By Dom Galeon
Images by Noel Pabalate
Video by David Clarence Rivera 

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IN HIS ELEMENT Puey’s atelier in Makati where he displays gowns from CocoMelody as well as from his eponymous label

Fashion comes and goes. And so do designers. Those who find themselves unfortunate enough to be relegated as a “has-been” very often do not get a second chance. Those who, because of various reasons, find themselves stuck in some controversy almost always never find a way to recover.

But not Puey Quiñones. After leaving behind a career as one of the most promising young fashion designers in the country more than six years ago now, Puey is back in Manila. And just like any balikbayan, he came back full of stories—stories about a bridal brand he’s brought with him from Los Angeles and stories about how he has managed to recover from what he half-jokingly refers to as his “Manila drama.”

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There is, perhaps, no need to get into the details of this episode in Puey’s life, something that he has always been very open to talk about. Plus, a quick Google search will tell you everything you need to know. What is now worth telling is how the LA-based Filipino designer has found a way to get his life back on track.

‘There’s nothing wrong with that’

“What happened to me before was crazy. I lost everything,” Puey says. “Then I moved to LA in 2013. I didn’t have money. I only had $200 in my pocket—it was a donation pa! My first two years there was really a struggle.”

In LA, in that so-called city of angels, Puey found his own “angel” in the guise of an immigration lawyer who helped him apply for an Einstein visa. An Einstein visa is no joke, mind you. According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services primer, this special visa is only granted to an immigrant who is “able to demonstrate extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics” and is locally or internationally renowned for such talents.

“She checked my portfolio and she told me, ‘Puey, I think you can qualify for this visa. Why don’t you apply?’” Puey recalls.“So I did. I showed her my portfolio and she said I could submit [an application]. But I didn’t have money to pay for the fee. Fortunately, I got a project. I was part of a music video by Katy Perry, for ‘Dark Horse.’ They commissioned me to make one of the costumes and they paid me. I stayed there for two days with Katy. It was an amazing experience.”

While his visa application was being processed, Puey found himself doing odd jobs, working as an assistant of sorts for his lawyer as well as doing housekeeping. He also became a “volunteer” mover for friends who were moving to new houses. “You don’t have to pay movers, I’ll help you,” he used to tell them. “I was doing that and I was glad that I did.”

This is how he describes his first two years in LA: “It was very humbling. But, to me, it wasn’t that hard. After all, I didn’t grow up rich. I came from a very humble family. So for me it was not really hard because I was used to it. There’s nothing wrong with that. I didn’t care about what some people said. I just wanted to survive. Ayokong umarte kasi magugutom ako, no. And I didn’t want to be hungry. I had to survive there and that was what I did. I survived.”

 ‘I waited and waited’

Naturally, during those first two years in LA, Puey had that longing to return to what he loved doing most. But it took a while before he was able to find his way back to the fashion industry, and not for lack of trying.

“We created one brand but it didn’t take off because of lack of funds,” Puey says. “There were also a lot of other factors: I was new, I didn’t know the market, I was in a different place. And if you build a brand in the US, you need a lot of resources. So I waited and waited.”

Sometime in 2015, Puey received a call from one of his former clients during his heydays in Manila. “CocoMelody came into the picture and they offered me a job,” he says. “At that time, they were very new and they just opened a store in Irvine, which was two hours away from LA by bus.”

CocoMelody was an up-and-coming bridal brand when Puey joined the company as a consultant. Because of his personality and his understanding of fashion—he was, after all, staying at the city’s fashion district—he managed to convince the brand’s owners to close their Irvine shop and open a small boutique in LA. “I was also fortunate to have been mentored by America’s Next Top Model judge, publicist, TV personality, author Kelly Cutrone,” Puey adds. “I learned a lot from her and I applied those in CocoMelody.”

Puey also demonstrated a remarkable understanding of current trends, and not just in the world of fashion. While working as CocoMelody’s all-around-guy in what was then their only shop in downtown LA—doing everything from receiving guests, taking orders, sewing, cleaning the showroom—he thought of bringing the brand to a younger market. “I started this Facebook Live shows,” he says. “I would video myself in my apartment, bringing mannequins from the store and draping them in CocoMelody dresses while explaining to the online viewers the different kinds of bridal silhouettes, what’s good and what works, etc.”

From a small, three-dressing-room shop in LA, CocoMelody has now grown to include 14 stores in cities all over the world: New York, Tokyo, Villach in Austria, Rosenheim in Germany, and Durban in South Africa. Now, as CocoMelody’s creative director, Puey has finally brought the brand to Manila. He puts the brand’s identity simply: “Our prices are ready-to-wear but the experience is couture.”

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A ready-to-wear CocoMelody gown

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Couture dresses designed by Puey Quiñones

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Puey Quiñones, Los Angeles

“To be honest, I didn’t immediately think of Manila,” Puey says. “Four years ago, I wasn’t sure if Manila was ready for this kind of flow. Brides in Manila, they are used to going to a designer who do everything for them.” But now, the designer adds, he sees that Manila is ready for the CocoMelody experience. “I think it’s the future of the Manila bridal scene.”

Although he enjoys his work as creative director for this bridal brand, Puey admits that he misses the kind of work he did before he moved to the US, as a Manila-based couturier. This is why, together with CocoMelody’s first atelier in Manila, he has revived his eponymous fashion label, this time tagged with Los Angeles.

“I do miss it that’s why I decided to open my couture again,” he explains. “It’s been so long since the last time I created my own collection. I miss designing. It started early this year but I was still busy with opening CocoMelody’s New York store at that time, so I waited until everything was settled. It’s Puey Quiñones Los Angeles because I will still be based there and my team is also there.”

Is it the right time to bring back his brand to the Philippines? He thinks so. Puey believes that everything that has happened to him, especially the recent passing of his father, which made him spend more time in the Philippines, were signals that it was time to come to roost again.

“My father’s passing was the sign, it was like he guided me [back],” he says. “He brought me back here. I had been praying for the opportunity to go back to my first love, which is designing and draping. And now I am back doing what I love.”

And love it he truly does.

Toward the end of our conversation, Puey pauses to reflect on his personal and professional journey so far. One thing he seems overflowing with right now is gratitude, for his family and for his friends here in the Philippines who have welcomed him back with arms wide open.

“The world is round,” he says. “You have to know how to survive, whether you’re on the top or when you’re at the bottom. If you stay grounded, whatever happens to you, it’s not going to really hurt you. Wherever I am and whatever happens to me—knock on wood—I think I’ll be fine. Yes, I’ll be fine.”

CocoMelody Manila + Puey Quiñones Los Angeles is located at Bel Air II, Makati.

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