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The art of fashion: Passion between threads

The right dress can make any person the center of attention with a few magical snips and snaps. But there is definitely more than meets the eye when viewing a designer piece; there are stories in the smallest of beadings, in the most intricate laser-cut carvings, and even in the way the dress fits the model.

Beyond the glamour of organza and chiffon lies the hard work of several skilled artists and craftsmen. Dressmakers aren’t only in it for the profit—each piece they create is a culmination of the skills they learned through the years, an ultimate form of expression, and above all, a passion project.

Hanz Coquilla, Jun Escario, and Cary Santiago are designers who have cemented their place in the fashion community, each having their respective trademarks and work ethic to show for their local and international acclaims.


Designing the road to success

Unbeknownst to Coquilla, the event that would eventually spark his love for fashion was a simple high school project. He recalls with fondness his first designed piece: a pair of pajamas. “I didn’t want it to be just a simple pajama. I wanted to have insertions, I wanted to have different cuffs, I wanted to add zippers,” he asserts. Today, he is a world-renowned designer who was the first to showcase the terno—the Philippine national dress—at the Macau Fashion Festival.

For Escario, a go-to designer for many brides, the beginnings of his career as a ready-to-wear designer were kept hidden from his father. “I applied for [the job when] I was 19, so I started working secretly, without my dad knowing. Then after a few months, I was given the task to be the head designer for the company,” he narrates, relaying how he was initially forced to take up Accounting at the University of San Carlos. Eventually, Escario quickly realized that his passions lay in the world of fashion, and shifted to pursue a degree in Fine Arts with a major in Advertising.

Meanwhile, Santiago’s love for fashion was instilled in him at a young age. He attributes his passion to his mother being a costurera, a title often given to someone acknowledged as the community tailor. Because of his mother’s work, fabric and the prospect of creating clothing had been an integral part of his surroundings while growing up. Santiago goes on to say that his mother had, and continues to have, a big impact on who he is as a designer today.


The muse

When designing for a client, staying in tune with the customer’s needs and wants is crucial. Coquilla’s mindset for each piece is to listen to the client’s desires, recognizing that “at the end of the day, they’re the ones [who are] wearing the clothes.”

But while the customer is king—or queen—the customer may not grasp the layers of design quite like the designer does, prompting the latter to persuade or dissuade a client from certain styles. This, of course, requires a certain level of tact, charisma, and business acumen that can only be gained through years of experience. “I don’t force myself [on] the client,” Escario says, explaining that he often takes the clients’ proportions into account when suggesting alternative designs.

As a testament to dressmaking’s collaborative nature, Santiago drew inspiration from his own fascination with avian creatures as well as Miss Universe Philippines 2019 Gazini Ganados’ experiences in designing the award-winning Phoenix Gown. Santiago discloses Ganados’ own story of overcoming hardships and rising from the ashes—exactly like the mythical firebird.


From pencil to product

Dressmaking and design are undeniably difficult. Not only does the craft require creativity and resourcefulness, but it also requires a significant amount of labor to fashion something from mere thread and tiny detailing. It begins with finding a fabric suitable for the design—an often time-intensive task, especially if the fabrics are sourced abroad.

Pattern-makers then draw the patterns for the dress before cutting the fabric based on the client’s measurements. Santiago explains, “The fabric will be built on the mannequin that we created for [the client],” serving as the canvas that designers drape, style, and attach other embellishments on in forming the dress.

The detailing and finishing touches are perhaps one of the most grueling parts of dressmaking. “The hardest part for me is the putting together of the elements. It has to blend well,” elaborates Santiago. Since the beading on a dress cannot be done by machines or computers, everything has to be done by hand.

As example of the gritty process, Ganados’ award-winning Miss Universe national costume required over 300 hours to complete—it took 30 people 30 days to finish, with Santiago’s team working 12 hours a day.

Throughout the process, the client will need to visit periodically to try on the dress and ensure that it matches their measurements perfectly. When the finishing touches are added and the final fitting has been conducted, the designer finally gets to see the fruition of their hard work come to life as showcased by their muse.


More than just skill

The three designers share the same sense of pride when they see clients happy and content with their creations. Despite their many achievements, such as winning design competitions or having their pieces exhibited internationally, nothing tops the satisfaction they feel from the genuine smile of a satisfied client. Santiago shares, “Every day is an achievement for me—when you receive a client’s hug, thanking you for a job well done. It’s like winning.”

Coquilla, Escario, and Santiago offer a nugget of wisdom borne from years of experience in the industry, advising new designers to keep the drive and passion, and to work hard. “Dreaming is not enough. You have to have that blueprint; you have to work for it, and make things happen,” Santiago emphasizes.

Demanding constant creativity in an industry that has many vying for the top spot, it takes more than sheer talent and determination to survive and prosper as a dressmaker. “In any field that you are in, it’s very difficult to establish yourself, especially in the world of art where everyone is an artist. It took me ten years to finally [be] established in the business,” Coquilla conveys. Santiago adds that having a good reputation precedes talent in the industry, affirming that respect and creativity are valuable characteristics of a good designer.

Ultimately, being unafraid to try out new styles, having a collaborative spirit, and cultivating an image of humility create the mold of a designer whose artistic flair never dims.

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