When Debanjali Kamstra, the first Mrs UAE world, took to the stage for the competition’s national costume round, she wore a falcon-inspired gown by Filipino designer Cary Santiago, which was duly named Most Exotic Costume.
"I was looking for a designer who would understand the significance of the moment, and its importance," Kamstra told The National. "We finally decided to go with Filipino designer Cary Santiago. Filipinos have been doing amazing work with pageantry, whether it's on stage or designing clothes. And Cary is great with fabric manipulation and costume making."
The youngest of six children, Santiago hails from Cebu and, as the son of a seamstress, was drawing dress patterns before he started school. By the age of 15, he was already creating designs for a ready-to-wear brand in the Philippines and by 23, had started his own business from the tiny room he was renting and sleeping in, in Cebu.
Look back at Debanjali Kamstra's Mrs World journey here:
This was followed by a stint in Dubai and three years in Beirut, working for the house of Nicolas Jibran. He cites the Lebanese capital as one of the most inspiring cities in the world, alongside Paris and New Delhi.
“It is the ancient Phoenicia. Byblos, Tyros, Sedon, these are very historical places. They built some of the greatest temples and palaces, it was the playground of the rich and famous. It was meant for me to go to Dubai because from there, I was led to Beirut,” he said in an interview with The Philippine Star.
Santiago has dressed famous international stars such as Beyonce, Paris Hilton and Tyra Banks, as well as some of the Philippines’s most high-profile women, including actresses Charo Santos-Concio and Dawn Zulueta-Lagdameo, and TV host Kris Aquino, of whom he says: “She is just a fabulous client. I think Kris has more than 50 Carys.”
He is also no stranger to beauty pageants, having dressed Filipino contestants for a number of competitions over the years. He designed the dresses for Miss Universe Philippines 2019, Gazini Ganados, but famously spoke out when naysayers on the internet questioned his style choices.
In a long post on Facebook in November 2019, he wrote: “Let me reiterate, fashion is never and will never be about beauty pageants. Fashion does not revolve around it,” he wrote.
“I am and never was an expert of pageants. I am not a pageant enthusiast. It just so happens that I am able to dress up a few beauty queens because either I know them personally (they modelled for me) or I know someone that is close to them and they asked me to. Most of these are my babies. Hence I feel happy if I am able to see them wearing me.”
His designs include laser-cut, perforated, intricately hand-worked, highly sculptural creations. Santiago is self-admittedly uncompromising when it comes to his couture work. “People think I am very strict as a couturier. Yes, I am. I am very strict because I know what I want.”
In 2018, he received the Most Creative Force Award from Philippine Tatler. Reflecting on the experience, he said: “Years back, I remember passing by the National Bookstore and checking on the latest issue of Tatler, browsing through the pages to see who made it to the list of who’s who and the country’s most... and now I’m here, standing in front of you, receiving this award, it feels so surreal.
“Who would have though that a simple guy with humble beginnings, who hails from Cebu, will be this year’s recipient of this award.”
An artist at heart, Santiago has returned to painting during pandemic-related lockdowns, creating vivid watercolours on canvas that feature flowers, plants, horses, birds and other elements from the natural world. With this shift in focus, he has been scaling back his made-to-measure fashion commitments. “I will keep a few [longtime clients], maybe 10 from Manila and 10 from Cebu who I will do made-to-measure for, but the rest of the business will be uniforms and ready-to-wear,” he told the Philippines’ Lifestyle Enquirer last year.