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The Eala magic

After 25 years in the fashion industry, Rhett Eala finally dresses a beauty queen for the first time. It wasn’t as easy as he first thought since he had to consider what Maxine Medina wanted.

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By Alex Vergara

While many local designers would probably kill for a chance to dress up the country’s representative to Miss Universe, it took an industry veteran like Rhett Eala 25 years before working with someone like Maxine Medina.

The Designer and His Muse. Miss Universe Philippines Maxine Medina, in a strapless copper number by Rhett Eala, poses with the designer. (Image by Noel B. Pabalate|Manila Bulletin)

The Designer and His Muse. Miss Universe Philippines Maxine Medina, in a strapless copper number by Rhett Eala, poses with the designer. (Image by Noel B. Pabalate|Manila Bulletin)

Medina, a sought-after model before joining and winning the top prize in Binibining Pilipinas sometime last year, is the country’s representative to this year’s Miss Universe. She will be wearing not one, but two gowns by Eala, as she competes with 86 other rivals for the coveted crown during the preliminary and final competitions.

The two events are held days apart. The 15 girls with the highest scores during the preliminaries, which also include swimsuit and interview rounds, will be announced during the finals. As has been the practice in recent years, the country’s representatives to Miss Universe usually wore the same gown during preliminary and final events.

That changed last year with Pia Wurtzbach, who wore Oliver Tolentino’s red gown during the preliminary show before switching days later to Albert Andrada’s royal blue creation for the finals. Wurtzbach, of course, went on the win for the Philippines its third Miss Universe crown.

Medina, who personally chose Eala to do most of her dresses, is following her predecessor’s example. Eala has done 10 looks for Maxine, including two supposedly pasabog gowns and a national costume. She also wore a magenta number by Eala several months ago during the local search. It was the first time Medina, who was happiest playing volleyball, joined a beauty contest.

In an earlier interview, soon after she won Miss Universe Philippines, she revealed to this writer that she would again like to wear Eala’s gown to Miss Universe. She got her wish.

“Honestly, when she first approached me to do her gown for Binibini, I had no idea how to make a dress for a beauty pageant,” said Eala. “I hadn’t done it. Even with her national costume, she asked me, Tito Rhett, wala ba itong headdress. Initially, I said no, but when I saw her rivals, I realized that making a costume was that elaborate.”

Eala doesn’t look down on beauty pageants and his colleagues who are more into it. Although he’s a fan, he said, he’s not a fanatic. He now realizes you have to assume a different mindset in designing both for beauty contests and fashion shows. This time, it’s not just his vision, but also the beauty queen’s vision of herself in his gown. They have to meet halfway.

Medina also wore a strapless copper dress by Eala during the official sendoff last Tuesday organized for her by Binibining Pilipinas Charities, Inc. The wasp-waisted dress with a voluminous skirt and uneven hemline channeled the ’50s.

Eala has collaborated with high-end jewelry brand Jewelmer for Medina’s national costume, which includes a golden headdress studded with pearls. Both beauty queen and designer declined to reveal anything more. Asked, for instance, if she’s going to wear her hair up or down, Medina coyly replied—“secret.”

“I’ve known Maxine for quite some time,” said Eala. “She’s quite popular in the modeling circuit. I’ve worked with her a lot. She was quite shy. She didn’t talk much. But with her beautiful face. we always knew that she’d be an ideal beauty queen.”

Apart from gaining more confidence, Maxine also lost a lot of weight, Eala noticed. She wasn’t what you would call a reed-thin model, but now, she has lost inches in the right places.

When Eala sat down with his staff a few weeks back while doing Medina’s dresses, it dawned on them that they were like working on a gala show. Although they only had 10 or so dresses to finish for her, it felt like they were doing a 40-piece collection. Imagine, they’re just doing it for one person. That was how difficult and complicated the process was.

“Apart from designing and producing the dresses, I had to attend to the preparations, fittings, and approval,” he said. “We’re also doing a few short dresses for her. She will also be wearing the dresses of other designers during other Miss Universe-related activities.”

For obvious reasons, Medina’s primary requirement is for the dresses to emphasize her figure. Shift and empire-cut dresses have no place in her wardrobe this time around. “I don’t want to look fat and shapeless,” she said.

Eala cites Medina’s ability to easily project whatever she slips into because she’s a seasoned model. If he as a designer had to adjust his sense of aesthetics, Eala could only imagine what Medina had gone through to reinvent herself and fit the mold of a beauty queen.

“A model doesn’t have to talk,” he said. “She doesn’t have to answer questions. She doesn’t have to be spontaneous. But look at Maxine now. She’s really turning on the charm.”

As a designer, Eala is no stranger to criticisms. Still, even his biggest solo fashion shows are no match to the global reach Miss Universe provides. No matter what he does, he’s aware that bashers would soon be crawling out of the woodwork to weigh in on and diss his dresses for Medina.

“I think I can handle whatever comes. I’m used to it. I just won’t read what they say,” he said with a chuckle.

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