Michael Cinco has a bad case of the flu. You wouldn’t know at first glance, however, as his eyes are shielded by his signature, almost visor-like sunglasses.
The Filipino designer – who has dressed some of the world’s most glittering names, so famous they can be described in a single word: Beyonce, Kylie, Gaga – is so immaculately presented, you would never have guessed he was in the hospital mere hours before.
But there is no rest for the wickedly talented. The morning after returning to the UAE from Montenegro, Cinco, 48, is back in his Dubai Design District atelier, flitting across the elegant cream-and-grey interior like a man not laid low by a virus.
“I’m so sorry, I’m sick,” he apologises, as he first glides into a reception room, decked head to toe in black – a T-shirt, jacket and trousers – despite the humid summer climes outside. One may expect certain diva-like qualities from a man who has clothed prima donnas such as Mariah Carey, but Cinco, I am relieved to discover, has none, apart from keeping on his trademark sunglasses during the entire hour I spend with him in his studio.
And I would have been disappointed by anything less; indeed, the Catbalogan-born designer has rarely been photographed without them, at least as far as I can see while sleuthing on Google Images.
The fact he has spent decades crafting such a recognisable image makes sense: he believes the hallmark of a designer’s success is when their touch becomes instantly identifiable. “One of my clients told me that she was at a wedding and, when she saw the bride’s gown, she knew it was Michael Cinco,” he says, of the moment when he felt he’d achieved that badge of honour. “I think that’s the best thing for a designer, when they have created a style that they can claim is their own.”
From Aishwarya Rai to Victoria Swarovski
And Cinco can certainly attest to that, having been behind some of the most acclaimed dresses in recent memory. That voluminous blue gown worn by Aishwarya Rai at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival that saw her dubbed a modern-day Cinderella? That was a Michael Cinco creation. The Filipino designer was also behind the purple butterfly-train dress sported by the Bollywood actress to the same festival a year on, a crystal-smothered concoction that took 3,000 hours to craft.
Cinco is best known for such lavishly ornate pieces, another example being the bespoke wedding gown he created for crystal heiress Victoria Swarovski when she wed real-estate investor Werner Muerz in 2017. "Victoria just found me on Instagram," he says. "Now she has one of the most expensive wedding gowns ever created." The gemstone-speckled design, complete with a six-metre train and lace embellishments, weighed in at 46 kilograms, with a value of more than $1 million (Dh3.67 million). "It's more expensive than the Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress," he adds.
It is, Cinco says, his favourite gown of his career so far. "As they say, it broke the internet," he says with a smile. He's not wrong: the wedding was covered by publications across the world, from People magazine to The Independent. "It gave me a lot of mileage. Also, after the blue dress Aishwarya Rai wore in Cannes, I got a lot of Indian clients who wanted to create their wedding gowns with me."
Celebrities in Michael Cinco:
Most of the designer's customers – about 90 per cent, he estimates – are from the Gulf, with the rest primarily plucked from Russia, Europe and the US. When it comes to his most high-profile clients, Cinco hasn't met many of them in person and instead liaises with their stylists through his public relations manager in the US. He did, however, spend time with Carey, who wore his label when she performed in Dubai in 2017. "When she came, I met her in her hotel room," he divulges. "She's a diva and a legend, you know? So it was like a dream when I met her for a fitting. She was very nice. And when she talked, she spoke in a sing-song, almost."
If most customers want to meet Cinco, however, then they have to come to him. Many of his international clients fly to Dubai just to hold fittings with the designer, who has dressed members of the emirate’s royal family as well as dignitaries from across the world. “There was one very famous Malaysian family once,” he recalls. “I didn’t know that they were that rich at the time. They came here and when trying to organise the fitting, I asked them, ‘what time is your flight?’ They said the flight is at 6pm so I told them to come at noon so they had the time to go to the airport. You know what they told me? ‘It’s OK if we’re late, it’s our own plane.’”
From the island of Samar to global fame
This incredible rise to fame has not been without its challenges, however, particularly as a Filipino taking his designs overseas. “You don’t judge a designer by his nationality, you judge a designer because of the beautiful work that he does.” But persuading clients to see his work as worth their time and money was, Cinco says, the hardest obstacle to overcome in the earliest days of his label. “The young designers of today, they have to realise that fashion is not all about glamour. Fashion is very, very hard work. It’s a very cruel world, actually, because you will be judged, you will be criticised and you will hate it sometimes. It’s not like you post a dress on Instagram and you became a fashion designer the next day.”
Cinco's skin was clearly thick enough to take on the industry, but it's only in the past few years he has really cracked the global market, becoming a stalwart of the red carpet, with his designs worn to the 2018 Critics' Choice Awards, by Best Supporting Actress winner Allison Janney, and by singer Paloma Faith to the prestigious Met Gala in 2013. His couture has also been spotted at the Golden Globe Awards, the American Music Awards (on Jennifer Lopez, no less), and in music videos aplenty, such as the Jonas Brothers' Sucker, which was released earlier this year.
It's an A-list roster that a young Cinco would only have been able to dream of dressing from his modest home on the island of Samar, although it was one of the chicest talents of Hollywood's Golden Age that first sparked his interest in fashion. "My dream to become a designer started when I was a kid. I loved watching classic Hollywood films," Cinco tells me, as he settles into a floral-embroidered camelback sofa. "One of the best films I've ever watched and that inspired me to be a designer was My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn. It was like a dream, with the most beautiful costumes I'd ever seen in my life. When I watched that movie, I knew I would be a fashion designer some day." That catalyst can still be glimpsed in his work: Cinco's bountiful collections mirror a certain elegance and classicism seen in the 1964 musical's wardrobe, but with a modern touch in their craftsmanship.
With the blessing of his family, Cinco later switched from a Fine Arts programme at the University of the Philippines Diliman to Manila’s Slim’s Fashion and Arts School, where he honed his design skills, further refining his talent with courses at London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins.
"My home town is very small, and every family wants their children to be successful – like a nurse, doctor, architect, engineer, doctor, lawyer," he explains. "So my family had another dream for me, but I told them I don't want to be a nurse or whatever, I want to be a fashion designer. I'm very glad and very lucky that they supported me."
Filipinos are 'the best fans in the world'
Decades later and that support from home now extends to the entire nation. Something of a national treasure back in the Philippines, Cinco was honoured with a presidential award in 2014. But he is modest about his fame in his home nation, stating humbly: “I just do what I do and I love representing the Philippines to the world.” But, he adds, Filipinos are “ the best fans in the world”. “They really, really fight for you; they really support you until the end. And if they like your work, they will really try to promote you.”
His decision to move to Dubai in 1997 was in no way him turning his back on his home country, but part of a strategic career move that has handsomely paid off. “I met someone who told me I had to apply to work in this fashion house [in Dubai]; it was one of the biggest fashion houses at the time,” he says. “I submitted my CV and luckily they liked my work and they asked me to come out.”
Six years later, Cinco was ready to branch out on his own, establishing his namesake label in 2003. “It’s very beneficial [to be based in Dubai], it gave us an opportunity and a platform; it’s a new city,” he says. “When I showcase in Miami or Los Angeles, they are very interested in Dubai, because it’s a vibrant city and it’s a melting pot of so many nationalities.”
For the last three years, Cinco has established himself in a seemingly unassuming office block in D3, yet walking through the door to his atelier is like falling down the rabbit hole. Clad in tasteful creams and whites, with a measured splash of dove-grey and baroque moulding on the walls, Cinco's space is like a snippet of a modern Versailles in the desert.
Not a piece of sparingly used furniture is out of place, not a trinket mislaid or set askew; the atelier is expertly curated. Despite its opulence, though, there is an almost clinical ambience, personified by the reams of seamstresses who pass through its labyrinthine halls, enveloped in crisp white lab coats. It’s a fitting attire, considering the team is responsible for birthing some of the most extravagant, theatrical gowns seen on the red carpet.
“More than 120, about 140 I think,” says Cinco, when I quiz him on how many employees work in the atelier. “We have a lot of embroiderers because it takes time, especially with my wedding gowns. Most of the details are made by hand.” An average wedding dress, he adds, takes about 100 to 200 hours. During the peak season of December and January, the label will forge around 20 gowns a month.
The uniformity of the bustling atelier is punctuated by an exquisitely ruffled vermilion gown in the corner of our interview room. The headless mannequin faces into the corner, as if on a timeout, arms spread like she’s about to take flight in a cloud of tulle.
“She’s sophisticated, elegant and, at the same time, she’s not afraid to do something very artistic and something unique,” Cinco muses on the type of woman he designs for, pointing towards the aforementioned dress as a prime example. “I usually get inspiration from my travels; I love discovering different cultures. I love to visit museums. I love movies, especially classic Hollywood films where most of the women wear beautiful clothes. And I love opera music.”
Most recently, Cinco has found himself galvanised by the ballet, after watching performances of Swan Lake in London, Dubai and New York. In a serendipitous turn of events, the couturier was approached by Ballet Philippines back in 2017 to design a collection for the dance company, to celebrate their milestone 50-year anniversary this September.
"I immediately said yes," reveals Cinco, who crafted both a 50-piece couture collection inspired by the story of Odette and Odile, as well as costumes – handcrafted in Dubai and flown out to the Philippines – for a gala performance of Swan Lake. "The details are the same, it's just the construction that's different," muses Cinco, on the art of crafting designs for somewhere other than a catwalk. "In my couture there's a lot of elaborate detail and exquisite embroideries, so it will be a little bit heavy, but in ballet you can't do that. She has to dance and move and it has to be very light."
It's just another step in a varied 20-year career, which also includes appearances on America's Next Top Model, as well as dressing Filipino actress Kris Aquino on-screen in 2018's Crazy Rich Asians. And yet, the designer says he doesn't believe there have been many seismic changes in the industry – except for his energy levels. "The only thing that's different is I've become tired," he says with a laugh. "When you age, you don't want to have that much pressure any more. But still, I love my job. Like now, I'm very sick, but I really have to come to work because I can't imagine myself doing anything other than fashion."
The designer is quick to stress, though, that he’s not complaining. “When you love your work, you don’t get tired. You get tired physically from all the stress, but you don’t get tired of creating beautiful clothes.”
Being tired doesn’t stop him from dreaming about the future, either. His Rolodex might read like a who’s who of Hollywood, but Cinco still has a trifecta of celebrities he longs to dress. “Angelina Jolie, Madonna and Cate Blanchett,” he swiftly replies. “For me, they are the fashion icons. I sent so many clothes to Madonna, but she never wore anything.”
Working with the Queen of Pop aside, Cinco still has other goals left on his bucket list, too. “My dreams are endless, you know. When you achieve something, you want more,” he says. “I’m already satisfied with what I have achieved, but there are still so many things that I want to do in fashion. I want to showcase my collections in Paris every season. And of course I want to do a pret-a-porter brand that would represent me internationally.”
Cinco's ready-to-wear will have to feature fewer intricacies, he admits. "But I have to make sure the Michael Cinco touch is still there," he says with a grin. For now, that signature Cinco style is being celebrated in a retrospective, which started at the Savannah College of Art and Design's Museum of Fashion + Film on Thursday, October 3. "Designers who've previously exhibited there are Vivienne Westwood, Guo Pei and Dior," he says, a look of bewilderment and awe flickering across his face. The display will feature designs worn by Cinco's celebrity clientele, such as Rai's two noteworthy Cannes gowns.
“It’s another dream come true – actually, I never dreamt about this, that my clothes would be in a museum,” Cinco sighs. “But I’m glad and I’m so lucky.” I point out that, as he said before, forging a path in fashion is down to graft rather than just gift. “It’s hard work and a little bit of luck,” he concedes.
But, as he rushes off to meet a waiting client as our interview comes to a close, flu or no flu, it’s clear that in Michael Cinco’s case, diligence certainly tips the scales in his favour.
Other world-famous labels based in the UAE
Rami Al Ali
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Madiyah Al Sharqi
Helmed by Sheikha Madiyah Al Sharqi, daughter of the Ruler of Fujairah, this womenswear label is renowned for its punchy pastel palette and ultra-feminine silhouettes. The home-grown brand has been sported by Sofia Vergara, Khloe Kardashian and Priyanka Chopra.
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