled outright. All have had to drastically downsize. Gone are the days of 500-person weddings and free-flowing buffets, but in its wake a new way of weddings have been finding their way to the forefront. “Every year, the dresses would just get bigger and bigger,” Sassa tells me. “It was really like a bubble, in a way. Weddings, Filipino weddings, made a lot of people scared. Scared of disappointing others because it was such a big and monumental event. But things are changing, trends are being broken down, and you see more brides wearing what they want to wear.”

“And how do you feel about that, as someone who has dressed brides for a profession?” I ask.

“I love it,” she says without hesitating. “There was a time when brides were very trend-focused. Whatever was in the bridal blogs, magazines was what they wanted and nobody wanted to deviate. But nowadays, tradition is taking a backseat in fashion. Brides wear what they want to wear. That’s exciting for me. We’re making dresses that reflect the personality of the bride, of the couple. Weddings are becoming more personal, like they should be.”

“Everyone kept saying, ‘oh your dresses are so whimsical’ and I was really frustrated with it. So for one season, I tried to be edgy. Pinilit ko talaga, I said oh, this collection was inspired by the apocalypse.”

Cooking has become muscle memory for Sassa Jimenez. It makes sense since she’s been doing it since she was little. But when asked to compare it to her career as a fashion designer, she answers: “Cooking relaxes me, but fashion excites me.”

Sassa has a private Instagram account which is almost like a visual diary of the meals she’s made this quarantine. She doesn’t always have captions for them, the cross sections of custard-filled donuts, perfectly iced cakes, and crumb shots can speak for themselves. But Sassa isn’t really an amateur, she’s been cooking and baking since childhood. “I was that kid who knew how to cook,” she says. Both her parents were often working long hours, which often meant that she and her sister would spend a lot of time together. One activity they picked up was cooking. “So my sister and I liked to watch cooking shows and we would try to recreate things we saw on TV. Poorly, poorly,” she adds. “At one point I even wanted to become a cook or a pastry chef.”

Sassa grew up in a family of admen. Her parents, the late Tourism Secretary Mon and Abby Jimenez founded the highly awarded agency called Jimenez & Partners, which after several mergers became known as Publicis JimenezBasic. While Sassa’s older sister pursued a career in advertising, she says she never felt pressured to follow the same path. “I get asked that a lot,” she says. “My parents never forced me. At times I think they even discouraged me, only because they wanted me to pursue something I really liked, and if ever I went into advertising it was because I chose it,” she says. “They were very supportive of me going into fashion. It was something different to talk about at the dinner table.”

And dinners at the Jimenez household were sacred rituals. “They would last hours,” Sassa recalls. “We weren’t the eat-and-run kind of family. Because my sister and I didn’t live at home, we really planned our dinners. We made a whole event out of them.”

“My dad used to love starting this conversation at the dinner table. He would ask, kunwari, ‘Toni, if you had a restaurant, what would it be?’ And he would make you plan a full campaign around it,” Sassa says. Each family member would have to prepare a name, the kind of food they would serve, the look and feel of the interiors, and how they were going to sell the concept. “It was this whole conversation about your idea of a dream restaurant, and that would go on for hours because there would be debates in between about who had the better restaurant.”

Speaking of restaurants, Sassa tells me she hasn’t been to one for the majority of the lockdown. “If you had told me that I was going to go one whole year without setting foot in a restaurant I would never believe you,” she says. Cooking and baking has been Sassa’s way to self-soothe and relax, to make up for the void left in the absence of dining with others. “Pre-pandemic, I loved having people over. There’s something satisfying about bringing people together, getting nourished together. I like that. I’ve always loved the conversation that happens around food.”

And so the pandemic has been a period for Sassa to perfect and master her favorite recipes. She takes her time with her meals, no longer throwing things into a pan for a quick fix. “I enjoy following recipes. I only tweak when I know exactly what to do,” she says. “Cooking has become muscle memory for me. I cook for friends, send cakes and cookies out from my apartment or I cook for the people at home.”

“How would you compare cooking and designing clothes? Can you compare them at all?” I ask.

She considers this for a bit before telling me that they are two different things. “Cooking relaxes me, but fashion excites me. It’s not just making clothes. It’s putting up a show, setting up a shoot, packaging everything, making sure everything looks perfect. Fashion ignites something in me.”

For her tenth anniversary in the business, Sassa wanted something that celebrated the last decade but served as a reminder that she’s still very much here. “We wanted the event to be a way to reintroduce the brand, to say hey, we’re still here and here’s what we accomplished,” she says.

Sassa didn’t realize just how big things had gotten until she saw her models suspended from a crane in the main hall of the PICC. Working with film director Adrian Calumpang, she decided that she wanted to do a fashion film instead of a show for her 10th anniversary in the business. The four-minute film was shot in Manila’s brutalist convention center, the concrete a contrast to Sassa’s colorful and billowing dresses. “I didn’t realize how big things were until nakita ko may nilalambitin na kami na model from a crane,” she laughs. “We didn’t want to do anything that would come off as half-assed, and Adrian wanted to create something he could be proud of too.”

What should have been a small, press-only event turned into a full exhibition-cum-party. She rented an empty warehouse, hired caterers, and a DJ. The clothes from her collection were worn by mannequins that were either enclosed in LED light boxes or hanging from the ceiling. Her fashion film was projected in wide screens which hung from the center of the venue. “We wanted the event to be a way to reintroduce the brand, to say hey, we’re still here and here’s what we accomplished,” Sassa says.

But 2021 is a different world from 2019, Sassa tells me. When Sassa started out in 2008, the height of couture club glam, Sassa was creating clothes for “partyphiles,” dresses made with snakeskin and metallics. “I had a lot of energy. I wanted to do everything, meet everyone, and I did get burnt out quickly.” At the 10-year mark, Sassa knew what she was good at and pursued it. The whole collection of Ten is the culmination of perfected techniques and styles from every season, an homage to a woman’s figure with Sassa’s exaggerated and playful shapes. “It’s funny because now in 2021, I feel like I’m trying to unlearn those 10 years,” Sassa says with a laugh. “I know there are things I can still learn in fashion and design. I want to learn, and I know I just need to humble myself to get there.”

Sassa developed a Ready-To-Wear collection in July 2020. The collection made use of leftover fabric for more casual pieces—shirt dresses, cover-ups, and aprons—while still making use of Sassa’s usual techniques. Many fashion designers made the pivot to protective gear and lounge wear, which made Sassa’s collection seem a lot more dressed up in comparison. My knee-jerk reaction to all the tulle and organza was at first a question: When would I ever wear this? But after looking long enough at the Fairy Top in Strawberry, I knew I wanted it. Even if I wasn’t going anywhere, even if nobody else was going to see me wear it.

“By the time we had come out with the collection, we had already been 4 or 5 months into the pandemic. We kind of just accepted our fate that we were going to end the year at home or that we weren’t going to have any parties,” Sassa tells me. “But I already missed dressing up. I mean, I’m in pajama bottoms right now, but you have days where you want to look good. And I guess in a way, like cooking, it’s muscle memory for me. I can’t not do it, I can’t not make clothes like this.”

The collection sold out fairly quickly. In the next few days, photos of girls wearing Sassa’s tulle tops over their sports bras and sweatpants popped up on Instagram. There were videos of her ruffled apron as the outfit of choice for pandemic home bakers. After years of taking on custom work, the whole process of designing RTW has been liberating for Sassa. “I found the same excitement that I used to get from fashion school,” Sassa tells me. “Thinking about how things go together, how they can be taken apart and then used in different ways.”

Sassa on the short film she and Adrian Calumpang worked on for her 10th Anniversary show: “We didn’t want to do anything that would come off as half-assed, and Adrian wanted to create something he could be proud of too.”

Sassa, whose career has been devoted to reimagining occasion dressing, is approaching RTW with the same philosophy in mind. Who says you can’t give in to a dress you really like? “I think looking good makes people feel good, that’s the way I see it anyway,” Sassa says. “It’s nice to have something in your closet, put yourself in an imaginary event and think ‘oh I’m going to this thing and I’m going to wear that and it’s going to be amazing.’ But really, I just wanted to create something that you could enjoy just as much at home.”

“It’s scary how much I’m enjoying RTW,” Sassa says. “I just have so much freedom. It’s not about following trends or what people want out of me. It’s really making stuff that I like wearing or what I want to wear. I’m the bride in this story,” Sassa laughs. “Part of the reason why I got into fashion was that I wanted to make my own clothes. That was my fantasy.”

Sassa tells me she has often thought about quitting fashion. “I think about it all the time,” she says. “Especially on days when I get overwhelmed and I think about all my other hobbies and interests. I wouldn’t mind going back to school, starting from square one and learning something new, you know.”

“But there’s something about fashion. I just can’t quit, I can’t leave. And I worked so hard to stay in it and I would regret it if I left now,” she says.

When Sassa was younger, on the cusp of graduating high school and entering college, she found herself asking her dad for advice. How do I know if I picked the right course, she asks him. If I picked the right profession. “It was a totally casual conversation, but my dad was always saying these words of wisdom 24/7,” she tells me. “I was saying, how do I know if something is for me, how do I know if I can do something for a long time.”

“And he looks at me with this face,” she says, molding her face into an almost-frown. “He says, ‘Melissa [pauses], The worst thing you can be is indecisive. If you’re the type that keeps jumping from one profession to another, you’re never going to finish anything. You’re never going to learn. Choose something that you like and be good at it. Stick with it. You’ll have to put in the hard work, yes, but you also have to decide. What could go wrong?’”

From Sassa’s latest ready-to-wear collection. Photographed by Koji Arboleda. Courtesy of Sassa Jimenez Studio.

“There’s something about fashion. I just can’t quit, I can’t leave. And I worked so hard to stay in it and I would regret it if I left now.”

Who would have thought that in the last few minutes of the worst, most vicious, and cruel year in the history of the recent world, one could somehow still find a way to dream, to hope? In 2020, like many others, I lived in constant dread of tomorrow. It was a year that would not let up, no matter how much I wailed to the heavens. Every day was an exercise in bracing and clenching yourself for the worst. And there were days when they were the worst.

But I found myself, in the last few minutes of December 31, 2020, dreaming about a happy future. Sharing a really good meal with all my family and friends in a beautiful place. I dreamt of an outfit I picked myself, false eyelashes, and tons of makeup. I was thinking about a wedding, my wedding, all because my partner of seven years asked me on New Year’s Eve if I could marry him. And on the first day of 2021, I said yes, in the middle of a pandemic.

“You have to allow yourself to be happy,” says Sassa. Under pre-pandemic circumstances, maybe we’d be meeting for different reasons. Maybe I’d be at her studio in Makati, painting a picture of my dream party, dream wedding, dream dress. Maybe she’d smile, she’d listen, she’d offer advice, pull out her sketchbook, and dream with me. “Thank you,” I tell her. “But there are days when I don’t even think it’s kosher to plan a wedding now.” She nods, then says, “But there is so much happiness in planning, even if you don’t know if it’ll happen or not. Don’t deny yourself this happiness.”︎

Toni Potenciano is a writer and stragetist for And a Half.