Filipino Designers Par Excellence

Beyond the divine ‘fashion trinity’ of One-Cinco-Santos which dominate the style headlines this side of the globe with their local and international style conquests, the glitzy Middle East couture industry is teeming with Filipino designers who are known and acknowledged for their definitive edge in fashion design. 

By Sherry Tenorio

(Photos courtesy of the designers)

Illustrado reveals some of these brilliantly fabulous createurs de mode who, not only, have made a success out of feeding the region’s grandiose appetite for couture, but have also proven time and time again, the Filipino artists’ brilliance and cachet in an industry far from home.


From studying BS Foreign Service and Fashion Design, Eli found a turning point in his passion and career when he was recommended by his school to join SO-EN Garments in Manila. The stint paved the way for his learning the ropes of the fashion industry early on.

From there he was head-hunted by Cinderella to handle three major in-house men’s lines including the labels Japs and Rusty Lopez. That did not last very long as he was offered a job in Bahrain and stayed there for almost six years. The opportunity even furthered his wings in the field of fashion design, which is a passion not only for him but his family as well.

At The Bride Show

Eli found himself progressing even back in the 90s when he was recruited by Balqis Fashions of Al Tayer Group from his job in Bahrain. The lucrative position allowed him to travel all over Europe, and in 1994 he was able to join his very first course at Central St. Martins London College of Fashion, where he studied every year.

The fully blossomed fashion entrepreneur then saw a fitting post in Scalini as a Designer/Managing Partner up until 2003. He helped establish its couture department and made it to the forefront of the local fashion scene for 10 years. He also co-founded the flower shop, Fleur-de-lis Flowers and Gifts, which opened in Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel a year after a very successful couture launch.

It has been an unbelievable journey for Eli, as he looks back in his fashion career. His loyal clients are mostly forward thinking local women who love and appreciate his designs. Currently, his fashion house Villa Sposa by Eli is expanding, moving towards retail with its own in-house prêt-a-porter collections of bridal, traditional, western and children’s wear.  A proper launch – a garden event with a fashion show – is in planned for the fall season this year, though the business has been in operation for already a year.

While Eli sees that his career in Manila is beckoning, he also looks forward to starting his own men’s line someday. He also aims to mentor his two nephews, Tristan and Bunny, who have strong design inclinations being artists themselves. Mentoring on fashion is something he sees as means of giving back the blessings he reaps.


Rocky Gathercole is one name in the local fashion industry that’s synonymous to “causing a commotion.”  Known for his sometimes extreme avant garde creations, Rocky Gathercole has shown his brand of unapologetic creativity on the runway in the UAE and the US.

Apart from participating in local bride shows in the emirates, as well as the Dubai Fashion Fiesta, the designer has showcased his “Showgirls” collection at the Miami International Fashion Week 2011 where he was called by the South Florida Chronicle “a powerful and dangerous presence.”  That was followed by his participation at the Brooklyn Wave Fashion Show 2011.

Miami Fashion Week

A recent trip to New York City saw the designer causing a scene at Times Square with models decked in his astonishing designs posing amidst the throng of pedestrians. Finally, this just in, the designer has scored a placement in Vogue’s Special Anniversary September 2012 issue via an advertising collaboration with Ne émah Perfumes.

Indeed, for the last two decades Gathercole has created more than just a passing impression with the fashion watchers he has come across.  Even today, he remembers his mentor Vicente Arcania who was instrumental in landing his first ever fashion job in Saudi Arabia where he admits that it was more of a motivation to find a decent job that got him into this business in this first place.  Now, the designer professes that more than anything, his driver is artistic expression.

Rocky Gathercole for Neemah Perfume in Vogue September 2012

From his former base in Saudi Arabia, and then Dubai, since the beginning, Rocky Gathercole’s fashion ethos has always been unconventional. This has actually given him the leverage to attract local Arabic women whose way of dressing veers towards the dramatic, even eccentric. Over the years, he has been designing party dresses, engagement and wedding gowns for three generations of local women, allowing him to feel their patronage and trust throughout the years.


Inspired by Hollywood and beauty queens, Ruben Santos recalls how he started out designing dioramas and creating miniature dresses in his youth and how that led him to studying at the Slims Fashion and Arts School in Manila.  He worked as an assistant designer to Mike dela Rosa in the 80’s and has showcased his creations in various fashion shows and competitions in the Philippines until he finally found himself in the Middle East – living his dream.

In his early 20’s, he was given a chance to work with royalty in Saudi Arabia for half a decade. Thereafter, he moved to Abu Dhabi to launch Queen Palace Haute Couture, and has since worked with clients from the royal families, socialites, including to diplomats from the emirates and around the Gulf. A well-renowned designer, Ruben has received numerous recognitions and has also been awarded as Designer of the Year at the Anyo 2000 Mini Fashion Show celebrating Philippine Independence Day.

At the Philippine Fashion Week
Ruben Santos’ piece in Illustrado’s Sept 2011 issue

Currently, Ruben designs for J’Adore Couture in the emirates’ capital, and is busy doing ready to wear and custom made dresses. He is also looking forward to participating once again at the Philippine Fashion Week after his successful stint in 2011. For the future, he aspires to be able to showcase his designs in Paris Fashion Week someday. Furthermore, he shares that his ultimate goal is to go back to his homeland and build up his own atelier someday.


A hobby back in high school paved the way for the young Aldwin to pursue his creativity, and actually make a living off of it at the same time. With his innate talent and perseverance, Aldwin used to create prom dresses, evening wear and party frocks; a teacher of his became his very first client.

In pursuing his calling, his family’s support and influence played a pivotal role. In fact, his father even became the instrument for him to move to the UAE capital in 2005 to chase greater opportunities.

And like any new aspiring designer in the city, it was a challenge to find his own spot under the glamorous fashion sun. His break came at Art Fashion Tailoring Company in Abu Dhabi, where he managed to impress a high profile client base which included royals, with his very feminine and romantic dresses.  He hasn’t looked back since.

For the past six years, Aldwin has also been very active staging four fashion shows – one of which was with the signature fashion event of Dubai Summer Surprise, at the Dubai Fashion Fiesta, the others were presented in 2011 during a wedding and beauty exhibitions in Al Ain and Ras Al Khaimah where he also showcased his bridal collection. His creations have also graced the pages of fashion magazines Lamasat (Arabic magazine) and Illustrado Couture.

At the moment, he is busy putting together a new collection for a fashion show this December, creating pieces for a well-known Philippine actress and preparing for an editorial fashion shoot in the US.

Indeed able to create a name for himself, he hopes to expand internationally, dress Hollywood celebrities one day and open his very own fashion house in his hometown of Cebu City.


Dreams do really come true, especially if the dreamer is as talented and as hardworking as Aris Pico. He swears not to have even imagined being where he is in right now, but he feels blessed with tremendous success in being able to create stunning dresses and get raves about it.

The young Aris has taken inspiration from his mother and six sisters whom he wanted to dress stylishly. Also, he would remember the sudden burst of happiness while watching ladies donned with beautiful gowns, often seen during the traditional Santacruzan in the Philippines. He then started dreaming of owning a shop and creating dresses perfect for the ladies of Santacruzan. That was the dream. And that was the reason why he took the risk of flying abroad – to get a job to save up to open his fashion house in his hometown.

Twenty two years after he made his initial steps in the emirates, Aris has gained the kind of success that was more than he hoped for – something that he wishes every fellow Pinoy who went abroad would experience. His exceptional designs earned him a set of loyal clients that he treats like family now. He does not need to market himself because most of these local women do the talking, recommending his work to friends, family and even royals.

Yet over the years, he still yearns to open his very own fashion house in the Philippines, and hopefully branch out to London. Though these dreams may appear to be in the pipeline as of the moment, his participation at the Philippine Fashion Week Holiday 2012 in May this year was a big triumph for the designer.  His joining of the PFW in October is also quite imminent.


Although filled with glamour, the dazzling world of fashion did not change the craving for simplicity that is innate in Aris. He wants his four year old ARISteo design to expand with an abaya line so he can offer more jobs to fellow Filipinos. Indeed, with a golden talent and a pure heart, this fashion designer is a supporter of Bantay Bata Foundation. He knows that he has been utterly blessed, but he knows that he should not be the only one to receive such wonderful things.


They say that a true friend enriches your life. True enough for Ralph, his best friend back in Manila recognized his talent in fashion illustration and submitted his name to a recruiting agency. After an interview with a visiting employer, he was hired on the spot. So in 1989, at 20 years of age, Ralph left for Al-Khobar, KSA and worked there for five years armed with a gift for fashion illustration and skills learned from the SLIMS School of Arts and Fashion.

In 1993, an employer invited him to work in Sharjah. The multicultural environment as well as the openness and tolerance of the emirates, beckoned to the young artist. After working for almost 12 in the same company, Ralph was finally able to buy Lafana Fashions from his employer in 2005.

With ample capital, well-trained staff and a very loyal local clientele, he was able to fulfill his dream of standing on his own as a fashion designer and entrepreneur. Being independent opened doors for him to advance in his craft through research, travel and education especially through courses at Central St. Martins in London.

Through the years, he is proud to say that he has dressed three generations of women during their wedding celebrations – from the grandmother, mother and the bride herself, and whenever schedules permit, all the female members of an entire extended family.

Ralph Ramirez for Illustrado Sept 2011

Currently, Ralph is working on his vamp collection for the 2012 Autumn/Winter season. It is a dream for him to show at the Dubai Fashion Week but his immediate target now is to exhibit in the upcoming bride shows to reach and establish a wider client base.


Although Yen Bari, or Yen AB as he is known, has always been drawn to illustrations and beautiful things when he was young, it was only when he got tired of his chosen profession, Nuclear Medicine, that he realized his passion and talent in fashion design stumbling into his crossroad in 2008.

Despite his intent to eventually jump into the fabulous world of fashion, the entrepreneur in Yen was very careful to tread into the industry unprepared.  He first had to consider his goals, brand aspirations and commercial targets, as well as the right people that would help him realize his goals.

It seems that it was meant to be for the fledgling designer, as he was able to establish the House of Yen in no time, with the support of its sponsor Khamis Al Hameli. Now, the three year old fashion house serves mostly ladies from the GCC, as well as some from Europe, Russia and Africa. Yen’s high profile clients have become accustomed to his breathtaking designs in the form of ‘Arabic Contemporary’ pieces (modern versions of the Arabic jalabeya), wedding dresses and other haute couture creations. 

The House of Yen has also garnered visibility with their creations being featured the music videos, as well as the movies of Arabic mega star Wiam, Gulf superstar singers Balqeez, Ranya and Aryam and Channel 5 TV host Shams Alsaabi.

Currently, Yen divides his time among his three branches in the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait. He is also ecstatic about signing his line with a renowned boutique chain in the UK. His busy schedule is also filled with preparations for an upcoming gala exhibit in Doha this September as well as a couple of fashion editorial and video shoots.




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