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Cary Santiago, fave designer of powerful women: ‘Taste is everything.’ |

Sunday Lifestyle

Cary Santiago, fave designer of powerful women: ‘Taste is everything.’

10 THINGS - Bianca Gonzalez - The Philippine Star

One of the country’s top couturiers commands not only respect from the industry and six-digit figures, but the admiration and affection of every life he’s ever touched. What did it take for a shy Cebuano boy to become a fashion powerhouse? Here are 10 things you should know about Cary Santiago.


1. Cary was already drawing dress patterns before even going to school and was already designing for an RTW company by age 15.

“I grew up in a military reservation in Cebu because my father is a military man. My mom is the costurrera (alterer) of the community, and as far as I can remember yun na yung world ko. My mom also designed clothes if there was a wedding, or a debut, or beauty pageants. I am the bunso of six, so when they would all be in school, I would be seated under my mom’s cutting machine, I was asked to give pins, draw this line, fold this. I felt I was just playing, yun pala I was helping my mom already,” Cary recalls.

“At 15, I was second year high school, I was already hired to sketch for an RTW company in Cebu,” he adds. “When I was 18, I would study in the morning, and in the afternoon, go to my passion which is sketching. I love to sketch. I was earning P1,500 a week, that was big at that time. Ang taxi noon P150 back and forth, hindi na ako nagje-jeepney. Wala akong pakialam kung wala nang maiwan sa sweldo ko, I just wanted the comfort,” Cary laughs. “I worked for the most popular fashion designer in Cebu at that time, Leonardo Igloria, and at an early age I was already entertaining big clients in Cebu. Parang naaasahan na ako, my boss could see that I could do it.”


2. At 23, he started his own business from the tiny room he was renting to sleep in.

“I felt the military reservation was not my world. My mom and I would design, and sometimes we’d clash. I wanted the freedom. I grew up with my family so protective of me because I am bunso and I’m gay, iniisip nila hindi ko kaya. So I decided to stay on my own in a boarding house when I was 18. But every weekend umuuwi ako or they would visit me,” Cary shares.

“Then I started my own business with Romero Vergara, a makeup artist who worked in Japan and came back home to Cebu. We shared one room and that room was my shop. He was very instrumental in my career because he was there to support me kahit hindi pa ako makabayad noon,” he recalls. “So when I wake up, nagliligpit ako, the room we slept in would transform into my office. My clients didn’t care, and sometimes I would even still be in my pajamas, they would still come over, they just wanted my designs. I was already designing for important people in Cebu. It was easy for me. I saw myself progressing.”


3. On what opened the doors for Cary to design in Dubai: his talent and his chika.

“I had a friend who was working for The Black Shop in Manila, and this Iraqi couple from Dubai spotted him. He looked good, he was stylish. It was their first time in the Philippines and they were looking for tailors and master cutters. My friend referred me, and when they called me, I said, ‘Yes, Madam, I can entertain you, please come,’” Cary recalls. “So the couple went to me in that small shop, yung room ko. After talking, I said that if they wanted my cutter they could bring him (to Dubai). But the more we talked, the more the couple was fascinated with me. Ako na ang ini-interview. While they were there, I had a client who was fitting. Parang sardinas lang kami sa room. They said, ‘Cary, you made that? I like that, can you show us your sketches?’ So I sketched for them. But more than anything else they were already very much into me because of the chika, my personality. And in the end they said, ‘Cary, we don’t need tailors now, we want you.’ They fixed my passport and papers, and after two months, I left for Dubai.

“At that time, my mom told me, ‘We’re not rich. You have to go kasi wala naman akong iiwan sa ‘yo. I remember when I was a young girl I wanted to do so many things but my parents always stopped me because they thought I wasn’t capable. You will always feel like a big fish in a small pond, unless you go to a bigger body of water. So go.’ That gave me strength,” Cary reveals.

“So I was 25, in Dubai, earning US$2,500 as a starting offer. But you know how we Filipinos work, it’s our attitude na nagugugstuhan anywhere in the world. I quickly became the head designer of the couture house. I was then hired by a former colleague who opened shop in Beirut, and stayed there for three years before coming back home,” he says of his stay in the Middle East.


4. Cary’s design inspiration is history, art and culture. “I don’t collect fashion magazines. I only buy fashion magazines if my work is featured there.”

“My father who was very intelligent had a library of Reader’s Digest. So it was black coffee and a Reader’s Digest every morning. That’s when I became so interested.”

Top three cities in the world that Cary takes design inspiration from:

1. Paris, France: “It is really the fashion capital. I’m an old soul and I’m not into new things. I love the Ancient Quarters, the Ile de la Cite, Point Zero, the area of the Notre Dame and the River Sein.”

2. Beirut, Lebanon: “Actually the whole of Lebanon! It is the ancient Phoenicia. Bibloz, Tyros, Sedon, these are very historical places. They built some of the greatest temples and palaces, it was the playground of the rich and famous. It was meant for me to go to Dubai because there, I was led to Beirut.”

3. New Delhi, India: “I love the people. They wear the colors we do not even dare to wear. It is so fascinating because these are the clothes they wore during the time of Alexander, they don’t care if the foreigners dress differently, they are so proud of their culture. The Adjanta caves were my inspiration for my first Philippine Fashion Week Collection, ‘In Praise of the Divine.’”


5. His most important advice for women: “Stay fit.”

“When you are fit, you can wear anything. You will be the most confident woman. You can go anywhere you want, and do anything you want. So stay fit.”


6. Cary weighs in on some of his most famous clients:

• Charo Santos-Concio: “She is for me the epitome of elegance. Every time we do fittings, even without the makeup or the shoes, yung movement niya, it fascinates me. She would say, ‘Cary, do I look good?’ You see a powerful woman but fragile and tender as a person. With me, napaka soft niya talaga,” Cary gushes.

• Dawn Zulueta-Lagdameo: “She is really so beautiful. She is always proper, she will not say or do anything that you won’t like. And it is not put on, it is really innate. She is very sincere as a person.”

• Kris Aquino: “People think she’s difficult, but she is never difficult. She is just a fabulous client. I think Kris has more than 50 Carys! Not one na binalik and not one na di niya nagustuhan. She is always fascinating. Ang hindi alam ng lahat, si Kris, pag nago-order, color lang ibibigay. I will make it and she will wear it.”


7. He does say no to clients. “People think I am very strict as a couturier. Yes, I am. I am very strict because I know what I want.”

“I am like a doctor, if you come to me I will tell you the truth. No bull***ing here. Ayoko nung ‘okay, pwede na yan’ because in the end she will be disappointed. If I feel that the client is difficult, I will say, ‘I’m sorry, I hope you do not feel bad pero hindi tayo magwo-work,’ or ‘Madam, I find you difficult, I think this is not possible.’ Are you sure you want me? Have you seen my work? Once there is trust, you won’t want to break that. I stop the client right away when I feel they don’t trust me. You have to be with a designer you are comfortable with.” Cary explains.

“But when the client trusts me, gagawin ko ang lahat. You give everything to them because you don’t want to disappoint them. You don’t want to break that trust.”


8. On the loss of his dog Farez: “I never shed a tear for anyone else. For Farez, I am still mourning. He was instrumental. He gave me life, joy, everything.”

“Farez came into my life in a time that I was a different Cary. My transformation (was) in Dubai and coming back to Cebu. When I broke up with my boyfriend, when I was building a name for myself, when I would need to de-stress, he was the one in front of me, inspiring me,” Cary says of his Shi Tzu who passed away over a year ago.

“Farez means knight. He was a gift from Majid, who then told me that Farez would accompany me while he was not by my side. I was with my boyfriend for 15 years,” he recalls. “When I started feeling something, yung may kutob, even if Majid promised me the moon and the starts, even if he promised me that we’ll be together for eternity, I felt it. I didn’t care anymore, I was with Farez and that is what mattered. That is why Farez is very special, and that is the pain I have, I thought we would be together longer.”


9. Cary Santiago in numbers:

15: Number of days he spends in Cebu and Manila alternately. He is opening his first Manila shop soon, and he is preparing for his big 25th anniversary show before the year ends.

4 and 7: It usually takes four people and seven days to make a Cary Santiago gown. “My clothes take time, pursuant of perfection. If I don’t like it, I will not give it, I keep it or destroy it. If I give it, it is still a Cary and makikita ang imperfection. Patience is everything and I always have the patience to redo it.”

6: Number that Cary dislikes. “I make sure if there are important events in my life, I make sure it’s not the sixth. Even with the prices of my gowns, I don’t like including the number six. And I don’t like repeated numbers. I’m into numerology.”

100-plus: Number of plain black button-down tops in his closet. “From the time I arrived in Mania, this has been my uniform.”


10. On designing and originality: “Taste is everything. When you know what to do, and when you know what is beautiful.”

“A lot of the young designers who look up to me, they think studying fashion design is everything. You don’t need to learn everything to become a fashion designer. I didn’t even study. I was lucky to grow up in the environment. More than anything else, it is really taste,” Cary says.

“You have to work with someone you can trust, and I am very creative when I am with John (Herrera). He can tell me the truth. Even if people say magaling ka, you are still human, there are imperfections,” he adds. “I am an evening wear designer. I am not trendy, my dresses are made classic. I don’t need to be inspired from what the current look or uso is, they just have to be distinctive Cary. I collect books, I make sure I travel. I made Katy Perry a dress for Nicolas Jebran. May nakita lang akong manok, may chicken effect lang dito, that’s the inspiration!”

“Don’t be inspired by just the work of others. Be inspired by anything and everything beautiful that surrounds you.”

* * *

“I always put myself in competition with myself. That’s why I am affected when people say my previous collection is the best, kasi pano ko gagawin yung next? It is always a challenge. I look at myself not just as a designer of clothes, I make sure I show myself as an artist.” Clearly what sets Cary apart from the rest is his extraordinary vision and mindset. And the sincerely wonderful way he has with people, and as he calls it, his chika.

* * *

Email me at or message me on Twitter or Instagram @iamsuperbianca.

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