Designer Ezra Santos on dressing up Dubai
Those familiar with Ezra Santos’s creations – the simple, sculptural elegance of his inimitable wedding dresses, the beautiful embroidery, fairy-tale-feel and precision cut of his couture evening gowns – may be in for a shock. His next collection is all about the colour.
This is a real departure for the Dubai-based Filipino designer, whose preferred palette has traditionally been characterised by subtle, sensuous, earthy tones.
Santos, who launched his eponymous couture label, Ezra, in 2004, is one of the few UAE-based designers to have received international acclaim. When he presented his first-ever show at New York Fashion Week it was met with thunderous applause and he has dressed the likes of Michelle Rodriguez, Haifa Wehba, a smattering of Bollywood stars and even Britney Spears (who chose Ezra for the launch of her perfume line and then again for an episode of The X Factor).
“Our designs have a Middle Eastern touch combined with a western influence. An Ezra dress always has that element of precision. The cut is simple and elegant, but with a little bit of bling. The Ezra woman is strong, elegant, sophisticated and knows what she wants. I would love to dress Angelina Jolie – she’s the ultimate Ezra woman,” says Santos.
His new collection, Divine Romanticism, will be unveiled during the second season of Fashion Forward, which takes place from October 15 to 18. “I’ll be presenting something totally different,” he says, with palpable excitement. “I’m not a person that’s generally very colourful but this year, I am getting out of my box.”
So, why the departure from a tried-and-tested formula? “I’m very into black, beige and earthy colours so it’s about time I tried something different and experienced new things. It’s time for change.”
I am sitting in Santos’s atelier – a nondescript, identikit villa on Al Wasl Road with an entrance area that makes me wonder if I have stumbled into one of Jumeirah’s many indistinguishable beauty salons by mistake. It couldn’t be any less ‘high fashion’. And neither, it seems, could the man himself, who, with minimal fuss, lets himself in through the back door, sporting a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and tortoiseshell reading glasses, and ushers me into one of the atelier’s fitting rooms. Finally, signs that I’m in the right place – with its raspberry walls, plush, high-backed sofa and silk curtains, this is a room worthy of Santos’s dramatic, evocative creations.
Santos came to Dubai in 1993 and spent a decade as an in-house designer at Arushi before branching out on his own. “I felt like my career as an in-house designer was stagnating so I decided it was time to do something on my own,” he says. “And I really saw Dubai’s potential.”
It took him six months to secure a location for his new venture and he started out with seven employees – he now generates a seven-digit annual income and has a team of 65. More importantly, he is Dubai’s go-to designer for well-heeled ladies looking for a one-of-a-kind wedding dress or gown.
Having spent 20 years in the region, Santos is well placed to cater to the exacting demands of his predominantly Emirati client base, and his ability to adapt to local tastes has been instrumental in his success, he says.
“There is a certain style and certain restrictions in the way my clients dress. Well, that was certainly the case in 2004 but now the times are changing; people are travelling much more, they know more and more about fashion, they are educated and they are working and earning their way. If you look at the difference between now and when I first arrived here in 1993, it has changed a hundred per cent.”
Of course, this has resulted in an increasingly demanding client. “In the UAE, clients always want something different. That’s why haute couture is alive and well here. My clients want their wedding dress to be unique and made especially for them so it shows their personality. We’ve done it all.”
Case in point: for a recent wedding in Abu Dhabi, Santos created a dress fitted with lights, so when the bride made her entrance (to the tune of Rihanna’s Shine Bright Like a Diamond, naturally) into the darkened ballroom, her magnificent, pearl-encrusted gown lit up from within.
It’s certainly one way to make an impression.
So what next for the man who’s been asked to do it all? Do the bright lights of New York or Paris not beckon?
It would seem not. “Dubai has given me the opportunity to open up my business and it has been very supportive of me. I’ve always said that I think Dubai should be the fashion capital of the Middle East.
“My next plan is to launch a prêt-à-porter line. Hopefully, that’ll come soon. It’ll still have the Ezra touch but it will be more international and accessible,” says Santos.