Fashion designer Ezra Santos has arrived. He has also placed Dubai in the international fashion firmament with his debut at the Couture Fashion Week held recently at the prestigious Waldorf Astoria in New York. The Filipino-born designer's presentation, Afrique De Or, based on a palette of white, gold and black, was greeted with thunderous applause. With it, he has established himself in the upper echelons of haute couture.
"I did not think people would come to my show," he said, as he basked in the accolades heaped upon him. "So I invited about 50 family members and friends, hoping that the hall would not be completely empty. When I peeped out from behind the curtain to see the audience, I was stunned — the hall was packed."
We were seated at his atelier in Jumeirah, which is furnished in true Santos style in vivid colours, plush velvet and a big helping of gold. Santos, a slight figure dressed in unrelieved black with gold-tipped locks falling over his eyes, sat on an ornate gilded chair, his pet pooch Pedro, wearing a diamante collar and a stylish pink shirt, by his side. The designer related the excitement of the moment when his catwalk presentation was greeted by rounds of applause.
The Couture Fashion Week comprises a series of events showcasing fashion and luxury. It also exhibits luxury brands and fine art, plus world-class entertainment and receptions. Held in New York and sometimes other cities, it draws upscale shoppers, the media, invited VIPs and buyers from high-end stores.
How did he manage to participate in this prestigious event? "They saw my work on my website and contacted me to showcase my latest collection," said a beaming Santos.
He has come a long way since he came to Dubai 17 years ago. "I am part of a family of six," he said. "My father is a businessman but my maternal grandfather was a fashion designer. I seem to have inherited his artistic traits. From the age of 7, I started sketching outfits and soon drawing became my strength. I started to sketch designs for the junior and senior proms of my schoolmates and we would have fun having them stitched by local tailors.
"My inspiration was and still is the old black-and-white movies, the beautiful and very glamorous film stars and the world of Dior. After school, I studied fine arts, majoring in interior design, as there weren't any suitable fashion-design courses. In 2001, I went to Central St Martins, London, and studied there for two years, then returned to the Philippines. Luckily, I was offered a job in Saudi Arabia and was there for five years. This gave me great experience," Santos said.
In 1993 he moved to Dubai when he got a job offer from a prestigious design company, where he worked for five years before taking the plunge and setting up his own atelier. Now Ezra Fashion Design is the local hotspot for any fashionista who wants something ornate and special — which others do not have.
With Santos' talent for embellishment and cut, almost 90 per cent of his clients are Arabs from the region, with some coming from as far away as Russia. "They love bling," said Santos with a grin, "and I adapt to their taste, giving the outfit a Middle Eastern flavour. What wows them is our embroidery, which is Indian [most of my craftsmen doing embroidery are from Luck-now], with a European and Arabian touch. We do stuff which is not on the international market and that is what makes it special and distinctive."
He added that most of his customers have found him by word of mouth. "If one person of a clan is happy, the rest will start coming. As we specialise in bridalwear, I accept the bride and maybe three more from the family. I give a project my complete attention. Completion of the gowns on schedule is also easier."
Is it true that customers here are very demanding? "I have been in this region for 17 years and have seldom had a problem. It is a matter of handling a client properly. A bride will want her dream dress, so I sit with her to get her ideas, make some suggestions, then adapt till we come to an understanding. On the big day, she gets the dress of her dreams!" He added that he had seen the trend change from very elaborate to less bling and more clean lines. Also, strong colours have changed to softer hues.
"I sometimes try to persuade a customer, knowing what will suit her, especially for a wedding dress that does not overpower the personality of the wearer. If she has a slight frame and the dress is huge and frou frou, it will swamp her. However, if she has definite ideas, one has to compromise!"
Santos went on to say that he was touched by the courtesy of many of his customers, as they call to thank him after the event.
How does he keep up with trends? "I prefer to keep it classic, with just a touch of what is in vogue: It could be colour or accessories."
What is his next project? "I want my designs to have more Western wearers, so when the invitation came to participate in the Couture week, I accepted. This is one way of reaching a wider audience."
— Nirmal Khanna is a UAE-based freelance writer