Distinctively by Barge Ramos

Barge Ramos is the featured designer at this year's Philippine International Aid's (PIA) fashion show fundraiser "Holiday Haute Couture XII" (Photo by iClickforacause.org)

If Barge Ramos did not become the famous fashion designer he is today, he might have become an equally popular journalist in his home city of Manila. Scratch that: He is, in fact, both designer and writer, and acclaimed in both disciplines.

Ramos, 62, has been president of the Filipino Designers Association of the Philippines, formed to promote cooperation among its members and the advancement of the Philippine fashion industry. The communication arts graduate from Ateneo de Manila also wrote a column for Malaya called "Pinoy Dressing." His editor compiled the columns into a coffee table book Pinoy Dressing, Weaving Culture into Fashion, which received a Gintong Aklat Award.

Ramos' "Pinoy Dressing, Weaving Culture into Fashion" (Photo courtesy of Barge Ramos)

Ramos writes as he speaks and speaks as he designs. He is soft-spoken and reserved; his clothes are devoid of excess.

Some 700 fashionistas and altruists got up close to Ramos' aesthetic at Philippine International Aid's 27th benefit for the nonprofit's education program.

There is nothing costume-y about Ramos’ designs. Each may be worn with confidence by day or evening. Each, however, is special.

"Holiday Haute Couture XII" November 17 at Hyatt Embarcadero showcased Filipiniana ala Ramos—clothes inspired by indigenous groups—distinctly Philippine, distinctively executed to elevated standards.

Ramos lovingly curated the collection for his San Francisco debut. 

"I would like to be known as a Filipino designer who creates fashion with that Filipino touch," he explained to Positively Filipino. "My inspirations come from our rich arts and culture in the different regions of the Philippines. With a modern twist in styling."

Fashion borrowed from folk art teeters on theater, but not in the deft hands and keen eye of a master. 

There is nothing costume-y about Ramos' designs. Each may be worn with confidence by day or evening. Each, however, is special.

Ramos' clothes involve native fabrics with ethnic and modern stylings (Photo by iClickforacause.org)

He unveiled his "signature swing coats in hand-woven fabrics, ladies' barong tunics paired with shorts, hand-embroidered piña gowns, batik-hand-painted men's and ladies' barong, children's tops in Cordillera fabrics, inabel and abaca barong and gowns."

"I always strive for a contemporary twist in my Filipiniana designs, such as matching beaded shorts with barong tunics for women. Or body-conscious, cotton-linen barong shirts for men," he said.

He pointed to his inclination to "mix traditional with non-traditional fabrics and prints to be able to come up with fresh, unexpected looks."

The collection reflected pride in his heritage as well as refinement from experience. 

Ramos entered Manila's insulated fashion community in the 1970s through the gates of Christian Espiritu's salon. 

"I was writing scripts for (filmwriter-directors) Nestor Torre, Gerry Guillen and Gil Portes after college," Ramos told Positively Filipino, "when I became an apprentice for Christian."

Ramos' designs modeled by PIA's volunteers at its "Holiday Haute Couture XII" fashion show fundraiser (Photo by iClickforacause.org)

The senior designer revered for understated elegance soon offered his disciple a job.

Ramos said one lesson he learned from his mentor, is that "men should look like men, and women must look like women."

Gender-equality activists will find androgyny absent in Ramos' palette. It's neither his fashion nor his style.

Ramos defines fashion as "self-expression, a way of presenting one's self to the world. It's an extension of personality and character." He paraphrases the late greats Yves St. Laurent, who said "Fashions fade, style is eternal," and Coco Chanel who said, "Fashion fades, only style remains the same."

Barge Ramos (seated, right) with designer Christian Espiritu (seated, center) (Photo courtesy of Barge Ramos)

Ramos blossomed at a time when Manila flowered with "real style icons" among whom he counts "Chona Kasten, Elvira Manahan, Salvacion Higgins, Mary Prieto, Tingting Cojuangco, Baby Fores Araneta and Imelda Marcos." Those days are gone and so are most of the named on his list, he said with regret.

"Today I see a lot of gaudiness in what is passed off as style," Ramos critiqued Manila in the twenty-teens. 

Those who keep his sketchpad busy are "basically low-profile professionals who need contemporary made-to-measure Filipiniana clothes for special occasions," he said when asked to name his clients.

He sounds perfectly content not getting celebrity endorsements, actual or subliminal. 

"I have reached a stage in my life where I don't have to compete with myself," Ramos said. "I learn a lot from my workers, my beaders, seamstresses, fabric weavers, embroiderers, artisans who hand-paint, so that I find joy in composing and creating diverse elements into one piece of garment. I consider each new day a blessing to learn new things, as if I have just started to design."

Ramos' designs also include clothes for children (Photo by iClickforacause.org)

At this stage in his career, Ramos has become a champion for his profession.

"I am currently proposing a product development program to come up with newer blends of abaca, for modern application not only for garments, but also for fashion accessories," he said. "Since 1981 when we formed FDAP, designers have been knocking on the doors of government agencies to help support the fashion industry.  I feel that there is real lack of long-range, intensive programs to help advance the industry. Technology plays a huge part in today's fashion."

The self-effacing Ramos' creativity stands out.

"I had heard about his innovative take on the barong tagalog, and when I saw his designs, I thought that Bay Area Filipinos just had to see it and appreciate his talent," filmmaker and PIA founder Mona Lisa Yuchengco hailed the 12th designer with whom she has partnered for her passion project.

Ramos' famous barong designs modeled at PIA's "Holiday Haute Couture XII" (Photo by iClickforacause.org)

California-based PIA supports 2,000 scholars in Cavite, Cebu, Batanes, Bohol, Davao, Iligan, Zamboanga and Metro Manila. Its beneficiaries are children facing challenges. PIA also established a college scholarship fund with Wells Fargo for Filipino American youth.

"Naturally I was flattered when I received Lisa's invitation to do the show," Ramos shared his reaction to the offer from someone he had met the first time. Turns out they have much in common, both always looking to give back from their success.  

Ramos' excitement over the PIA show was tempered by the destruction wrought by super typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda when it ripped through Central Visayas on November 8. What is now recorded as the most powerful cyclone to hit the Philippines may have killed 10,000 and rendered millions homeless. It spared Manila, allowing Ramos to take his flight to San Francisco, with a lump in his heart and a mission for his return.

PIA volunteers at curtain call showing off the various designs of Barge Ramos at the "Holiday Haute Couture XII" fashion show fundraiser (Photo by iClickforacause.org)

"One of the most painful stories I read that made me shed tears was about an evacuation center where the children, the sick and the elderly were placed, which became submerged in water because of a sudden storm surge, and all of them died," Ramos recalled. "I felt a real compassion and I continue to pray for them.

"This trip to San Francisco has kept me very busy these recent months, but I plan to sort out all my clothes, half of which I plan to donate to the typhoon victims in Tacloban, as soon as I get back to Manila."

Cherie M. Querol Moreno

Cherie M. Querol Moreno

Cherie M. Querol Moreno is executive director of the nonprofit ALLICE, San Mateo County Commissioner on Aging, and executive editor of Philippine News. She began her journalism career as fashion editor of Mr. & Ms. Magazine in Manila.