Barge Ramos: The portrait of a Filipino fashion designer as an artist
There are many fascinatingly ultra-modern, forward-thinking, and world-class Filipino fashion designers. Without a doubt, Barge Ramos is one of them. His career as a fashion designer has spanned decades. He is one of the most consistent, most respected, and most well-loved. While most designers wax and wane with the times, Barge Ramos has remained steadfast through the ebb and flow of trends in the fashion design world. His fashion sensibilities naturally flow with the times, and his work evolves through the years, but his work is firmly anchored on the navigator’s eternal North Star.
It can be said that many good designers have lost their ways and have strayed from their self-indentity, endlessly and senselessly cycling through so many experimental stylistic persuasions. This is not the case with Barge Ramos. He has focused, and mastered, and is now much recognized and admired, for the art and craft of designing the single-most defining piece of clothing for the Filipinos, the Baro ng Tagalog.
The work that Barge Ramos has done through the years, designing upon and heaping his massive creative talent on the single staple of Philippines’ formal fashion wear for men, is nothing short of amazing. It is an unequaled accomplishment. Very few Filipino designers can claim to have achieved such an incredible feat.
I have had several opportunities to work with Barge Ramos and photograph the marvelously inventive Barong Tagalog on which he applied his designs through the years. I’ve also had the opportunity of taking his portraits. The picture of Barge Ramos here is one of the shots selected from the pictorial intended as an artist’s portrait for his recently published book, PINOY Dressing, Weaving Culture into Fashion. This amazing book, richly illustrated by Loretto, a legendary fashion sketch artist and an extremely talented fashion designer as well, is designed is by award-winning and critically acclaimed book designer, Ige Ramos.
In this exclusive Q&A interview I conducted with fashion designer, Barge Ramos, he talks about the singular object of his creative prowess, its evolution, his contribution and its future.
DOMINIQUE JAMES: From your perspective, and in your opinion, how is the Barong Tagalog tied to the culture and self-identity of the Filipino people? Why is the Barong Tagalog important, and even essential, to the nature and identity of the Filipino people? What does it symbolize?
BARGE RAMOS: The Barong Tagalog is umbilically tied to the soul and culture of the Filipino. From a lowly peasant worker’s shirt to the fully embroidered dress shirt in handwoven pineapple fabric, the Baro ng Tagalog has come a long way. It also was a symbol of oppression, under the Spanish years of colonization, when the Filipino ilustrados had to wear their inner shirt untucked, under the Western-style waistcoat. Ramon Magsaysay was the first Filipino President who wore the Barong Tagalog for his inauguration as President. In later years President Ferdinand Marcos made a decree, stating that the Barong Tagalog is the official national menswear for Filipinos.
Dominique James: With the changing and shifting fashion sense of the Filipinos, do you think the Barong Tagalog is still relevant today or is it turning to be just an “artifact” from a bygone era?
Barge Ramos: The intriguing aspect of the Barong Tagalog is that it is ever evolving. Of course there have been inappropriate innovations on it. Even the European designer Pierre Cardin changed its look and silhouette in the Sixties, when he put up shop in Manila (Philippines). Cardin constructed the Barong like a coat, tapered to the body and slightly flaring at the hem, with sleeves also cut and sewn like coat sleeves. He also did away with the traditional front pechera embroidery, making the barong, instead, sleek and structured. It was fresh and modern. However, it looked good only on men with slim, tall bodies, a rare minority among Filipino males.
Dominique James: As one of the figures of design authority today on the Barong Tagalog, how do you view your interpretation and designs compared to those created by the designers from past? How much of the Barong Tagalog that you design today is your idealized creation or version (a Barge Ramos stamp) compared to how we generally know it in terms of its pre-existing characteristic and recognizable elements such as basic structure, basic pattern, basic design, and basic construction? What would you consider as some of the innovations in design and construction that you would consider as your contribution to the styling of the Barong Tagalog?
Barge Ramos: What I do in my designs is to treat the Barong Tagalog like a canvass. I am inspired to translate the riotous colours of the Philippine jeepney, by way of batik handpainting on jusi fabric. Jusi is a by-product of silk. Or I photo-silkscreen on dyed jusi materials, a certain ethnic print pattern like the t’nalak of the Tibolis. I have even dipped real leaves on textile paint and printed on jusi, to come up with my leaf design.
Dominique James: What would you consider as the best or finest fabrics and materials for designing and tailoring a Barong Tagalog? What are your favorite materials and fabrics to work with?
Barge Ramos: Currently I am using a lot of pineapple pinya handwoven as well as the inabel cotton weaves from Ilocos. The pineapple fabric is delicate and diaphanous, perfect for more formal or dressy barongs, while the inabel lends itself to a more casual, streetwear type of barong.
Dominique James: What would you consider the hallmarks of a well-designed and well-made Barong Tagalog? What are the tell-tale signs that a Barong Tagalog is not well-made or well-designed?
Barge Ramos: A well-made Barong Tagalog should have a well-cut collar that fits comfortably around the neck. It should neither be too loose, not too tapered around the body. And of course it should exude an feeling of elegance.
Dominique James: From a design perspective, what have been the challenges you’ve encountered when updating the design of the Barong Tagalog that makes it still relevant for the modern times?
Barge Ramos: I’d like to think that the barongs I design are an alternative to the conventional, traditional and quite possibly boring ones that most Filipino men are seen in. In our Filipino culture, most Filipino men would want to look like the next one, not wanting to be different or to stand out of line. But times change, as well as lifestyles. Media, technology, even current events in the world are now changing how we think, how we live. There is still, of course a delicate balance between innovation and disaster. This is where the designer’s sense of style comes in.
Dominique James: The Barong Tagalog can be considered as a unisex outfit and can be worn by both the men and women. Is there a distinct difference between the two? If women can wear an appropriately designed Barong Tagalog, how does it differ from the traditional women’s baro at saya? What are the occassions when it is more appropriate for women to wear the Barong Tagalog over the baro at saya, or vice versa?
Barge Ramos: A lot of designers have made barongs for women. Since barong fabrics are light and translucent, with delicate hand-embroidery, barongs lend themselves easily to become shirt tunics for women. It’s simply a matter of silhouette, shape and construction, and of course the details. But when the invitation to an event says Filipiniana, the more appropriate dress code for women is the terno or the baro’t saya. But then again, I wouldn’t put it past some smart women to come in sleek silk pants and a colored barong tunic!
Dominique James: Is there a place for the Barong Tagalog and/or its derivative in the casual, dress-down fashion sense of Filipinos today? Can the formal Barong Tagalog be correctly, appropriately, and even successfully be adapted as casual, day-to-day clothing?
Barge Ramos: The Barong Tagalog has, in fact, seeped down to everyday wear for Filipinos, in the form of linen shirts, with either short or long sleeves. There was a time when hanky-cotton fabric was used for daytime barongs, and this was literally and figuratively a cool way to wear a barong in a tropical country.
Dominique James: Can a Barong Tagalog be designed and created by using other fabrics or materials and still be essentially considered a Barong Tagalog?
Barge Ramos: Fashion today is dictated to a huge extent by technology. Newer and newer fabrics, designed to meet the needs of contemporary lifestyles, are being created. We see this happening in fashion shows and pictorials in glossy magazines all over. It would be very interesting to see what new fabrics could be utilized for the Barong Tagalog.
Dominique James: In terms of how it is made and how it is being worn as a formal wear, do you think that the Barong Tagalog is still being treated with as much respect and reverence today as it used to be? Why or why not?
Barge Ramos: Why not, if a stretch cotton fabric, matched with stretch embroidery, can be made into a modern barong for the modern Filipino? Ideas are as limitless as one’s imagination.
Dominique James: In general, how has the Barong Tagalog, as a national dress, evolved? And how do you see it evolving in the hands of the young designers whose work will be patronized and worn by the future generation?
Barge Ramos: My book PINOY DRESSING, Weaving Culture into Fashion delves into traditional ways of dressing in the different regions of the Philippines, and how these can be translated into contemporary wear for the new generation of Filipinos. It would greatly make me happy to see how the younger breed of designers take up the challenge and re-create the Barong Tagalog. As if they were designing it for the very first time.