When Dubai-based designer Fernando Barios won the Mega Magazine Young Designer of the Philippines award in 1993, it not only marked his arrival into the world of fashion, it was the culmination of a long-held dream he had paid a high price for.
Barios, popularly known as Furne, left his home at the age of 17 after his parents refused to accept his choice of profession.
“My mother wanted me to be an accountant and my father wanted me to be an engineer. Back in the day, those were THE professions,” he recalls. “They didn’t think fashion designing was a career. But I stood my ground. Eventually, there was no other choice.”
With 2,000 pisos (Dh138) and a bagful of dreams, Furne turned his back on the comfortable life his pilot father and homemaker mother had built at their home in Cebu, the Philippines, and made a promise to himself.
“I was determined that I was going to prove to them that I could be someone,” he says. “I had to make it.”
Today, Furne returns to his country to celebrate 25 years since the award that started it all, with a fashion show and a gala to toast rising stars of the Philippines.
“It’s going to be like passing on the torch,” he says with a smile.
Having dressed everyone from Lady Gaga to Beyonce and Priyanka Chopra to Jennifer Lopez and Nicki Minaj, Furne is not only one of the Philippines’ biggest fashion exports, he’s also a beacon of the UAE’s fashion design scene, a go-to name for socialites and Middle Eastern royalty via his label Amato.
Known for his luxurious creations, Furne, who first began by selling Dh5,000 party dresses, now commands up to Dh250,000 for a wedding dress. The price of some of his designs for royal families cannot be estimated, he says, “because they supply us the precious stones directly and do not tell us the price”.
Not bad for someone who started off by dressing up his dolls as a young boy.
Furne’s love for fashion began when he was 9 or 10 when he’d watch his mother and grandmother dressing up.
“My dad was often away, so I’d accompany my mother to the tailor shop and be completely awed by the fabrics and the colourful threads I’d see,” he recalls.
Growing up in an all boys’ school, he says he was often teased for being different, but it never hurt him.
“It didn’t affect me at all. We are a very open society and I just found my group of friends,” he says dismissively, laughing.
After he left home following the row with his parents, Furne moved into a hostel, took up Fine Arts in college and worked at a small boutique called Smart Shoes as a visual merchandiser to pay his bills. The owner of a fashion boutique next door was so impressed by his work, he asked Furne to help out. Soon, his reputation spread, and before he knew it, a major department store called Gaw asked him to design a ready-to-wear capsule collection.
That lit a fire in Furne, who then, aged 20, quit college and decided to be a fashion designer full time.
It was around this time that Mega Magazine, a high-fashion monthly, was scouting for fresh talent for their nationwide Young Designer Award.
“The theme was ‘Representing the Philippines in the international market’. We had to send sketches,” remembers Furne.
Out of “thousands” of applicants, the contestants were narrowed down to 20, then six, Furne recalls. The six finalists were then asked to turn their sketches of 12 pieces into reality, and present them to a panel of judges in Manila, with all costs borne by the aspiring designers.
“The judging was extensive. There were so many stages,” says Furne. “The final stage was a fashion show.”
Judges included former Vogue Paris editor-in-chief Colombe Pringle and Anniel Flanders of Detail magazine. Philippine-born American fashion designer Josie Natori, who would become Furne’s mentor, was the head of the panel.
Following his win, Furne was sent to Paris where he spent a few months learning about the ins and outs of the fashion industry, before he headed to New York for his apprenticeship with Natori.
It was while flitting back and forth between the US and the Philippines that Furne was invited to visit Dubai by a friend. He eventually bit the bait in 1998 and fell in love with the city.
“My friend was a designer and during my visit, he took me to his workshop and showed me how dresses were made, and I was enamoured by the Indian artisans working on these beautiful beadwork. It was like heaven for me,” he says excitedly. “It was so different from the styles in New York where it was more practical and even in the Philippines. For me fashion is all about art. I love to experiment and I love embellishments, opulence and grandeur. I saw all these crystals and fell in love.”
Furne began working at a tailor shop in Deira and it was here he met his business partner Rashid Ali, a Pakistani businessman dealing in fabrics. The two immediately struck up a friendship and in 2004 decided to open Amato, which means ‘beloved’ in Italian, at Al Hana Centre. The pair launched their brand with a fashion show in Jumeirah Emirates Tower, and before long, Furne’s creations had caught the eye of well-heeled Emirati women.
Amato mostly catered to the wedding market at first, with party dresses going for Dh5,000 and wedding dresses for Dh15,000 in the first year. But as demand increased, his fame spread to the wider Gulf countries ...
And as the label’s prominence grew, the UAE’s fashion scene was also developing, with the internet helping to spread the word.
In 2010, he was asked to dress the contestants of Germany’s Next Top Model, an offshoot of the Next Top Model series, by host and judge Heidi Klum. That, says Furne, really helped take his label international. On the show, he also met pop star Katy Perry, who performed at the finale. Impressed by his work, Perry asked him to design some costumes for her California Dreams tour, which saw her perform a whopping 127 shows around the world.
Furne last year opened his first ready-to-wear store called Amato Luxe at the Dubai Design District. His shop in Al Hana Centre, which started off with 10 tailors, now employs 80.
His 25th anniversary show in Manila tonight, titled Thy Will Be Done, will be a celebration, and a testament to his unwavering faith, he says.
“It will have a modern outlook, but with classic touches that I have always been known for,” he says. “It will be like my Millennial Ball.”
Furne is glad he managed to reconcile with his parents before their passing. His father died of cancer five years ago and his mother a year later, also of cancer.
“It was right after I had designed for Katy Perry. I went back home to see them, and it was very emotional,” he says. “Mom said she was sorry that she didn’t believe in me. I told her, it was because of that I was determined to succeed … that made me strong.”
The next plan for Amato is to go more mainstream. “I’m still learning every day. It’s never enough to learn,” he says. “I don’t think about fame. For me, fashion is like a job, where I keep learning and I love doing that. And I am happy to create something new every day, something fabulous.”