Lebanese singer Haifa Wehbe loves his style. Bollywood actresses Lara Dutta and Priyanka Chopra have him on speed dial and Filipina celebrities Gretchen Barreto and KC Concepcion are regularly seen on the red carpet wearing his striking gowns.
Ezra Santos, the Dubai-based fashion designer from Manila, in the Philippines, is considered one of the most influential figures in the Middle East's fashion industry and is credited with helping put the UAE on the international fashion map. And he's elated that his designs are being worn by some of the most recognised faces on the Asian celebrity scene.
"The first celebrity I designed for was Haifa and it was a great experience,'' Ezra says. "I was absolutely excited. And what I really loved about her was that despite being such a fashionista, she appreciated my work and didn't try to change anything I'd done for her. It was a pleasant surprise because sometimes working with a celebrity can be a bit challenging. I would love to design for her again."
Although he has been in the business for more than 20 years, Ezra, who studied at Central Saint Martins in London as well as in the Philippines, is still passionate about his craft. He gained as much experience as he could working with several designers in The Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Dubai before deciding to start out on his own nine years ago.
His first solo fashion show, ‘In the beginning', held in April 2010 at Madinat Jumeirah, created a buzz because of the beauty of the designs.
"It was a tribute to Dubai and its culture, architecture and the different nationalities here," says the designer, relaxing at EZRA, his fashion atelier on Al Wasl Road in Dubai. "The theme was desert winds and sands with dresses designed in shades of the colours of the desert sands. I had been planning my solo show meticulously for years. I am glad it went off so well. I wanted my first show to be perfect so I waited and gathered as much experience as I could before launching my own show.''
Ezra topped that first show in September 2010, when he made his debut in New York at the Couture Fashion Week. He showcased his Spring/Summer 2011 collection entitled ‘Afrique de Or' in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria on Park Avenue, where he received thunderous applause. "It was a dream come true,'' he says. "It was inspired by the amazing continent of Africa and the colours I used were off-white, gold and black.''
Ezra's exquisite bespoke creations are neo-classic designs with an edge, using gold and semi-precious stones, and they can take up to four months to make. His wedding dresses and evening gowns have a base price of Dh40,000.
But people are the priority for Ezra. "I believe the person wearing the dress is more important, and should stand out more than the design,'' he says. "My style is always about the individual who's going to be wearing my design."
Moving to Dubai in 1993 was a liberating experience for Ezra. "Compared to the Philippines, there are a lot more opportunities here to give shape to fantastic designs thanks to the easy availability of all imaginable fabric and design materials,'' he says. "Filipino designers are so good because they are trained with limited means. Back home, you need to be resourceful and ultra-creative to make amazing designs using simple available materials."
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I am an artist whose passion is designing clothes. I'm not a businessman and I never expected to be able to run a business successfully, but here I am today doing my own thing and growing my business. For as long as I can remember, I've always loved fashion and art. I remember when I was in school I used to get into trouble with my teachers all the time as I would concentrate on art and drawing more than any other subject.
While in Grade 1 in the Philippines, I used to draw a lot and fell in love with Cinderella cartoons. Once back home from school, I used to sit in front of the TV and watch those cartoons for hours on end. Cinderella's party dresses fascinated me. I think that was what made me want to design lavish dresses.
By the time I reached Grade 5 I had graduated from Cinderella cartoons to the black and white movies of the 1940s, which were so full of glamour and classy fashion. That's the time I actually started falling in love with fashion.
I guess I get my artistic streak from my mother's side of the family. One of my maternal uncles is an artist and a great uncle is a fashion designer. My father was a businessman. That said, none of my six siblings got into the fashion world.
I was also greatly influenced by the sartorial elegance of my mother. I used to pay close attention to her clothes, particularly when she was dressed for a party. I would admire the way she carried off her beautiful outfits, jewellery and accessories and used to spend a lot of time discussing fashion with her.
I must have been eight or ten when I started using the bits of fabric I found lying around at home to fashion clothes for my sister's Barbie dolls. While in high school, I used to sketch designs for prom dresses for my classmates. So I guess you can say my classmates were my first clients, even though I was doing it just for fun.
In fact, I designed my own prom outfit as well. It was the late 70s and I designed a very flamboyant outfit, which included a jacket with stylish shoulder pads and I matched it with a pair of loose trousers.
By the time I left high school I had made up my mind to become a fashion designer. However, during those days there were no graduation courses in fashion designing in Manila, so I studied fine arts at the Philippines Women's University in Manila (although it was called Women's University, men could enrol for some courses) and majored in interior design. I then did a six-month course in fashion design.
My first job was as the in-house designer for Arabesque boutique in Makati in the Phillipines where I designed ready-to-wear clothes. A year later, one of the clients who was a regular at the boutique and who had a few contacts in Saudi Arabia, liked my work and offered me a job in Saudi. I couldn't believe my luck and grabbed the offer. I was keen to have some international exposure, to learn more about global fashion industry and was looking forward to working overseas. That's where my journey started.
I learnt a lot about rich colours, embroidery and fabrics while in Saudi Arabia as in the Philippines we usually work with very simple fabrics. I learnt how to combine the rich Arabian culture and haute couture with European culture and design. It was a lot of hard work, but a major learning curve for me.
After working in Saudi Arabia for five years I got a job offer in Dubai and moved to the emirate in 1993 and joined the prestigious House of Arushi. After working as an in-house designer for almost ten years in Dubai, I felt my career was stagnating so I decided to open my own atelier EZRA in 2004. It is doing very well and I have a staff of 65. Oh yes, I also have Pedro, my pet Yorkshire terrier.
Apart from top stars, my client list also includes several VIPs in the UAE. I do not do many individual fashion shows a year; instead I concentrate on creating pieces for my clients. I particularly enjoy creating wedding dresses.
Before I design a wedding dress for a client, I first like to spend some time with her to get to know her better, her ideas, personality, aspirations. I firmly believe the dress should suit the personality; it should reflect the personality.
Making a dress can take close to four months from planning to creating. A lot of preparation goes into it - after all it's the biggest day in the woman's life, right?
One thing I always keep in mind when I am designing a piece is that it should last for a long time. It should be a classic with a touch of modernity. In the UAE, people want dresses to be elaborate; it has to be expensive and it has to be the best.
I am very proud of EZRA as I was able to bring this business to where it is now on my own. I started this business with just a handful of people. I was the designer, the accountant, the secretary all rolled into one. I even used to serve coffee to my clients myself. Now we are 65 people and I have two villas. It's been a lot of hard work but it's all worth it.
I grew up in a large family; five brothers and one sister. I like visiting my family whenever I can.
Whenever I have some free time in Dubai, I usually go to the spa and have a great massage. One of my favourite ways to relax is by having dinner with a small group of friends. I am very lucky to have a lot of good friends in Dubai. When I am not with friends or at work, I love decorating my own house.
Maybe because of my training in interior design I love beautiful furniture and architecture and so whenever I have some time, I take off on a holiday and go to museums, look at the architecture and furniture of different countries and eras. I also collect interesting pieces of furniture from the places I travel to for my home in Dubai.
I also enjoy playing with my pet dog, Pedro. He's always with me, when I'm designing, and sketching...
I have been quite a globetrotter and have visited Paris, Spain, Austria, the US, London, Turkey, Lebanon, Qatar, India, Hong Kong and Switzerland to name a few places. There are various elements of architecture/style from all these places that have inspired my creations.
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The UAE is always inspiring. Dubai has given me the opportunity to have my own atelier. I love the different cultures and traditions here.
One of my dreams is to open a prêt-à-porter line of wedding dresses but I need the time and the people to do it as I am very hands-on with my business and I will need to have another factory to run a prêt-à-porter line. But that's definitely in the pipeline. I also want to do a prêt-à-porter line of eveningwear in Dubai and a dress one in New York as there is a great demand for it. This is a natural extension of my business and my dream of making Ezra a glamorous brand internationally.
A long-cherished dream of mine is to bring the Filipino fashion industry into the international arena. It is for this reason that I am keen to continue improving my craft and studying more about design.
Many clients of mine know that I studied interior design so when they come to me for a gown they also invariably ask me to do the interiors of their houses as well. However, I do not see myself doing interior designs on a commercial basis as that is too time consuming and will take me away from my true love - fashion designing. However, I do hope to be able to design my own line of furniture sometime in the future. I would just love to do that.
My dream is also to open an EZRA café that would have fashion as a theme. You can come in and have a coffee just like in a regular café but you would be surrounded by fashion.
That for me would be the true culmination of all my dreams.
The one person I would love to design for? Angelina Jolie. Although I've never met her, it's been my dream to design a dress for her.