Jaws dropped at Michael Cinco's recent show, where the Dubai-based designer displayed his technical virtuosity and immaculate couture. We witnessed all the action on and off Cinco's catwalk.
Sashaying gently with both arms on her sharply defined waist, high heels click-clacking on the catwalk, the model stopped midway to pose to the invisible crowd. Then she looked at Michael Cinco for approval.
"Change the shoes," he said.
"Why? Too high?" the model asked.
"Too high? No - they're not high enough," he replied.
A minute later, pairs of shoes were brought out to the catwalk for her to try on. When the right towering pair was found, rehearsals resumed.
"That's it," Cinco said. "Yes, darling. That. Is. It. That is so couture."
It was half past six in the evening at the Madinat Jumeirah. In three hours, Cinco would be presenting his latest collection to an expectant public.
His show was the hottest ticket at the inaugural Fashion Forward event, held on the last week of April to showcase the work of the region's top fashion designers.
And the 42-year-old Cinco, renowned for his exquisite, technically advanced couture dresses and wedding gowns, felt the pressure. "Every time I do a show, I get a fever. I haven't slept in a week. I'm very nervous," said Cinco, wearing a black sweatshirt, black trousers, black high-top trainers and - what has become his signature look - a pair of black shades.
Backstage, Cinco's direction could be felt in every detail. He checked on each of the 30 models as they had their hair and make-up done. He gave orders to his staff on the finishing touches on the dresses. He even steamed some of the clothes himself.
"I work hard because I need to. It's the only way I know how to produce this level of work," said Cinco.
A few minutes before the show, Bong Guerrero, the founder and creator of Fashion Forward, checked in backstage. One look at the models and his jaw dropped.
"It's so beautiful it hurts!" he screamed, then walked away.
He wasn't kidding.
Cinco's show dazzlingly demonstrated how to inject modernity into cultural references - in this case, 1940s Hollywood and Russian tsarinas. Fashion designers have had a long affair with the opulence of body-hugging gowns and bodice dresses, but his collection is a rare instance when you know you're looking at something new.
The shapes were a lot cleaner than in Cinco's past work, but the sense of rigour and purity remained. Tiny, flat sequins were hand-stitched on tulle, beads painstakingly embroidered and Swarovski crystals embedded in laser-cut lace.
Sticking to a basic but elegant palette of black and white, with a smidgen of blush and blood red, Cinco said he was inspired not just by Russian royalty, but also by the country’s Matryoshka dolls and, curiously, ceramics. “The detailing and cuts on Russian jars – I wanted them on my bodice dresses,” he said.
It all sounds complicated, but Cinco has a clever sense of control. None of the clothes appeared heavy; not even the finale dress, which involved a trail of voluminous tulle embellished with flower shapes and crystals.
The dresses all came in serpentine silhouettes - Cinco's nod to Christian Dior's hourglass outfits. The models wore tiaras, a reflection of the designer's obsessive interest in form and ceremony.
Not surprisingly, the strongest looks in the collection were the long gowns. They confirmed for many in the audience why they will take a flight just to be awed for 15 minutes. "I would restage my wedding 10 times over just so I can wear all the dresses," said the Doha-based Rawna Mallari Vahana, a frequent customer who sat in the front row. "It was all very couture - and it was very Michael."
Midway through the show, there was a spree of black blazers and tailored trousers, presented plainly, without embellishment. While bordering on the boringly minimalist, they were quite adorable. But like the short dresses, they seemed at odds with Cinco's grand aesthetic.
Perhaps because they were more of a business decision than a creative one. When asked whether we should expect a more accessible, ready-to-wear collection from him soon, Cinco replied with a wink. Pressed further, he admitted he's working on one.
"But it's not completely ready-to-wear," he said. "I'm calling it 'luxe couture'. There's still a little bit of embellishment in it, so it's more expensive than ready-to-wear."
Cinco plans to sell the line at a stand-alone boutique. "In a mall here in Dubai. Why not? Yes, it's coming soon."
Soon may be closer than you think. Cinco revealed that next month he'll be opening a bridal boutique in - surprise - Russia. "A luxe couture bridal shop," Cinco said. "It's going to be more affordable than my usual expensive gowns."
At close to midnight, after a flurry of media interviews and entertaining VIPs, Cinco returned backstage and, for the first time that night, sat down. Gone was the chaos of the production - "couture stress", as he calls it. He opened a bottle of water.
"Fashion is so hard," he said. "But I can't imagine doing anything else."
Cinco, who was born and raised in the province of Samar in the Philippines, moved to Dubai in 1997 after taking on whatever dressmaking jobs were available back home, including designing hotel uniforms for a Japanese firm. In 2003, he finally opened his own couture house.
Susan Buscagan, Cinco's head dressmaker, was there when it all began. "It was me and Michael doing all the cutting and sewing," she recalled. "Now, 10 years later, we have a staff of 69. Who would have thought?"
In the past decade, Cinco has been recognised worldwide. His creations have been worn by Naomi Campbell, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears and Sofia Vergara. In 2011, he was tapped to guest-judge on America's Next Top Model, the first Filipino designer to feature on the show. At the Met Gala held earlier this month in New York, Paloma Faith wore one of the gowns Cinco showcased at Fashion Forward. The English singer performed in Dubai last month, heard of Cinco's work and was captivated.
"Mike's a genius. There are no other words," said Aries Lagat, Cinco's assistant designer. The 30-year-old, who won the Philippine edition of Project Runway, shunned other opportunities to move to Dubai last year to work under Cinco.
"As a creative director, he's crazy. He changes his mind all the time. He's very strict," Lagat said. "But outside work, he's your best friend. He always treats us to the cinema."
Cinco says he's always been a fan of the movies.
"When I was a kid, I was fond of watching black-and-white films because I imagined the leading ladies to be wearing colourful couture," he said. "My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn! I was just six years old and I didn't understand what I was watching, but I was amazed."
Cinco thinks that growing up in provincial Philippines pushed him to dream big.
"It was a small town in a fishing village, so I had to create my own fantasies," he said.
"That's why my clothes are grand and opulent, because all I saw growing up was simplicity. It's the fantasy I never got to live."
This Wednesday, Cinco returns home to show at Philippine Fashion Week. Since debuting at the event in 2009, he has eclipsed the rest of the action on the runways.
But Cinco's clothes are too expensive for the Philippine market, so he shows for another reason.
"It's literally a showcase. He goes not to compete, not to sell," said Lagat. "He goes to inspire. Michael shows us anything is possible."
Watch our video interview with Michael Cinco here