European-trained Filipino designer Amir Sali drew heavily from his childhood memories while growing up on the island-province of Sulu to produce a 52-piece collection of layered and heavily beaded dresses, and suits fit for flamboyant Filipinos and members of Middle East royalty.
Amir, whose last name is Aluk, worked for 18 years catering to the sartorial needs of Saudi royalty before returning home for good five years ago. He has been quietly making clothes for a select group of Filipino clients in his Greenhills shop since then.
Upon his friends’ insistence, including a number of key people behind Megaworld, Amir finally staged his first gala show in Manila two weeks ago at the Marriott Hotel’s grand ballroom at Newport City in Pasay.
“Since I’m not getting any younger, my friends and loyal clients felt that it was high time for me to do it,” Amir, 48, said. “It took me and my team four months to work on the collection in between regular orders.”
Amir’s collaborators included director Cata Figueroa, stylist Michael Salientes, and hair and makeup artist Danny Katalbas. His brother Edgar did most of the accessories.
“I’ve done a number of shows in the Middle East before,” said Amir. “But since I came back, I’ve had no time to sit down and work on a collection until recently. Compared to Europeans,
it’s more satisfying to work with Filipinos because we work from the heart.”
The changing colors of the sea were evident in his collection of beaded and shimmery creations that ranged from such shades as ivory to off-white, dove gray to deep blue. He also paid homage to Sulu’s sunset by doing several bright pieces in yellow, red and sunburst orange.
Amir spruced up almost every piece with painstaking beadwork, using all sorts of techniques, crystals and beads “I could get my hands on.”
He also used a combination of materials like chiffon, organza, silk jersey and various beaded fabrics as canvas for his floor-sweeping creations. References to marine life like starfish, jellyfish, seashells and corals were apparent in some of his more voluminous dresses with huge appliques and detachable capes and collars.
The designer’s penchant for drama and the ornate was further underscored by Katalbas’ towering hairdos and use of theatrical headdresses, including a Muslim parasol. If not for Amir’s lavish take on fashion, the event could have easily been mistaken for a hair show.
“This is how I remember Sulu, before we left it for good when I was just 6 to live in the Visayas,” said Amir, whose late father was a Malaysian Muslim. “I haven’t been back since then.”
The designer, a Christian, shares his Filipino mother’s faith. She proudly sat in the front row to watch her son make his formal debut in Manila. Upon his father’s wishes, he first took up Fine Arts at the University of San Carlos in Cebu.
“For religious reasons, he didn’t want me to pursue a career dressing up women,” he said. “It was only when he passed away that I was finally able to fulfill my wish of becoming a designer.”
During one of Amir’s early travels abroad, he met a Saudi princess, who turned out to be the daughter of then Crown Prince Abdullah, now the present king of Saudi Arabia.
The princess asked him to work for her as a designer for the royal household. Perhaps to impress upon Amir how serious she was, the princess first sent him to Paris to study fashion.
“I was initially reluctant to work in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia,” said Amir. “The princess allayed my fears because she is herself very artistic and open-minded.”
Like many Filipino designers who became famous in the Middle East, Amir was constantly traveling to Europe in search of the most exquisite materials. Old habits, it seems, die hard.
“I still leave for Europe almost regularly to buy fabrics and other raw materials,” he said. “I treat stores selling beads and crystals in Prague, Vienna and Paris like a child in a candy store would. I help myself to everything I could grab.”
As if all those embellishments weren’t enough, he also played with proportions by producing a number of dresses with layered skirts, tiered details, humongous see-through sleeves and built-in petticoats. His brand of fashion is definitely not for the minimalist and the shrinking violet.
“Many people had asked me if I was afraid to do a show, especially nowadays when we have so many good Filipino designers,” Amir shared. “I said no. After all, art is universal. We each have our own set of admirers. Whether people clap their hands or not, what’s important for me is to be able to express myself and to show my brand of creativity.”