Building an Empire: Behind a Diadem.

Rome. Photography by Florencia Celasco

On May 15, 2011 Dia Ates sat down at a wooden table along Vicolo del Governo Vecchio to indulge in some Guinness with an old friend in town. The conversation began with her latest design for a wedding dress. Before she could detail the textiles and tailoring Ms. Ates had already plunged bright-eyed into the next subject, a then nameless nonprofit organization. Less than 15 minutes into the layers of her vision for this nonprofit, the conversation was interrupted by one of her passing lovers and suddenly the story in telling was now that of her also layered love life. Several Stouts later and a round of potatoes digested, it was clear that this woman lived in an unparalleled world – rich with her design profession, blanketed with history, soaked in romance and altogether thriving at the intersection of her latest endeavour: Paru Paru (Butterfly in Tagalog).

At the time, Paru Paru seemed nothing more than a dreamer’s vision for establishing one’s own empire at the crossroads of design and humanitarianism, enhanced by the surrounding Roman stones and succulent libations. However, Paru Paru would reach far beyond an announcement of determination to capture the essence of growth, change and productivity through the unwavering capabilities of Ates. The four-prong slash girl (interior designer/furniture-lighting specialist/fashionista/philanthropist) with a business degree and an intimidating repertoire of design work propelled Paru Paru forward this year with a rare collection of couture evening wear in tandem with her developing nonprofit, namely, Kalibotan. The work of Paru Paru unfolds every piece of Dia Ates in an all encompassing benefit design show on the steps of Rome this month.

“…The psychological disturbance of realizing that my 1.5 million dollar living rooms could support several small countries,”

Photography by Florencia Celasco

were the echoing words from the conversation that day with Guinness on Governo as Dia set out to gather the wardrobe of a present day martyr from the pockets of her travels. The sweat and seduction in every stitch and soiree along the way is embedded in her unrivalled assembly of talents as she brings her design world together with the Thema Development Project (TDP) and San Francisco’s prominent Engineers without Borders San Francisco Professionals (EWB-SFP) for her first Paru Paru show. As the palm-sized native  prepares to tag a piece of history in Italy, where she has been residing the past three years, her followers and devoted community await the big night.

“It is a symbolic theme for my research travel around the globe on my goals to raise funds for NGOs and bring back work to our country. Everything about the show is symbolic of something within metamorphosis from the stage to the dresses, even the models selected and the venue itself, as well as those I’ve requested to aid in building the show.”

Somewhere between natural fibres from Asia (Philippines mainly: Bergamo fabrics, Nepalese stone, crystal beads, and a handful of surprises) and her twenty-year vision of saving the world, Ms Ates transforms her career in interior design into high brow fashion with the end goal to improve the health and productivity throughout rural communities of developing countries. The international-bound event will start in Rome and make its way throughout Europe and USA before its finale in Asia, marking its one-year goal in Ates’ hometown, Siquijor, Siquijor, Philippines; By which point, the designer aims to have met her goal of 13M Euro through investor funding and design contracts ranging from a 75 euro couture clothing piece to a 10,000 euro interior design project, where proceeds foster her self operating nonprofit, Kalibotan (Bisaya for “the world” or “our livelihood) in collaboration with both TDP and EWB-SFP.

Involving some of the international community’s most elite individuals (mum’s the word), Ms Ates has handpicked her team to aid in the delivery of what she regards as one of the most important charity events to hit the street. With a unique circle of friends, colleagues and mentors, (Daniel Abou-Jaoude, Paolo Iasevoli, Luca Benegiamo, Federica Cipriani, Julie Foy, Alessandro Pilarski, Marushka Andrews, Gustavo de Felice, Efren Dordas, Agapito Dordas, Grazia Gatto, Steve Andre, Florencia Celasco, Henry Estrada, Dulcie Mendoza, Maria Carmen Jamito, Stefano Piccirillo, Manuel Ramacci and Thomas Crowley) Dia also brings together members of the UN, financial investors, business owners, and local activists in effort to further relay her message of building communities and strengthening local forces for positive growth.

Photography by Marushka Andrews

Animated and passionate, Ates  speaks with  great  command, while gracefully cementing listeners to their seats. Anyone who knows Dia will confirm how easily one becomes unaware of their  whereabouts as she engages. With youthful composure and still an intellectual radiance, Dia exudes the power of a world leader and the innocence of a little sister within the same breath.

I left  Ms. Ates with a caffe, just a stretch from her 16th-Century apartment door the day after our Guinness rounds,  She was to meet the president of a local NGO for talks on her new visions. Curled  up,  hair  swept,  jeans  mauled,  and in her motorcycle  tee and her usual sassy heels, Ates tilted her head, eyes wide and said, “I’ll keep you updated on my progress, Ciao, Grazie!”

AG: How has being Filipina impacted your vision, and how has living in Rome influenced its development? Do you feel you would have arrived at this place in your career had you been living elsewhere and where do you plan to house your work and build your organization as a home base after Sept. 2013? 

DA: Having grown up around poverty definitely played a role in defining my visions and career choices. Also, in the Philippines, we are taught how to create objects from nothing at all or what other’s would think are worthless for survival purposes starting at a young age. For example, as early as Kindergarten, we learn about cooking, gardening, agriculture, weaving, sewing, etc. on top of our academic courses. We made things to be able to appreciate what others make and learn how to become innovative. Then we work.

I found the complete opposite when my family moved to the US. Computer and technology drove lives. There were others of course that grew up somewhat like myself, but not to the same extent and they were scarce. It seemed the kids were not trusted to create or be left alone. Everything was guarded by some electronic machine and most were too cautious for no reason at all…It seemed the parents feared for their kids without first allowing them the chance to develop their survival skills which I found actually a bit sad…Because children’s ability to survive in a new environment is actually most often than not better than most adults. But in the US I also learned many significant aspects that advanced my career and enhanced my skills, such as computer programs and the mind-set that anything is possible long as you go after what you want with confidence. As for Italy it really is the median of both my worlds. In terms, of geographical location, cultural values, and even in worldly views. Here I feel I can go back and forth with ease or do a mix because I truly can relate to all sides of the Italian mentality and lifestyle. I can understand the importance of beauty, family, advancement, etc. here is the first time, I feel I am balance with myself…However, here is also where I can sense the extremes of my core — though I think that’s because I am being pulled psychologically in all direction … and hey, sometimes a girl just got to go wild.

AG: Ironically you are building your own 4-prong world that encompasses all of your talents and interests but in fact for the end result to build the worlds of those in need. So when you reflect on your work as a multi-prong designer, where is there a correlation between the work you create and the nonprofit sector you seek to engage? For example, functionality-wise, culturally, or conceptually, material-wise, does your work incorporate elements of a particular region or project within the NP world? (does that make sense?)

DA: I have always done philanthropy work since childhood. I am never satisfied or content unless I share what I have. When cooking, I am never really full unless I share the food. When designing multi- million dollar homes in the US, I was happy because I was free to create without the limits of a budget and it fulfilled my extravagant selfish desires, but I was never content. Something inside me questioned my moral values, so I continued strictly philanthropy work, but with the same issue, except the reverse. I was then neglecting myself.

I don’t want to just live, I want to be alive…

and I feel completely alive only when I am doing what I love which is designing/creating, and sharing all of it, and helping others at the same time. Material is very important to me, and there is an abundance of natural raw products so gorgeous on their own. I miss the artisan crafts in which we keep loosing touch with today. I sense humanity is slowly being buried alive and I feel choked. I want to crawl out from this hole we buried ourselves in and remind the world about the valuable creations of our bare hands and the importance of the human interaction through shared ideas and resource.

Regarding incorporation, I plan to have my custom designs done in Italy, the NGO in the US along with my interior/architecture firm. The mass production will take place in the Philippines; Here I am providing work and sharing ideas around the globe. These are the three regions of my being. This way,I am neither just, Pinay, American nor Spaniard nor an Italian delegate. I want to empower the parts that make each of these cultures unique. I also find that these countries are more previliged in differing ways, and utilizing their best assets, I could reach out and help more people around the globe who are in absolute need.

AG: As a multi-faceted designer (lighting, furniture, fashion, architecture) do you find that you are creatively and strategically building along an established thread throughout each of your industries? In other words, is there a continuity or a particular set of design principles that which all of your work reflects? 

DA: Yes. Whether it be clothes, architecture, lighting, furniture or even just a doodle, when I design, I always think of the world and the differing layers we each have. A good friend of mine once said to me “Dia you are a genius, and with such intelligence you must choose who and what you are creating for…Would you be selfish and create things solely for your own pleasure, or would you do it for a community or would you do something for humanity? Knowing you, I would suggest to be unselfish and do something that is for the good of humanity and leave a legacy.” I don’t believe that I am a genius. All I know is that I love beautiful things and I want to surround myself with these things and make certain that everything being produced with my bare hands is beautiful and able to make others smile.

AG: What are some of your most prominent creative influences behind your fashion designs and what is the goal with the high volume shapes and arcs in your line of dresses? 

DA: I am very fond of nature and since childhood, I have played outside and still pay close attention to the details of the flora and fauna. With my trained eye, I am able to quickly spot the most camouflage insect in a lush forest. I used to also be obsessed with biology. I had my very own microscope from when I was young, through my first year in college. My mom got rid of my microscope when I went to art school (sad face). When I found something that interested me, I would dissect the specimen and study its anatomy with much fascination. This became a habit that I have carried with me in architecture. I wanted to not only know how to draw plans or design buildings, I wanted to also find out about the core of construction and wiring systems of the electrical tubing, thus, I learned construction and began to build things. My brothers were a great influence and mentor in my electrical engineering education.


More on Dia Ates @

PARU PARU Tickets:

September 13, 2012

Chiostro del Bramante

photo credits: (p.1-3) Rome, Florencia Celasco (p.4) Chile, Sastharam Ravendran & Italy, Marushka Andrews

Photo by Florencia Celasco

Photo by Florencia Celasco


About Angela Gleason

visual designer | writer | pianist in the basement | painter in the night | fashion critic | lush | Italian savant check me out: