Michael Leyva’s 10th-anniversary show at the National Museum is days away when we meet at his Antipolo warehouse and he’s just about ready to eat cake. Specifically, red velvet cheesecake. The fashion designer had been a bundle of nerves leading up to the milestone and had been steering clear of sweets to fit into his suit. But, he had already curated a menu for after the debut of his 50-piece collection: crispy pata with rice and “lots” of cake. “When I was a kid, my parents [couldn’t] afford to buy a cake during my birthday,” Leyva tells Vogue Philippines. So he made it a point to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions with the treat. “Life is really precious,” he trails off, recalling his late brother Brian, his inspiration and raison d’être for a successful design career.
It’s thanks to this desire to celebrate that Leyva planned a resplendent event to mark his 10th year in the business, the likes of which had never been seen before—at least not in the National Museum, which prior, had been closed off to fashion affairs. “We’re gonna be [making] history,” he beams. “If Valentino can do it in the Spanish Steps, if Dior can do it in the Eiffel Tower, Michael Leyva can do it in the National Museum.”
But celebrating in this grandiose manner means more to Leyva than just matching global powerhouses. “This show is a thanksgiving to my brother,” he tells me, as I preview his designs. It’s less than a week from the big day and his sewers—about two to a dress—are hard-pressed at work, adding bead after bead to gilded gowns. Elsewhere in his warehouse, commissioned artists hand paint suits, an ode to the art housed inside the museum’s walls. Despite saying he’s “very, very, very nervous” and amid the frenzy of a buzzing atelier, Leyva’s aura is pensive. He is nothing but grateful.
Making our way through tiered pastel ball gowns and embellished ensembles that took some three months to finish, Leyva discusses the story behind his 50-piece collection, Hiraya, and his chosen venue. “The National Museum is one of the national treasures we have in the country,” he says, adding that it was a “non-negotiable” choice for his milestone. So it’s no surprise that a few of his pieces are inspired by it. The museum ceiling’s details made their way onto a skirt, while the building’s structures were reimagined in 3D architectural boning. Even a jacket was created in the likeness of the building’s façade.
He then scuttles excitedly toward the finale dress, his favorite of the bunch. It’s his most direct homage to Brian, his late designer brother, and the ensemble Brian debuted in Paris, which involved stitching five-peso coins together. In a similar vein, his version also has dangling gilded baubles, and is slated to be worn by Anne Curtis-Smith, a longtime muse, collaborator, and friend. “She’s been my muse ever since. She’s one of the few celebrities who trusted me to make gowns for her even if I [was] just a young designer.” The designer, famed for his romantic creations, played with color for his milestone celebration: pastels, jewel tones, golds, and whites.
“Hiraya means fate, dreams, and aspirations,” the designer shares, and after parsing the title’s meaning, it seems to be the perfect encapsulation of his unorthodox foray into design and his attitude towards everything he’s attained. He’s been with the same people since Day 1 (he hired his brother’s sewer 10 years ago), he’s still with the same clientele, and he’s still as grateful as ever to his brother, whom he refers to as his “angel.” Leyva shares, “For me, it’s a fulfillment of our journeys. My brother’s and [mine].”
Leyva’s tragic life story is befitting of an episode on soapy docuseries Maalaala Mo Kaya. (In fact, the show did end up dramatizing his life.) The UST Tourism alum was a former flight attendant until his older brother Brian, the on-the-rise designer in the family, was in a fatal accident. Though back then, Leyva knew more about aircraft exit signs than how to sketch a dress, he side-stepped into a path that he never envisioned: fashion design.
Leyva is way past the point of sob stories though. 10 years later, he is certain he made the right decision. Any quick conversation with the 33-year-old designer reveals a deep-seated, unabashed reverie for his brother. Leyva’s entire career, in fact, is very much a family affair. Take our interview, for example. As the youngest of six, his older brothers also showed up to his atelier at some point during the shoot, while his mom, Nanay Merly, cooked a feast for our team—sinigang, pancit, and other homey Filipino dishes and desserts. It’s the same as when he started, he shares, when both his parents would shop for fabrics with him. There’s a strong undercurrent of familial love in everything he does, from the way he talks about his kuya to the way his success is measured by the dreams he’s able to realize for his parents.
Since his unorthodox beginnings, he had amassed a dedicated clientele including Kris Aquino and Charo Santos-Concio, among others. But time and again, imposter syndrome plunged him into spirals of uncertainty. “I [kept] on questioning why this is happening to me,” he reveals. “There [were] times I wanted to give up because I felt like I [could not] offer new things.” In a field where reinvention is key to longevity, he often felt bereft of new ideas. But he’s finally moving past that. While he never imagined this life for himself, after a decade in fashion, his new vignette of the future involves several international ateliers (in Paris, Dubai, and Melrose Place), a couple more decades in the industry, and a special dream client: Michelle Obama. “I’m not in a rush,” he’s quick to add. “I believe there’s so much more in store for me. Hopefully 10 [or] 20 years from now, I will still be here.”
Days later, on October 10, Leyva finally mounted his collection and it’s even grander than he let on. As a last-minute decision, Leyva swapped out the gown he created for Curtis-Smith, and her dramatic entrance was matched by the sentimental meaning of her look. She wore Brian’s winning piece, while Leyva, who walked up to his muses at the end of the show, wore a jacket painted in Brian’s likeness. To celebrate his journey, it’s only fitting that his final walk was taken with his brother—albeit projected on screen. “It’s my brother’s ultimate dream that this would happen. And I’m very fortunate that he was there all the way since day one. Leading me. And I’m the one who follows him on his journey.”
When asked what he thinks Brian would think of his collection, Leyva tears up. “I [want] him to be in my dream and say, ‘“I’m so proud of you.’ That’s one word I wanted to hear from him,” Leyva says, through tears. “And sabihin niya na ‘Tama.’”