The Filipino founders of Amato, Ezra Couture, and Michael Cinco have built veritable fashion empires founded and thriving in the UAE.
It’s hard to imagine the scale of change that’s occurred throughout the Emirates over the years. Three designers from the Philippines – men who have become part of the very fabric of the UAE’s fashion industry – have contributed to fostering the country’s limitless dream. Proponents of maximalist fashion, Furne One of Amato, Ezra Santos of Ezra Couture, and Michael Cinco arrived in Dubai in the Nineties, already recognized designers in their home country. Over the years, they would become known as the fashion trinity of Dubai for their flair for bringing to life what was once unimaginable.
When they started out, the UAE’s local fashion scene was but a drop in the sand. The desert was still in its initial stages of urbanization. Notable families and royals would invite designers from abroad into their homes to cater to their sartorial needs. Furne One began as one such in-house designer for a royal family in Dubai, later opening a fashion house called Abiti and finally Amato. Ezra first worked at Arushi, a leading bridal house, as one of its designers. Cinco was hired by Bong Guerrero at the first fashion house he established, called Ghanati. Guerrero, co-founder of Fashion Forward and Brag experiential agency, states, “We can’t deny the fact that Filipinos are an integral part of the UAE’s fashion scene. If you look carefully, Filipinos are everywhere, whether artists, graphics, architects, designers, musicians… There is always a Filipino behind the success. They are dedicated and loyal,” he says. Their perseverance, like that of many others who came to Dubai in the early days, helped pave the way to putting the Emirates on the fashion map. The designers continued to grow, also catering to royals from Oman and Qatar. The emirate started becoming the fashion hub for the Gulf region, offering palace wear, wedding gowns, and more.
One, the founder of Amato, has since dressed Shakira, Beyoncé, and Jennifer Lopez, and creates commissions for private clients in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Famed for his over-the-top shows and extravagant styles, One pushes boundaries with everything he does. “Amato means beloved,” he says. “It was initially intended to be a bridal shop but destiny had a different plan. Clients noticed my aesthetic of more edgy, out-of-the box ideas, away from the norm, and extravagant. I then started to make party dresses and couture outfits.” The journey to maximalism had begun. Santos of Ezra Couture’s journey began at an early age, when he would rush home from school to “watch the black and white movies of the 40s and 50s,” becoming inspired to create his own designs. “Opening my own business in Dubai in 2004 was not easy at all. With hard work and perseverance, it started flourishing and continues to grow. I’ll take this chance to thank the UAE for letting expats start businesses in this land of opportunity,” he comments. Cinco arrived in Dubai from “a modest family, armed only with big dreams, from the island of Samar in the Philippines,” he recalls. Falling in love with fashion as a child after seeing Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady on the family’s black and white TV, Cinco knew he wanted to be a designer. The monochrome images made him all the more determined to create in bold, loud color and cut. “I wanted to be in a world where colors abound. And decades later I am living the dream. It has defined me as a person and a designer. I tend to wear only black, but I mostly create ethereal bridal dresses in whites and beautiful clothes in colors, textures, and silhouettes that bring me back to that childhood dream,” he says. All the designers wear black, chuckles Guerrero, who says that while there is a perception of rivalry, which he considers natural, all three have a deep respect for each other and it has become custom to gather for periodic, intimate dinners hosted at his home. Beyond a feeling of community, there have also been collaborations celebrating Dubai, most notably when the Burj Al Arab hosted a fashion show in 2000 under the patronage of Sheikha Hind Al Maktoum, in which all three designers participated.
One, Santos, and Cinco consider that their respective signature maximalist couture will never go out of style. “For me, fashion is fantasy,” says One. “It’s an escape from reality and I do believe that maximalist fashion is a way to forget all the negativities the world has experienced over the last couple of years,” comments One. Cinco agrees, noting that the pandemic has also served to deepen desire. “I think maximalism in today’s fashion is a necessity. The pandemic has taken its toll on every one of us. It has drained us. And as we try our best to rise above it, we need to see some excess in beautiful things. More is more, for as long as it soothes the senses and nourishes the soul.” Santos also sees the genre blossoming as the result of Covid. “We see people yearning to dress again and a solid, strong move towards the return of maximalist glamour as a sartorial expression of liberation,” he says, with his fans including Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga, Sonam Kapoor, and Najwa Karam. While Cinco has also dressed Lady Gaga, as well as Rihanna, his client base largely comprises European, Middle Eastern, and Gulf royalties who prefer anonymity. He adds with a smile, “I’m proud to say that I did two wedding gowns for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s daughter and the Vogue Arabia September 2021 issue cover, dressing HRH Sheikha Latifa Bint Mohammed Bint Rashid Al Maktoum.”
One now goes out of his way to engage on a digital basis, connecting with others in the industry and exploring new avenues, creating fashion films, and commissioning local production teams and creatives. Despite his international outreach, he’s fully in tune with the UAE. “The Arab culture has an intricate love for arts and craftsmanship and I make sure that these are all present in my designs,” he says. He’s tight-lipped, but the designer is currently working on something special to celebrate the UAE’s Golden Jubilee that he “can’t wait” to share.
Photography: Jeremy Zaessinger
Hair: Dani Hiswani
Makeup: Nabila Merchant
Shot on location at Shangri-La Hotel, Dubai
Originally published in the December 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia