BARGE RAMOS: Exponent of modern Barong Tagalog

Barge Ramos was an Atenean who wanted to pursue a career in mass communication, for which he had ample academic preparation. An initial foray into media was an engagement at ABS-CBN with its studio located on Roxas Boulevard, a few strides away from the Ramos home in the old, genteel part of Pasay.

Fate, however, took him to a different path. As a college student, he encouraged his female gangmates to have their dresses made in the shop of the then young and mod designer Christian Espiritu. “We would patronize him because we admired his approach to fashion. We would save our allowance to be able to go to him and order our outfits.”

From patron-client relationship, Christian and Barge would become friends, and the designer who was very busy designing the ternos and gowns of then First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos, asked Barge if he was interested in joining his atelier as an apprentice. Barge accepted the offer and never looked back.

A few weeks ago, Barge and I had dinner at Malate’s famed original Spanish restaurant, Casa Armas, where he gamely acquiesced to my unscheduled “interview” as I had realized that the Linggo ng Kasuotang Pilipino was forthcoming. This week then, as we celebrate Philippine costume, I am sharing with you my conversation with the gentleman couturier who dedicated his professional designing life to the preservation and continuous elevation of the Barong Tagalog as our national gentleman’s attire. Our conversation follows:

DAILY TRIBUNE (DT): Coming from your apprenticeship with Christian Espiritu, tell me about how you got started on your own.
BARGE RAMOS (BR): It was actually my friends who prodded me to open my first shop on Leon Guinto St. in Malate, several blocks away from Christian Espiritu’s atelier. Friends supported me as they were my first clients, plus a wedding job all at once. Being young and hopeful, I tried doing a few ready-to-wear lines for SM Makati and Cinderella, while maintaining a made-to-order client base.


DT: What were your early projects involving indigenous Filipino costume?
BR: In 1981, my fellow designers and I formed the Fashion Designers Association of the Philippines (FDAP), and for the two gala shows that year, we focused on Philippine-inspired fashion. I designed Barong-inspired tunics for women, photo silkscreened with t’nalak patterns and real t’nalak hip belts tied with gold like obi belts. Our honorary chairperson Imee Marcos bought a few of my pieces. Chairman of the board Ernest Santiago called me the next day, saying, “Barge, you’ve arrived.”

DT: It’s interesting that you forged a creative path different from the other young designers.
BR: That’s how I chose the path in my career, by finding new and newer ways of re-inventing the Barong Tagalog. As Joey Espino would tell in later years, “That’s your DNA.” I even did some cotton Barong Tunics for women, with matching loose cotton pants, an all-white collection, followed by a pastel-colored collection for SM Makati.

DT: But you did not only focus on your designing. You also led some industry projects. You have done many things that other designers have not tried or even attempted to try.

BR: The ‘80s and the ‘90s were my very active years in fashion. I became the third president of the FDAP and created “Bodyshots Modeling Competition,” originally an all-male competition in two levels, amateur and professional divisions. It was a big hit and it continued for several years with the FDAP at the helm.

In 2008 I wrote a coffee table book, Pinoy Dressing Weaving Culture into Fashion, which was a condensed version of the fashion column I wrote for a Malaya newspaper, Pinoy Dressing, which ran for about three to four years. Anvil, the sister company of National Bookstore, published the book, which won a “Gintong Aklat” Award for the publisher.

DT: How does one recognize a barong Tagalog by Barge Ramos?
BR: I don’t have a signature Barge Ramos barong design, as my aesthetics have evolved through the years. A few years ago, Christian Espiritu told me, “You’re a good designer but you’re a late bloomer.” I really didn’t understand what he meant since Christian was always opinionated on everything. Perhaps he liked my later designs, comparing me to this and that designer.

DT: Does designing run in your family?
BR: There were two other designers among the Ramoses. One was Danilo Franco, whose father was a first cousin of my Dad. The second one was the late Boying Eustaquio, whose mother was my father’s sibling.

DT: What has been your forte? What do you love creating?
BR: We’ve made ternos and Barong tunics for women. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I did a line of ready-to-wear cotton Barong tunics and pants for SM Boutique Square in the ‘80s.

DT: Any celebrity and VIP clients you are proud of?
BR: We did several shirt jacks for the late President Ferdinand Marcos during the ‘80s. Imee Marcos, then an assemblywoman, bought a few of our barong tunics and skirts. We’ve done several barongs for Manny Pangilinan and former President Joseph Estrada, and then, when she was vice president, Gloria Arroyo. But most of our clients are very private persons, many of them businessmen, balikbayans and doctors.

DT: How would you describe the evolution of the Filipiniana attire?
BR: Filipiniana has always been there, but people mostly associated it with the rich and powerful in society. Nowadays, Filipiniana has seeped down to all levels of society and younger people are getting the hang of it and have interpreted it to fit their sub-culture. I’ve also observed that Filipinos living abroad appreciate it more, probably to assert their identity more in the face of other nationalities.

DT: Finally, what can you say about the bolder, more imaginative interpretations of Filipiniana?
BR: Fashion always has its quirks and oddities. Designers tend to push the limits and boundaries of Filipiniana in the attempt of creating contemporary looks and trends. One doesn’t have to “like” them but simply look at them and appreciate the designer’s creativity that went into them. Style is a matter of taste. But good taste can sometimes be difficult to ingrain in young minds.