Exclusive: This Filipino Designer Creates Intricate Dresses For Princesses And Celebrities
“As a child, I’ve always dreamt of being a fashion designer—but my dad didn’t want me to be one.”
This is a story of a man who defied all odds; an interior designer who travelled to Egypt to take further studies in furniture, met a princess, and eventually became one of the top designers in the world. A story of fate, as they would say.
Two decades into the fashion industry, Amir Sali has become known as the “Prince of Beads”—a title this dream-chaser has earned.
But he didn’t stop breaking gender stereotypes there. In fact, he proudly shares that his team of beadwork artists is composed of men, some of whom were once jobless in the streets. “It’s nice when you break the rules,” said the haute couture designer. “Beadwork isn’t just for women. What’s important is that you enjoy what you’re doing.”
Besides Middle Eastern princesses, both local and Hollywood celebrities also fill up the Filipino designer’s roster of clients. “I am not into fame—I would prefer my clothes be worn and seen, rather than my name be popular,” quipped Sali, who has created stunning dresses for personalities like Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, Halle Berry, Carrie Underwood, Liza Soberano, KC Concepcion, Ruffa Gutierrez, and Korina Sanchez.
Liza Soberano for Metro Magazine August 2016 (Photo from Amir Sali, taken by Shaira Luna)
Carrie Underwood wearing Amir Sali at the Country Music Association Awards 2017 (Photo: Amir Sali)
Last week, the Metro.Style was able to snatch an exclusive interview with the Prince of Beads himself, Amir Sali. Keep scrolling for your dose of inspiration.
Metro.Style: Tell us your beginnings as a designer.
Amir Sali: Since my dad didn’t want me to pursue fashion design, I became an interior designer. While I was travelling abroad to take up further studies, I met a Saudi Arabian princess in Cairo, Egypt. She wanted to commission me to work on furniture, but when she discovered that I liked designing clothes, she invited me to come work with her. The royal family was very supportive of my dreams—they’re like family to me. In exchange of working with them, they sent me to Paris, where I studied in Ecole Lesage for over two years. While most designers would usually specialize in fashion design, fabric technology, or cutting, I chose to specialize in embellishment. This was heavily influenced by my roots.
My cultural background inspired the creative in me. I love colors! I was born in Mindanao, and my first palettes were the sailboats I saw as a kid. There are a lot of tribes in Mindanao, like the Tausug, the Yakan, etc., and they all have different cultures. These sparked my love for intricacy—I love beadwork, and that’s how I eventually became known as the Prince of Beads.
I returned home in 2009 because I love my country. I am happy supporting our industry. There are a lot of creative people here—but the thing is, some local designers just adjust according to what their clients want. But I think that the reason why we are called designers is because we have to constantly introduce something new to the people. We shouldn’t be mere replicas. My dream is to speak to the young artists; to inspire them not to be afraid to showcase something new, because we Filipinos are creative and globally competitive.
MS: How was it like being a designer based in Saudi Arabia?
AS: Working as a fashion designer in Saudi Arabia is challenging. In the Philippines, when you design a dress, it’s usual that your clients already have an idea of what your design will look like once executed. However, in Saudi Arabia, you have to explain what you’re going to do in full detail. This is because there are no window displays of flamboyant designs in their country. They didn’t even have fashion shows until 1991—I was the first designer who staged a fashion show there. The king offered the palace in Riyadh for my show, and I had an all-female audience. I did that for 7 consecutive years.
It was a different world, but I liked it. Out in the streets, women of Saudi Arabia are covered—but when they’re inside a palace for a party, they wear backless pieces and even couture dresses in different cuts.
I learned a lot in Saudi. There, you will meet with 4 to 5 clients everyday, each looking for a different treatment to their dresses. These women will be willing to spend, so you will have to prepare new ideas—something you’ve never done before. There will be no limitation in budget, because these women have very discriminating taste. For instance, when you present them a design, some will even say, “ah, pambahay ko lang yan [that looks like something I would wear inside my house]”. That’s true—party dresses here are considered as pambahay there! Remember, they live in palaces!
MS: What makes a signature Amir Sali creation?
AS: I love crystals. I’m so attached to them. While I also create dresses that don’t have embellishments (like the one Korina Sanchez wears on this month’s issue of Metro Society), most of my works have beadwork on them. Some women who come to my atelier tell me that they they’re not a fan of embellishments, but when I explain to them how I plan to execute my design, they end up happily wearing an embellished Amir Sali creation. There are different treatments to embellishments that aren’t loud.
Korina Sanchez in Metro Society's February 2018 issue (Photo: Cyrus Panganiban)
I make beautiful clothes that fit the wearer’s character. I design clothes according to my client’s personality, movements, and attitude. I don’t want them to wear something they’re not. When they put on my dress, they will know how to carry it effortlessly because its design is intended for them.
A woman who wears an Amir Sali creation is a woman of opulence. She is bold and confident, and she is willing to cross borders. I don’t want my women to just attend parties; I want them to be remembered. Amir Sali muses are unforgettable.
Amir Sali's Holiday Collection featured in Metro Magazine August 2016 (Photo: BJ Pascual)
MS: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
AS: I am not religious but I am very spiritual.The original designer is the Lord, because He created everything. I get my inspiration from nature; if you look at the details of the butterflies’ wings, you will see how intricate they are—only God could have designed that.
Most of my fashion shows in the Philippines have biblical titles like “The Garden of Eden” and “Simplified Glory”. Even the music I use for my shows are songs of praise and worship. This is one way of returning the glory back to God, for allowing me to share this talent He gave me. God is eternal, He is unlimited—I will continue to bring the glory back to Him until the day I meet my Creator.
MS: Do you have upcoming shows this year?
AS: One show will be on March 15 at Shangri-La. I will also have one in May, which I’ve entitled “Calvary”. Calvary is where the Lord died, but I will emphasize on His resurrection—expect a lot of hand-painted details here.
On July 8, I will be the finale for Marry Me at Marriott, and on September 9, I will also fly to New York for another show. We have more projects this year, but we are still ironing them out.
MS: Korina Sanchez-Roxas is one of your muses—what do you love most about working with her?
AS: She is very stylish! She knows what she wants and what best suits her body. She respects my craft and my input. One thing I love about her is that she listens; she is willing to try new designs. She is also very kind to me and my staff. Give her even a simple dress and she will carry it very well. That is Korina Sanchez Roxas—she gives justice to any piece.
Korina Sanchez in Metro Society's February 2018 issue (Photo: Cyrus Panganiban)
MS: Who are your dream international muses?
AS: Since I’ve worked for the royal family in Saudi Arabia for decades, my works are very personalized. I internalize how my clients will wear it first. Every single client is a princess to me, whether they be a celebrity or even “everyday” women.
I have no particular “dream muse” because I want women to confidently wear my pieces, regardless of their status in life. All women can wear Amir Sali—what’s important is that they’re happy wearing it.
MS: Finally, what makes couture relevant today?
AS: It makes me sad that couture is a dying art. When you say couture, it means creating everything by hand—but nowadays, machines are doing the work for us. While it’s a dying art, I thank God that there are designers like Michael Cinco, Elie Saab, Cary Santiago, Zuhair Murad, and me who still do things by hand, and not by computer. I want this art to stay. Haute couture will always be top of the line, and this is the path I want to cross.
I hope the new generation of designers will not just think of putting their names on the covers of fashion magazines, but also learn the couture way—because once you’ve mastered it, everything else will be easy for you. Do your assignments first. Learn everyday and practice the craft. It’s nice to create dresses that are not only beautiful, but also tastefully done.
Grab a copy of Metro Society's February Entertainment Issue with Korina Sanchez-Roxas on the cover! Now available in bookstores and newsstands nationwide.