Dubai-based designer Michael Cinco works magic with celebrities
Dubai-based fashion designer Michael Cinco's journey through life and fashion.
International red carpets have applauded his opulent designs. Celebrities all over the world flaunt his couture pieces to make a statement. Fashion police loves his larger-than-life creations and Social media cannot get enough of him. We map Dubai-based fashion designer Michael Cinco's journey through life and fashion.
There is a good chance that you might mistake Michael Cinco's plush Dubai Design District office to be a wonderland. A mannequin, dressed in an elaborately crafted coral tulle-layered gown - a part of his Fall-Winter collection - stands out amid predominantly white interiors with sparkling chandeliers. The fantasy also plays out in the adjacent room that has displays of bridal gowns with crystals sewn into them. The dresses, it seems, are waiting for their Cinderellas.
Michael Cinco's clothes are as much a work of art as they are a status symbol. On his own website, the designer is quoted as saying that a Michael Cinco woman has to be moneyed; if she is not born into royalty, she better be married into one. Cinco laughs it off as a joke cracked during one of his media interactions. However, it is not rocket science to figure that the most reliable accessory a Michael Cinco woman could possibly have is wealth. Like Dubai itself, his dresses are glittery, opulent and sophisticated. They are an embodiment of dreams. The ones he dreamt of as a child growing up in Samar in the Philippines. "What do you do when you live in a tiny place like that but dream?" he asks. What being in "tiny place" often means is having a template to dreams, tread the path often taken. No wonder then his parents - father, a technician, and mother, a housewife - wanted him to become a doctor, engineer or an architect. Their son, one of eight children, was dreaming of Hollywood. Ordinarily, art enters an artist's life before a muse. Cinco, however, found the latter first - in Audrey Hepburn. "The first classic film that I watched was My Fair Lady (1964), and I was in awe of all the costumes. It was only after I grew up that I realised that the dresses weren't black-and-white, our television was," laughs the 48-year-old Dubai-based designer.
It is this ability to laugh at the challenges life presented him with that defines Michael Cinco, the person. The flamboyance never really eclipses the humility. His humble beginnings paved the way for his design philosophy - "more is more". However, more wasn't always more. Prior to moving to the Middle East, Cinco worked with a leading designer in the Philippines. As a designer, it meant reworking his sensibilities. He adapted rather easily owing to his obsession with vintage Hollywood.
Today, that obsession has found a celebrity clientele in names such as Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Beyonce Knowles, Rihanna and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. The latter wore his haute couture dresses on two occasions - a light blue dress that was dubbed the 'Frozen' dress on the Internet in 2017 and a form-fitted gown with an elaborate peacock train in 2018. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is, arguably, one of the most scrutinised celebrities on the Cannes red carpet. In Cinco's creations, the fashion police gave the former Miss World glowing reviews. "Aishwarya is the goddess of Bollywood," says Cinco. "When her stylist contacted me saying that she wanted to wear my dress at the Cannes Film Festival, it was a dream-come-true moment. I submitted some designs to them. They saw the collection and specifically chose that dress (the blue 'Frozen' dress). I warned her it's huge, but she said, 'either you go big or you go home'."
That he is a hands-on designer was evident when he was photographed managing Aishwarya's peacock train in her second outing at Cannes in a Michael Cinco. "I check every detail. Aishwarya's dress needed a bit of alteration, it was tight on her, so I had to do that myself. She looked stunning at the end of it."
Celebrity dressing is an important endorsement of a couturier's work, even though some purists argue it leads to a dilution of the craft. Cinco says a stunning red carpet dress can also make a great work of art. He explains this by saying that a stainglass-inspired cape - designed by him and worn by Jennifer Lopez at one of her concerts - is now being sent for an exhibition in the US next month. Cinco also maintains that his one-on-one interaction with celebrities is often limited, but when prodded also recalls a time when Mariah Carey came to Dubai and he told her how his clients had begun demanding her favourite hue of bubble pink to a point he actually named it Mariah Pink. "She began laughing in her sweet sing-song voice."
However, it's not always the wearer who makes the dress. At times, he maintains, the dress alone can make an actor famous. He cites an example of the time he dressed Thai stars in his signature style and when they wore those outfits at the Cannes Film Festival, they became a talking point on social media.
The new crop of fashion police resides on the Internet. And that is where Cinco is an even bigger star. "When a fashion critic says that your dress is not good for the market, your career is dead. They have a different perspective. But now clients decide for themselves. In that sense, social media is a more democratic space for fashion and, at the same time, it is the biggest campaign space for a designer."
One would imagine that for a designer, who is fast becoming one of the Philippines', and - by the virtue of residence - Dubai's, coolest fashion export to Hollywood, having a base in the Middle East would come with certain limitations. Thankfully, times have changed and fashion has evolved. Today, it is not uncommon to find international red carpets being populated by Middle Eastern designs. For Cinco, however, UAE has been as much a muse as Audrey Hepburn. He credits his signature opulence to what the region largely stands for - all things grand. If minimalism is not his forte, it's only because it's not an aesthetic that resonates in this part of the world. "In the Middle East, more work, more intricate and delicate the embroidery, more expensive it is. In Paris, a simple couture dress may be expensive, but Middle East doesn't work that way." This is when the M-word re-enters our conversation. "Here, money talks," he laughs, "That's what I like about Arab women, they have the money to spend on couture. They spend so much on jewellery and wedding gowns because that's when they can go out and party."
In 2015, Cinco designed clothes for Mila Kunis' character in Jupiter Ascending. Given his love for Hollywood, one wonders if he is also open to designing costumes for more films. This is when he corrects us saying that he primarily designed for the costume designer for Kunis - and money pops up yet again. "As long as they pay me, it's okay."
Cinco is not the one to underplay the importance of money in the business of fashion. In fact, he says, "The most important thing is when your creation makes money because you have to pay your bills." What he does not spell out with as much candour is that wealth is also a ticket to privilege. He takes heart in the fact that his success enabled him to build a house for his family and send his siblings' children to school. "Everything I do, I do it for my family, especially my mother. She didn't finish school because she had to raise eight children. For me, she is an inspiration because, despite being poor and uneducated, she raised educated and successful children."
Unlike many haute couturiers, Cinco is not divorced from the conversation around body positivity. This segment is important to him as it forms a considerable clientele, especially in this region. "In the 40s, during the Dior and Chanel era, haute couture clients had to have perfect bodies. During the Victorian era, women had to have slim waists. There was a time when Chanel invited women to wear men's jackets and later, Balenciaga popularised free-flowing, A-line dresses. If the '80s were about more volume, '90s saw minimalism. Today, women are trying to be comfortable in their own skin. I do have many plus-size clients."
For someone known for maximalism, Cinco says he falls back on minimalism in other aspects of his life - his home, for one. The interiors of his Burj Vista condo in Downtown Dubai is, in his words, "a zen space" - that contrasts the extravagance of his designs. He rationalises this by saying, "When you put a lot of details in your work, you need minimalism in your house. That's why I haven't done any elaborate décor."
This is evident in his personal style as well. Cinco says he models his look after his "fashion hero" Karl Lagerfeld, "the only designer who could design for so many brands successfully". He also remembers a time when he spotted Lagerfeld in a coffee shop in Paris, but didn't have the "guts to come near him because he had bodyguards".
Whether it is social media or the ramp, Cinco has been rarely seen without his sunglasses. "I don't wear them when I go to sleep," he jokes, pointing out that he has vertigo. That means whenever he is in any brightly-lit place, he tends to feel dizzy. A designer known for playing with glitter unable to bear sparkle sounds almost poetic. When we point it out to him, he says, "I think to be successful, you have to be on a rollercoaster ride. Perhaps that's why I feel dizzy," he says in a rare philosophical moment.
Among many things that he is today, Cinco is also one of the leading cultural ambassadors for the Philippines. The idea of "being a good example" is important to him because it challenges several stereotypes. "You have to be proud of your nationality," he says. "People don't appreciate your work because you are Filipino or French; they do so because what you do inspires them to dream of being something more than an overseas contract worker."
In a career spanning two decades, Cinco has dressed some of the most beautiful women around the globe. It is but natural to ask what beauty means to him. "Beauty is mysterious," he says almost spontaneously. "It cannot be seen or touched, it can only be felt in the heart. My favourite phrase is from a French novella called The Little Prince, that says, 'It is only with the heart that one can see rightly'." Beauty is where the heart is. that's also a Michael Cinco woman for you!