The Filipino fashion designers in Dubai dressing Hollywood stars and Arab royalty – and China could be next

Furne One, Ezra Santos and Michael Cinco might be notoriously media-shy but their stunning creations have been seen on stars from Beyoncé to Sofia Vergara. Now China is emerging as a new market for their talents

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 November, 2017, 1:17pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 November, 2017, 6:22pm

Since they made Dubai their home nearly 20 years ago, three Filipino designers have been quietly building their fashion empires and dressing some of the world’s most famous women.

Despite their global success, Furne One, Ezra Santos and Michael Cinco are notoriously media shy and painfully discreet about their little black book of clients.

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“I have lots of celebrity dresses that I’m currently working on but I’m not at liberty to talk about them,” says One, founder of the label Amato Couture. “All I can say is that some pieces are for an American A-lister who will make a big comeback in the new year.”

One’s back catalogue of VIP customers includes Beyoncé, Katy Perry and JinJoo Lee, to name but a few. Aside from stars of stage and screen, his private clients consist of high-net-worth ladies from the Middle East, Europe and, increasingly, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.

“Everyone is different but clients in the Gulf and Russia are more likely to want excesses, whereas Asians want elements of the dresses removed, more tailored or simplified,” he says.

One’s creative journey began in the Philippines in 1994 when, having won a number of design accolades, he was granted an apprenticeship with Filipino-American designer Josie Natori in Europe and the US.

Had it not been for a stop-off in Dubai in 1998, the United Arab Emirates might never have got to see One’s experimental, sculptural gowns.

“When I saw Dubai in 1998, I fell in love with it,” he says. “It was fascinating to watch the craftsmen and the artisans at work. Dubai seemed so different to New York, where everything was flat-patterned and so commercial. It was far more artistic and I loved the beauty of the beadwork and the intricacy of embroidery I saw. That’s when I knew I had to stay, and the learning process has never ended.”

One’s spectacular runway shows have been staged in London, Miami, Los Angeles and notably Dubai, where he has dramatically closed every one of Fashion Forward’s 10 seasons of shows.

But for all his travelling, One remains loyal to his roots. Behind the scenes, his petites mains hail from his hometown of Cebu and on the ramp his dresses often showcase the finest sustainable fabrics from Southeast Asia.

“In previous collections, I’ve used a lot of Filipino silk,” he says. “It has a raw and organic quality, whilst Chinese silk is softer and the French more delicate.”

Another fan of homespun yarns is Santos, who skilfully creates fairy tale gowns from organic Filipino pina – a luxury fibre derived from pineapples – as well as handwoven fruit and plant-based materials like abaca and inabel.

Having opened the doors to his gleaming Dubai atelier 13 years ago, Santos quickly cemented his reputation for designing opulent bridal gowns with romantic silhouettes and flawless detailing.

In the years that followed, commissions for ethereal dresses and priceless fantasy frocks came flooding in from the likes of Lady Gaga, Shakira and Pia Wurtzbach.

“I’m very proud to have opened a shop here and brought my roots, traditions and creativity to the UAE,” Santos says. “It wasn’t easy to penetrate a market where there were so many other nationalities, cultures and designers.”

Santos’ rise to fame didn’t go unnoticed by a budding couturier who arrived in Dubai in 1997 – Michael Cinco.

As Cinco put down roots in the land of sand and began creating the blueprint for his eponymous label, it was Santos who took him under his wing. It didn’t take long before the two became the best of friends.

“I was very clear from the start with Michael, I told him we would never fight about work,” Santos says.

“We respect each other and we’re honest with each other. Plus, I always appreciate his feedback. He supports me in my career and I support his. I’m very proud of his success, which people might find unusual but for us it’s normal. Competition is good, but our different tastes have created different clienteles and therefore we have different markets. It works for us.”

While Santos has long had the demure and dreamy corner of the market covered, Cinco’s creative leanings have always been towards bold and boundary-testing couture.

“When I dressed Sofia Vergara it became national news at home in the Philippines,” Cinco says. “It was the first time a Filipino had designed a red-carpet gown for a big personality, worn at the Golden Globes. After that my dresses for Britney Spears, Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez became huge news too.”

Modest to the last, Cinco attributes much of his international notoriety to social media. This follows the leap in his Instagram followers from 10,000 to 100,000 after he designed an imposing crystal- and pearl-encrusted lace wedding dress for Filipino actress Marian Rivera in 2014.

From catering to the tastes of royal Arab clients and Hollywood luminaries to Southeast Asian superstars, adaptability is the name of the game for Cinco these days – not least when it comes to meeting the demands of a newly emerging client base.

“China has the potential to become the biggest market for me – the buying power of clients there could be as strong as that seen in the Middle East,” he says. “And clients from China, Hong Kong and Macau are very easy to deal with. They’re very educated and respect my craft.

“When I advise them not to overembellish or heavily embroider a dress, they take my advice. That’s not always the case with other nationalities, some of whom always want more detailing, or might even expect me to change the colour of a couture gown once it is completed.”

One, Santos and Cinco might have spearheaded the Filipino fashion charge in the Gulf region, but you’ll never find them hollering for the best tables in Dubai’s top restaurants or courting publicity at the city’s many social soirées. For despite the dizzying and deluxe world in which they work, these couturiers are grounded and self-effacing.

“I’m actually shy,” Santos says. “Michael likes the limelight a little bit more than me, but I prefer to keep things quieter.”

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“I don’t go out a lot. I live in a cave,” One says with a chuckle. “Honestly, I don’t enjoy noisy places and I’m very happy with my own company. What I really love is just going to the movies and drinking coffee with my friends. Simple pleasures, that’s what I like.”