Cary Santiago, craftsman
The virtual gauntlet was thrown down three years before last Saturday’s Red Charity Gala.
If there was ever any doubt Cary Santiago wouldn’t hold up to the high standards set by Furne One and Michael Cinco, who both drew raves for their respective collections for the annual benefit gala, the score was finally settled last weekend: Santiago could, indeed, wow a fashion crowd sans a single bead or sequin.
The Cebu-based Santiago was confident when he told Inquirer Lifestyle his Red collection would prove that he was on the same level as his contemporaries. He was never a fan of beadwork, Santiago said, and he expected his work to be compared with One’s and Cinco’s, inevitable given their common background: Middle East training.
“I’m so happy and fulfilled. This is my best collection yet,” he said a few days before the show.
Santiago’s 35-piece origami-inspired collection (plus two men’s looks), presented Saturday at Makati Shangri-La’s Rizal Ballroom, hinted at some of his signature techniques (wrought-iron-like rococo metalwork), and whipped up just enough surprises to thrill the guests, a number of whom are his loyal clients.
It was a collection that displayed a skill honed through years of couture training in Beirut and Dubai, with intricate finishing touches that could’ve only been done with polish by a trained hand and an artist’s eye.
Santiago opened with one of his three all-white pieces, a strapless, draped satin dress with folded details on top. It featured side pockets, shown off with the exuberance of a flower girl at a wedding by Marina Benipayo. (We thought the veteran mannequin’s dramatic dance would set the tone for the show; it did not.)
The first suite was the black-and-white numbers, fitted black dresses draped with white fabrics that took the form of a bird, lizards, a butterfly, and combined with Rorschach-like trompe l’oeil patterns, a misnomer given the resulting three-dimensional features. Draping is a favored technique of Santiago, and if One and Cinco went gaga with their beadwork in their own Red collections, Santiago was unapologetic with his draping.
The draping gave scale to the simplicity of his silhouettes, seeming black canvasses to 3D white images. Swathes of white fabric were folded to adorn collars and sleeves, hems and bodices, or even as winged trains to short and long dresses.
Not everyone in the audience was a fan. We overheard snarky comments comparing them to the art of napkin folding; one said it was reminiscent of towels folded in the shape of fowls in cheesy hotel rooms.
And perhaps that wasn’t the strongest part of Santiago’s collection. There were audible oohs and aahs when the designer sent out his jewel-toned pieces, short and long dresses that sported his signature fabric-wrapped metalwork, fabrics woven in basket-weave patterns, and more origami folding and draping.
The 10-piece colored suite showcased the depth of Santiago’s technical savvy. He deftly mixed folds and drapes and metal rococo patterns.
The skirt lengths were modest, mostly covering the knees, and most of the long dresses were loosely draped. But there were hints of skin just the same—a peek into the hip or thighs; a deep plunge on the front in several pieces, as well as scoop backs, and through the peek-a-boo fabric weaves and metalwork.
What’s remarkable about Santiago is his ability to create two vastly different looks and yet put his distinct imprint on them. Surely he didn’t have the same woman in mind for the simpler-looking pieces—a flowy, draped black dress with an asymmetric shoulder accent, for instance—and the more ornate and elaborate looks. It was right that he gave his signature doily laser-cutting a rest for this show; it gave him an avenue to show his range as a craftsman.
One popular designer quipped that the show didn’t quite start until Santiago sent out the colored dresses. And he had a point. The all-black and final segment, beautifully detailed dresses as they were, felt rather anticlimactic. It didn’t quite reach the apex of excitement expected to top the crescendo built by the colorful suite that preceded it.
The last piece, a flowy Grecian white dress with a neckpiece that extended to the back worn by Grace Tagle, didn’t quite sum up a collection that was largely grandiose in craft and detail. For a finale, it was underwhelming.
The annual gala is in its fifth year. A project of Tessa Valdes and Kaye Tinga, it’s staged to benefit the Philippine National Red Cross and the Assumption High School Batch 1981 Foundation. Ariel Lozada directed the show, with styling by Noel Manapat, and hair and makeup by Patrick Rosas’ team.
Santiago is the Red gala’s fifth featured designer, after Rajo Laurel, Dennis Lustico, One and Cinco. Tinga had said that she and Valdes did not intend for the Middle East-based Filipino designers to show back-to-back, but Santiago was the easy choice.
The now Cebu-based designer, who came home for good from Beirut seven years ago, was first to draw attention to Filipino fashion talents based in the Middle East, when he first presented a collection here in 2004.
Santiago ushered in the wave of the collective called, if somewhat inaccurately, “Dubai designers.” One after the other, they started getting invites to present at various fashion shows here.
Santiago and company are trained in couture houses that cater to Arab royalty and elite. Given their market, they’re known for often elaborate and extravagant designs. They’ve impressed local fashion fans. And as Tinga rightfully pointed out, their entry into the scene has kept local designers on their toes.
Now the question is, after Santiago, One and Cinco, where does the Red gala go from here?