Surrounded by paintings by Picasso and Gauguin, an impeccably coiffed Imelda Marcos perched regally on the Louis XIV couch in her high-rise flat, discussing her topics of expertise: beauty, fashion and -- of course -- shoes.
“For me, beauty has always been a religion. Plato said beauty is God made real,” said the former Philippine first lady, wearing a green chiffon pantsuit and matching lime sandals. “I’m a magpie for beauty. But what God doesn’t give, you have to make yourself.”
The 77-year-old widow of deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos is still viewed as an icon of class and grace as well as a mindless shoe maven who amassed thousands of pairs of pumps and stilettos while her nation languished in poverty.
But there’s a lesser-known side of the flamboyant fashion-plate: An haute-couture scavenger who spent nights fashioning outfits with a glue gun and scissors, even stripping the copper wire from telephone lines to get just the right look.
The Marcoses are now poised to capitalize on that fashion-meets-function image. Next month, Imelda’s daughter Imee Marcos and Imee’s two sons will introduce the Imelda Collection: a funky, streetwise line of jewelry, clothing and shoes. They hope the fashion line will attract a younger generation not yet born when Imelda Marcos trod the world stage.
The vintage line features pink sneakers with diamond-tipped shoelaces, monster-sized brooches, diamond- and pearl-studded earrings, dog-collar chokers and regal Cleopatra bracelets.
Imee describes the fashion accessories, which will sell for $30 and up, as “a bit retro, a bit over the top, sort of Madonna meets Elizabeth Taylor.”
Many of the fashion pieces are right off Imelda’s shelves. Others are limited-edition copies that the billionaire heiress will help redesign and colorize, along with her two fashion-model grandsons.
“She’s always been practical,” Imee, a 50-year-old Philippine congresswoman said of her mother. “When it came to fashion, she recycled. She made outfits from old beads and dismembered earrings. And she customized, cutting sleeves and putting diamonds on shoes. Without even knowing it, she was a fashion brand all to herself.”
In her husband’s two decades in power, Imelda became a symbol of poise, charming world leaders and the cultural elite including Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro, Moammar Kadafi and Ronald Reagan.
Even then, Imee says, her mother was a closet recycler: Often sitting for several official photo shoots a day, she added scarves and knickknacks to her ensemble so it wouldn’t look like she was wearing the same outfit.
Yet Imelda also gained notoriety for her million-dollar shopping trips to the world’s swankiest boutiques while many Filipinos went homeless. While many view the Marcoses as caricatures of gross excess, corruption and greed, Imelda insists that her late husband’s regime, which many recall for its rampant corruption and repressive government, was the “Renaissance of the Philippines.”
The couple fled the country in disgrace in 1986, after a civilian-military revolt. Investigators later found 1,200 pairs of size 8 1/2 AA shoes at the Manila presidential palace. The new government put them on display to symbolize the former first lady’s extravagant lifestyle. An additional 1,600 pairs were found in another Marcos home.
Not since Cinderella had shoes commanded so much notice. Imelda immediately became an international joke. Yet she insisted her shoes vindicated her: “When they broke into the palace, they went into my closet looking for stolen loot,” she said in an often-repeated line. “And all they found were shoes, beautiful shoes.”
Ferdinand Marcos died in exile in Hawaii in 1989. After a long legal battle, Imelda was allowed to return to Manila, where she has defended herself against charges of looting up to $10 billion from the Philippine treasury. Last month, she was acquitted of charges in a high-stakes graft case, and in September, a court in Hawaii gave the go-ahead to award $35 million of Marcos money to thousands of Philippine human rights victims.
Residents here remain divided over the woman who once inspired the term “Imeldific” to describe any grandiose act done with grace and style.
At a private Manila shoe museum where 600 pairs of Imelda’s shoes are on display, one visitor said she would never buy a Marcos brand.
“I don’t patronize that family -- not after what they did to this country,” said Bella Gomez as she surveyed racks of Imelda’s shoes from some of Europe’s top designers, including Givenchy, Bruno Magli and Oleg Cassini.
Another shoe museum visitor agreed. “Her taste bleeds money,” said Marisa Delfin, 26. “She’s not a spokeswoman for the average woman.”
But Imelda begs to differ. Sure, there were diamond-encrusted glass slippers and a battery-operated pair of pumps that lighted up for disco dancing.
But Imelda said she always chose her shoes for one purpose only.
“For me, shoes were an accessory to match my outfits,” she said. “I always judged a pair not by price or style, but whether they gave me calluses.”
Her so-called shoe fetish, she insists, has been overblown. “There’s more to me than just shoes,” she said. “At the time, Filipinos needed a star in the dark of night. They needed a standard. That was my role, to show the way so everyone could become a star. Because mass follows class, never the other way around.”
Imee Marcos says her mother has been wronged by critics.
“They can say what they want about my mom’s politics, but nobody’s ever been critical of her beauty,” she said. “How well dressed she was, how beautifully she represented the Filipino people on the world stage.”
Imee got the idea for the Imelda line after seeing others cash in on her mother’s image. But there was another motive: to clean out her mother’s closet.
Over dinner, she pitched the new fashion line to Imelda, who was delighted.
For a promotional poster, Imelda even agreed to let grandson Martin “Borgy” Marcos photograph her in a Michael Jordan-inspired pose in blue jeans and sneakers.
“Vintage is in, especially the look that my mother created for herself: pink and lettuce-green ribbons, shoes with butterflies, and earrings,” Imee said. “Minimalism is so over. My mother is the ultimate maximalist.”
Imelda, who still sleeps only a few hours a night, spends most of her time poring over her trays of beads and collectibles to make her own jewelry.
And she hasn’t stopped buying shoes, either: Racks of them fill a huge walk-in closet in her luxury flat in Pacific Plaza, Manila’s best residential address.