Dia Ates

DesignerSan Francisco, CAStory & Photography by Lauri Levenfeld
Dia Ates is in the business of making the world a better place. Through her uncanny design aesthetics and techniques and her unwavering commitment and connection to her clients, Ates creates fashion and architecture that surpass the wildest of expectations, fantasies and imagination. Her work channels the artisans of the old world and her mentality for how and what she creates, the same. But Dia’s adds a modern day twist, going deeper with her designs and  her desires to create a company that not only gives back, but will build infrastructure, encourage entrepreneurship and navigate the development of artisanal skills in communities across the developing world. With just over a week to go before her first runway show and the soft launch of her fashion line benefiting over 27 charities, Dia tells her story of sleepless nights and dyed peacock feathers.
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1. Who are you? What were you like as a child?

My mother taught me the values of attaining deep meanings interwoven into my life and creations that hold everlasting worth beyond monetary.  She believes that everything we do in our lifetime must be of meaning and rooted with purpose.  My name, Dia Ates, it is short for a very long name: Maria Dia Dima Luz Degamo Ates. My mother named me after the French word diademe (crown in French) because she wanted to give me a crown that can not be taken from me. She instilled in me that the best jewels we can ever attain is within ourselves and that to find the best sheen, we must look within us and remain true to the self and others. My mom is rather poetic in her ways that even in my name she wanted to make sure it had “lights” to help guide my way through life — so she made sure I had three lamps in three languages:  Indian (Dia), Spanish (Luz), and Turkish (Ates: fire).  

I was a very curious child; inquisitive and meticulous at learning everything from diplomacy, science, philosophy, agriculture, and down to micro-organisms — I enjoyed looking through my microscope a lot more than play time. Looking back, I hardly played with other kids — I was often satisfied in my solitude, creating something or writing poetry or stories. Growing up in the Philippines during martial law, my parents knew that sending me to an Ivy League university was far-fetched, so they did the next best thing – set me up with mentors starting at age 5. They would invite various religious leaders, diplomats, business executives, professors, and other professionals, to dine with us so I’d learn differing views and ways of life, and at the same time learning to respect others’ choices while understanding their similarities through food and open, non judgmental conversation. They set up meetings for me to be mentored by professionals from various industries as well as learn craftsmanship from those who’ve never even stepped into a school their entire life.  My parents made sure I understood that learning can be from anywhere and everyone, long as we are open to receiving information and willing to learn from what is presented.  Being that I was also “masakiton” (sickly in Bisaya) as others dubbed me, I was not so much “allowed” to play sports. So instead of play time, I spent my “extra curricular activities” philosophizing with elders while learning a craft such as beading, wood carving, sewing, poetry writing, et cetera.  Every individual I mentored with were very good at letting me be a child while speaking to me and answering my questions seriously as if I were an adult. I believe all these influenced my fascinations with creating designs that are deeply meaningful and complementarily respectful with the character of the individual I design for.  


2. Describe your life’s work.

30 years ago, I asked my lola (grandma in Bisaya) to give me a piece of fabric so I could learn how to sew. She refused because she believed I first needed to learn how to hold a needle and understand how such a small piece of metal can hold such power and magic. Of course being the stubborn child that I was, I neglected her advice and used the Singer pedal machine to sew my finger instead. I had always been a curious one and yes it hurt – a lot! Instead of scolding me, my Lola eased the pain and stood up past midnight to teach me the basics of design and tailoring. Since then, I have sought out mastery of artisanal craft and design all over the globe. She inspired me to dream of such beauties and to pursue my desires of crafting elegant designs in patience as I matured into a designer I am today.

My family was neither rich nor poor, and I learned how to live juggling those two lifestyles early on. My parents provided my brothers and I the embellished ways of life while also never neglecting for us to understand the poverty that surrounds. As a child, I noticed how some neighbors maintained a positive outlook despite the disparity of their living situations, while on the contrary, the other neighbors had abundance yet was often in search for something missing.  With this observation, I learned early on that neither resource nor lack there of is the key to success and happiness, but rather, what we decide to do with what we’ve got at present.  Every turn in my professional and personal life since then, has been in pursuit of finding a way to utilize my skill-set in creating beautiful things that positively impact the


lives they touch and make them smile.


3. How do you celebrate the Woman?

Every day! Through my designs, I constantly think of how to honor women by being sure each of my creations respect their unique characters, needs and desires. I celebrate women and womanhood daily. The women in my life have been of great support in my ups and downs. I make certain that when I am with them, I let them know and express that I notice they are beautiful.

Women of all walks of life are inspiring!  I believe that women are extremely intelligent, strong, and so much more. Women are magical!  Thus for my first collection, I wanted to honor the glory of every woman by carefully casting a group of models who represent in my eyes what a great woman is.


4. What was your biggest a-ha moment?

My first design project out of college in Interior Architecture was a $45M budget mansion in San Francisco. As a young designer, I was very happy and exhilarated to be able to design such luxuries without budgetary/imaginary constraints — it was amazing! But the child in me who grew up around poverty was torn. Because the furniture I was designing could feed my country time and again. The day I began designing a custom bed that cost more than the annual GDP of the island I grew up in (Siquijor, Philippines) I was literally crying and smiling the same time, torn between the happiness of being able to create something so special and unique for an individual who own multiple homes across the world, yet filled with an overwhelming sadness that what I drew with hands could feed my country. It took 2 years to design and create that bed, within that time frame, I struggled with my selfish desires in pursuit of creating the most exquisite unique pieces and all the while my philanthropic core was hungry to make a difference that would positively impact the mass public. So I did more volunteer work. The internal battle lead me to resign from my work to put all my efforts in voluntary projects with various charitable organizations. But that move tore me inside too. Because although I was feeding my soul, I was neglecting my present self. I placed all my focus on helping others and completely neglected my personal needs, leading to the decline of health all around.

After a major breakdown in which I almost died on the highway, I knew that if I wanted to live life happily alive, I needed to make a change.  So I sought more balance. It is understood that it is not kind to be scornful of how others spend their time and resources; but I also know that if I can be more attentive and responsible in how I choose to spend mine, I would be much happier.  But first, amongst other things, I needed to understand the flow of economics and their effects. So within hours from my accident, I packed everything I owned in a matter of hours except for a hand luggage, and moved to Rome. From there, I decided to travel the world to learn more.  I figured that there I could complete my MBA in International Business & Global Marketing while continuing to be immersed in design and luxury, all the while learning from UN and discovering new places, cultures, ways of life and so much more — I crave to learn, understand, and grow daily.  In the Philippines: I learned the values of family, culture, resourcefulness and the love for life in every situation.  In California: I learned the values of sharing information and resource and their preservation, modern technologies and their promising effects on our future, being open to varying perspectives and accepting diversity — all of which expanded my love for design and philanthropy.  In Italy, I discovered myself, and learned the values of la dolce vita, aesthetics in every form from lifestyle to the very last microscopic yarn — here I felt peeled from every notion I knew and began to learn how to question everything in order to properly define the problems and find their matching solutions. I resigned from a very specialized role from a prestigious firm, left my family and friends, to discover the world for 10 years in hopes to find a way to balance selfish desires without neglecting respectful thoughtfulness to others and the environment. I truly believe I have — and I am ready to begin the journey of refinement.


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5. What was your most fearful moment?

Facing my inner demons and learning how to tame them.  I believe that we are all prone to being good and bad, which can happen at any given time without warning.  What generally determines which character evolves is in our choices. Thus the reason I sought out to discipline myself to stand up against my inner demons. To face ourselves deep into the mirror of darkness is terrifying because the mind is a black hole where no one can save but yourself. To dig deep into that part of yourself is a journey, one you must be willing to risk because it is like tippy-toeing at the hairline border of sanity and insanity.  And the beauty of all this is: if we strive for the courage to face the demons within us, we can find that we have more than what it takes to redirect and train them into a positive character.  

I found that facing my inner demons made me learn how to quiet my inner battles and attain balance. Having witnessed the versions of myself that I disliked, seeing them in their terrifying forms, learning and accepting they are part of my being, made me realize how to love, care and be more forgiving of myself. These realizations and having gone thru that dark period of my life, transformed me into a person I truly love and adore. I am immensely grateful to those who have stood by me through all that. Fighting through our inner battles is a lonely road that one must face alone in mind and heart, but it is extremely important to have the support of understanding friends and family to survive. I most definitely couldn’t have survived without their caring hands.


6. How do villas and gowns synthesize your aesthetics?

As a child, I spent countless hours imagining a magical world of shimmering environment, with endless gardens that led into an infinite magical forest.  In that world, I was neither a princess nor servant like Cinderella, but I felt awesome! Haha. I was happy as I glided thru the gardens in awe of the stunning architecture around. In my constantly changed jewel tone flowing gowns and matching stilettos, I felt alive in that world and I wanted to live it in real life. Now! I am quite aware that it was imaginary. BUT! If I became an architect and a fashion designer, there was a possibility I could create those imaginations into something I can feel and touch with my hands and truly experience it for myself. And so I did! As a designer, I found a way to manifest parts of that imaginations into reality, and now I can experience my childhood imaginations AWAKE and present.

Sophistication is a matter of appropriation. I find that when maintaining this rule, anything I do or create, is fluid and beautiful; when we derail from it, it becomes a disaster.  With that said, I couldn’t recreate my childhood imaginations without knowing what it is like to live and design villas and palaces. So I spent seemingly endless hours in villas, chateaus, and palaces in Europe — imagining what it would be like to be in their back in the renaissance period and what their demeanor was like. I was curious what their day-to-day life was like. What did they eat? How did they glide? Where did they go?

Why did they do all those things? For what? AND what did they wear while doing all these that made those paintings look like they were all godlike? With all of this, I realized that in order to create something appropriate for people, as a designer, it is important for the designer to understand clients not just their budgetary needs and vision, but also listen intently to their underlying message that they can not utter in words.  

Before I begin to sketch, I ask myself questions. I think that villas and gowns are like husband and wife. If the marriage is good, they are always smiling together and compliment each other. If their is no cohesive partnership in the marriage, it is like a woman wearing an expensive gown to gather firewood in the forest; or a man roaming about a hut as if he lives in a villa. And thus I repeat this principle each time I begin to design: sophistication is a matter of appropriation. I figured designing villas and gowns for others allow me to see my imaginations come to life — and it makes me happy and more alive, just as I imagined as a child.


7. How do you pay it forward?

I believe that to attain balance, we must both serve our selfish needs and care for others and aim to please the divine.  I see paying forward as a means of paying back.  In Filipino, we have this saying “utang sa lo-ob.” Which translates to “credit to the soul.” Basically, it means that when someone has helped you in anyway, you owe it to them to give back in multitude to that person plus others. I am sure that without the help of others, I would have found a way to make things happen regardless. However, having had the advice and help of many, I was able to achieve my goals faster and discovered many wonderful things I otherwise would have overlooked.  I just want to give the same opportunity to others whenever I can as a means of gratitude for those who have done it for me.

Thus, in honor of those who have mentored and helped me in my pursuit of my goals, I am dedicating the soft launch of my fashion line to benefit 27 charities. “Metamorphosis – La Storia D’Amore,” is a fashion story of my love for life and design, the journey leading up to this moment and the collaboration with people to make it all happen.  We are auctioning off couture gowns inspired by my life’s journey, made with materials from around the globe and carefully crafted by me and my team.  

Also, my team and I are building a lifestyle brand, social business, DIA ATES, with a corresponding charitable foundation, Kalibotan. We intend to build a design and manufacturing house that will employ artisans from communities in need while helping to train young professionals. A portion of the DIA ATES revenue will be donated to Kalibotan in order to support sustainable initiatives ran by non-profits/NGOs. Our team aims to provide support to communities in need and aid them in acquiring profitable skill set to others so that they may become self sustainable. My mentors taught me skills that made me more resourceful, I wish to offer the same to others.

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8. You have me modeling in your next show (yep, representing the 40+ first time models!), what does it mean for you to have all types of women / bodies represent your line and walk your runway?

We are all unique! And I want to respect and honor that. I dislike hearing “I need to diet so I can fit in nice clothes.” Garments ought to be designed and made to fit the bearer, not the other way around. We fluctuate in size and often change moods, but fabrics don’t. So why fight the inevitable. As we grow older and change in size, it is nice to still feel like we can be beautiful, sexy and confident in the clothes we wear — I believe this is a right we all have. I don’t care about the age or size or ethnic background of my models or the people who wear my clothes. I do however care about how they feel in the clothes I designed specifically for them; and I want them to feel good, happy and sexy!  I guess I get that from architecture. When I design homes and spaces, I don’t impose what I think it should be — I listen to the client and design their vision into something they can see and only advise otherwise when I believe their idea is unattainable or unethical.

I grew up designing and having clothes made for me…and I loved every piece I have made this way. I enjoy wearing these clothes regardless how I felt inside. I want others to experience that feeling when they wear my designs. Clothes are meant to adorn us, therefore, it is to wear us — not us wear them.

9. Who have been your most cherished mentors?

“Everyone is a miracle and every person you meet will gift you with a lesson if you wish to accept them” — this is one of the best reminder I uphold, taught by a construction mentor in Italy. To that note, I value every mentor I have and will have thereafter. I can not say I cherish one more over the others because I think they are a package and the package keeps growing like a snowball. One mentor leads to another, and each their lessons / advice are interconnected like a web. When I feel lost or confused and none of them are in reach, my mind goes through a library of their advice and I use a combo to address my dilemmas. So I if anything, what / whom I cherish the most is all of them in one pretty package with a fuchsia bow!  


10. What will we see next from Dia Ates?

Please stay tuned for our upcoming fashion line. We are launching with couture gowns this November 3rd, and will be offering RTWs in fall 2017.  

I invite you to wear your gowns and tuxes and join us at our soft launch, Metamorphosis – La Storia D’Amore, to be held at the Green Room SF War Memorial on November 3rd, at 7pm. Buy tickets here.

For more info, please visit: Dia Ates.

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