Do these international designs look like the barong tagalog?

Published August 13, 2020, 3:11 PM

by John Legaspi

Fashion designer Barge Ramos weighs in on cross-cultural design and the adaptable aesthetic of the barong.

Unlike the terno, there is no need to revive the barong because it has never left the Filipino closet. Through the years, it has been the go-to for weddings, social events, and even senate hearings, thanks to designers and barong wearers who champion it.

According to Gino Gonzales, author of Fashionable Filipinas, the barong is designed with lightweight and breathable piña textile to make it easy to do work while wearing it compared to the terno‘s stiff fabrication.

An iconic symbol of Philippine culture, the barong gained international fame in the past years because of various occasions in which they were used—from world leaders wearing it at the  ASEAN Leaders Summit both in 1996 and in 2016 to Francis Libiran’s design for Team Philippines at the 30th SEA Games.

While local designers are taking the barong to global runways, some of fashion’s biggest names are also producing garments that imbibe the spirit of the Philippines’ traditional shirt while exploring possibilities.

In the presentation of recent collections, international houses such as Dolce and Gabbana, Issey Miyake, and Alexander McQueen released designs that seemed to resemble the barong. With similarities such as the callado-like embroidery and the square bib, it is hard not to think that these looks aren’t inspired by the barong

Dolce & Gabbana Alta Sartoria A/W 2020 (Image from Vogue)

We are not Diet Prada, and we are not calling the designers out for a case of inappropriate cultural appropriation while citing their works and sources of inspiration. Fashion has had a long list of cases of design similarities with material from other cultures. Some cases were slapped with lawsuits between a nation and a designer brand, and even designers accusing fellow designers of ripping off their work.

One fashion designer who actively posts barong clones on social media is Barge Ramos. To shed light on the matter, Manila Bulletin Lifestyle asks the barong creator to weigh in on the issue of cross-cultural design, and how to do it properly in today’s call-out culture.

How long have you been designing barongs?

In 1981, I did a barong-inspired collection for the gala show of the Fashion Designers Association of the Philippines (FDAP). It was received quite well by the media and clients. Since then, I’ve focused on the barong tagalog inspiration for both men and women.

Barge Ramos in 1980s with this Muslim Summer collection for FDAP

What made you decide to post international designs that look like barong? Are you calling them out?

I was just amused by the idea that international fashion houses like Valentino, Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Carolina Herrera, Dolce and Gabbana, plus others, have designed clothes that resemble our barong tagalog and Philippine terno. They may have found inspiration in our national garments, or maybe cultural similarities just exist. There’s the Mexican guayabera, which I call a distant relative of our barong tagalog because of the Manila Galleon Trade.

Mexican guayabera

It is not new in fashion to have one designer’s work look like the work of others. How should a designer address this?

In our world today and with social media being a part of our everyday lives, it is impossible not to be influenced by things in fashion. There are cross-cultural influences in many collections, as designers all over the world are looking at current events, cultural traditions, and indigenous communities for inspiration. I have always believed that what is truly Filipino is also universal.

Do you think the cross-cultural trend affected the way local designers create their collection?

No designer today can claim that he or she is not influenced by cross-cultural trends. Traveling and researching about different countries help broaden a designer’s creative mind. In that 1981 collection I mentioned, I mixed black and gold Indian saree fabric with jusi, and the indigenous T’nalak textile as wide hip belts for accent. Fashion for me has always been an interesting mix of materials. Last year, for my “Perfume and Incense” collection for New York, I mixed lumban embroidery with bold, graphic handpainted brush strokes.

Where do you think we should draw the line between copying and inspiration?

Carolina Herrera got into trouble with her Mexican collection recently, and the Mexican government called her out. Fabrics have meanings for indigenous communities. We have to be sensitive about this. There are textiles used for sacred ceremonies, for weddings, for burials, for royalties only. There are handwoven fabrics which are not to be cut. Perhaps the House of Dior did the right approach with their African-inspired cruise collection for 2021, where the culture of Puglia became the inspiration. When they involve indigenous artisans in their design process, it is also a way of acknowledging the source of the design inspiration, and a way of giving back to their community.

Check out more of Barge’s barong comparison posts on his Facebook page.