Cover Designer Michael Cinco

Fashion designer Michael Cinco tells Tatler what it takes to be at the forefront of the fashion industry, the obstacles and triumphs he’s been through, and how he has overcome them to become one of the leading international Filipino designers today

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?

See also: Michael Cinco at Paris Haute Couture Week

Tatler Asia
Michael Cinco bridal
Above Michael Cinco bridal

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.

Read more:Michael Cinco to present A/W '16 Couture Collection at Paris Haute Couture Week

Tatler Asia
Designer Michael Cinco
Above Designer Michael Cinco

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.

Recruitment agents from Saudi Arabia frequented Slims then to select candidates for interview by potential Arab employers,” he remembers. Being a stellar student, he was one of the chosen.

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. These films exposed me to fashion and style
Fashion Designer Michael Cinco

Dubai Calling

When Cinco arrived in Saudi Arabia, he felt the place will not let him grow as a designer. “I experienced a real culture shock; so many things were not allowed. I worked there for a while but decided to go back to the Philippines,” he relates. Back home, Cinco made sure his dream of designing will not be put on halt. While waiting for his visa back to Saudi, he worked under Renee Salud, who was then famous for designing gowns that reigning beauty queens wore in the Eighties.

Thereafter, he went back to Dubai and worked with Ganati, a fashion empire in the Middle East. “I started as an assistant designer; after only three months, I was promoted to chief designer,” he recalls. However, he soon realised that the life of a Filipino fashion designer in Dubai was not what he thought. When Cinco became the head designer, Ganati was slowly losing its customers. “I had to ‘reinvent’ the fashion house. It was beginning to lose its magic and the number of clients was dwindling,” he discloses.

More from Tatler:A Closer Look At Victoria Swarovski’s Wedding Gown

Those were hard times. Cinco remembers hopping from one fabric house to another to search for possible clients. “Many clients, especially the rich, do not go to the fashion houses directly; instead, they go to fabric shops first. There they would choose clothes and find fashion houses to make pieces for them. I had to be there and catch them!”

Another setback he experienced was being stereotyped in Dubai. “There were times when the client would call and ask what my nationality is; back then, Dubai was dominated by American and European designers so when an artist says he or she is Filipino the clients are immediately turned off. “If we were assisted by Europeans or Americans, we were accepted. But if it’s just an Asian, the level of trust plunges. They think all Filipinos are either tailors who cannot design or just the assistants of western designers. I really worked hard for that image to change.”

According to Cinco, he was discriminated against many times and had to prove himself each time. This discrimination, however, pushed him to go to Europe and take up a fashion design course. “[Even when I had some achievements], I considered myself still a beginner. I studied short courses in Central Saint Martins London so when a client asks for the designer’s background, I can proudly say that I studied there,” he says.

Still, under Ganati, Cinco went back to Dubai after his course in London; there, he made a new collection with a different image. “I was inspired by big fashion houses like Valentino, Dior and Saint Laurent. I went to Paris just to observe the fashion scene,” he adds. Cinco is known for his couture designs, an eye for detail, a mastery over fabric and techniques, and his extravagant fairytale-like creations. When you want more, think Michael Cinco.

In 2003, all of Cinco’s efforts finally paid off. He was able to muster the courage to leave his comfort zone in Ganati and launch his eponymous fashion line.

Hollywood or Bust

Later on, Cinco met a stylist and a make-up artist who introduced his work to their foreign peers. “The two wanted to open a PR firm and asked me to represent them, so they pulled out so many pieces from me,” Cinco says. One of the big stylists in Hollywood who saw his clots happened to be working with international pop star Lady Gaga. “It was just my luck that Lady Gaga was looking for a dress to wear for her Fame perfume launch.” Through the years, Cinco’s design style has always been recognisable, defined by vibrant colours, crystals and eccentric patterns that shout ‘couture’, a phrase he likes to use often as well. He was able to dress Beyoncé, Rihanna, Mariah Carey and even Swarovski empire heiress Victoria whose crystal-studded wedding gown weighed 46 kilogrammes and was pegged at US$1 million.

Read also:Elvira Manahan, Society And Fashion Icon Remembered

In 2014, the late President Benigno Aquino Jr conferred Cinco with the Presidential Award for Outstanding Filipinos Overseas for providing his services to international clients. This year, Cinco was hailed Fashion Designer of the Year, one of the highly regarded honours at the EMI Gala Fashion Awards. The pandemic hit the fashion world badly, like every industry as well. He had cancelled weddings, shows and events. But he had the faith that in time all things will back to normal. This year, he started making wedding gowns again for his numerous clients. The weddings and events are pared down of course, but he is glad to see things are heading back to some sense of normalcy, “One can never give up on your faith especially to persevere through life’s challenges.”

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Future Thinking

Amid his success, Cinco always promoted and practised humility, something he wants new designers to equip themselves with. “Always be humble. It doesn’t mean that you should put yourself beneath others. It simply means that you should know how to appreciate other people’s works. Celebrate and be happy for other designers’ successes. Practise the art of humility,” he teaches. “When I was just starting out [and even till today], I was discouraged by many people including some Filipino designers who would tear my collection apart.

They would say ‘His designs are too much, he placed everything in there including the kitchen sink!’. But the best way to dodge their criticisms was to strengthen myself as well as my craft,” he adds.

Future Thinking Amid his success, Cinco always promoted and practised humility, something he wants new designers to equip themselves with. “Always be humble. It doesn’t mean that you should put yourself beneath others. It simply means that you should know how to appreciate other people’s works. Celebrate and be happy for other designers’ successes. Practise the art of humility,” he teaches. “When I was just starting out [and even till today], I was discouraged by many people including some Filipino designers who would tear my collection apart. They would say ‘His designs are too much, he placed everything in there including the kitchen sink!’. But the best way to dodge their criticisms was to strengthen myself as well as my craft,” he adds.

Cinco’s story is similar to many who aspire for their talents to be known and for greatness to be achieved. The country is replete with many creative and talented fashion designers, but very few has achieved a status like his. Asked whether there is anything else that he wants to achieve, Cinco says that while he is already fulfilled as an artist, he remains patient and open to life’s precious gifts. “I think there is still so much more that I can do,” he claims. “Yes, I feel fulfilled and grateful knowing that my works are being recognised, but just like many people, I never run out of things I want to achieve. The reason why I am still trying to be relevant today is because I want the next generation to get to know the ‘Michael Cinco’ brand.”

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This story was originally published on Tatler Philippines' October 2021 issue. Download it on Magzter for free.

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