Wearing his trademark oversized glasses and black suit, the celebrated and probably the most well-known Filipino fashion designer at the moment comes on the Zoom screen with much flair and flamboyance. He readily apologises and says, “I am so sorry I am not techie,” dropping the phone he is using for the meeting. And we lose him for a moment. He adjusts the screen, and we begin an hour-long interview filled with anecdotes, laughter, inspiration, and the story of a life that never gave up on its dreams.
He grew up in the humble city of Catbalogan in Samar, miles away from the metro where red carpets and runway shows happen. “My home is in the western Philippines,” Michael Cinco tells Tatler Editor-In-Chief Anton San Diego. “I grew up there with my siblings. We are eight in the family, and I am child number five.” Significantly, no one in his immediate family and relatives near or distant worked in the fashion industry.
His father was a radio technician, while his mother was a homemaker. “We lived a very simple life, but well enough to survive,” he describes. So where, and how, did his dream to be a fashion designer start?
Since childhood, Cinco behaved differently. While his siblings and peers were outside playing, he preferred to stay indoors, with his eyes glued to their TV screen. “When I was a kid, I loved watching classic Hollywood films instead of going out and playing with other children.
I think that was one of the reasons why I began to dream of being a designer,” he discloses. “These films exposed me to fashion and style.” One movie that made an indelible impression on the young Cinco was George Cukor’s My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins.
“I wanted to be a fashion designer when I saw the costumes worn in the movie. They were so elegant and beautiful,” Cinco recalls. “I was 10 or 11 then and it was my first time to see such clothes. I was inspired and from that moment on, I said to myself ‘I want to be a fashion designer.’”
But his gender preference threatened to douse this dream. While he had his mother’s support, his father was against it, believing that the fashion scene was only for women. “My mother was very supportive, but my father was not. He was like the typical Filipino father then who could not accept the thought of having a gay son,” he shares. “For my father, fashion is a world that is exclusively for ladies.”
He knew, however, of one sure way to endear himself to his father: to excel in school. “The only thing that my father was very proud of was the fact that I did very well academically. He would be very pleased whenever I’d bring home my medals. I was not his favourite child, but the fact that I was doing good in my studies made him very proud,” Cinco explains.
When it was time for him to get a college degree, the designer went to Manila. “After graduating high school, I became a state scholar, and enrolled at the University of the Philippines [UP],” he relates. “I just stayed there for a year because I really wanted to pursue my fashion design career.” He quit the university, a decision that still got the support of his mother. Cinco found himself enrolled at the Slims Fashion and Art School in Makati, which would give him the opportunity to work in Saudi Arabia. “Slims gave job opportunities to their students, especially those who were very good.