- - - -
A designer and maker of santo garments who has been silently making a name for himself in the last few years with his unique and practical creations is our subject for this feature on ecclesiastical artists. MR. RAMON GUTIERREZ has put his marketing background to good use by positioning himself as a maker of fine-quality, yet affordably-priced santo clothes, thus finding a special niche in the specialized, yet competitive, religious vestment industry. Quiet and soft-spoken, Ramon, through an afternoon phone chat, shared with us his beginnings and the attendant challenges of running a santo garments shop.
Q: TELL US, RAMON, HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN INTERESTED IN FASHION DESIGN? WHAT WAS YOUR ACADEMIC BACKGROUND?
RAMON: I took up Marketing in college, but even back then, I had always loved drawing and designing. So, back in 1989, my business partner and I decided to open a shop, a mainstream fashion business, where we supplied made-to-order clothes.
Q: SO, WHAT GOT YOU INTERESTED IN DESIGNING AND EXECUTING GARMENTS FOR SANTOS?
RAMON: I had an image that participated in the Grand Marian Procession in Intramuros — Mater Amabilis. It’s a vintage piece that I found almost forgotten in an antique shop. I even remember how much I paid for it — it was about PhP400. I had it dressed in traditional embroidered clothes, the prevailing style then.
My friends who were fellow santo aficionados then asked me if I could create “daily use” clothes for their santos. As a personal favor, I made them these simple everyday clothes and that’s how I got started in santo dressing.
The major turning point however, was meeting Mr. Francisco Vecin, who took note of my work and who further encouraged me to explore the possibility of dressing santos on a more regular basis. Pretty soon, I was contracted by Mang Kiko to provide designs and to execute the garments for his carved santos. You can say that my love for fashion and for religious art has spawned a business that combines both interests, which I continue to do to this day.
Q: BUT CREATING CLOTHES FOR REAL PEOPLE IS DIFFERENT FROM DESIGNING FOR SANTOS, ISN’T IT? SO HOW DID YOU PREPARE YOURSELF FOR THIS SEEMINGLY SIMILAR, YET DIFFERENT SKILL?
RAMON: Oh, most definitely! Designing for living, breathing, moving people is different from designing for static images. An image has a fixed posture, so you must study the lines of the body so that you will know where to place the trims or the focal point of the vestments, for instance.
There are so many considerations in dressing up santos. There are certain limitations in cutting. Kitang-kita ang fit. You have to give special focus to details. A bastidor body is always difficult to execute, because there is always the probability na laging masikip ang skirt when it is not correctly measured or done. That’s why I always make a padron na tela (cloth pattern) to avoid errors.
You learn a lot of things along the way. You also learn to be inventive. Dressing a single standing santo looks easy, what with its simple A-line and a half-moon cape that you simply drape. But in my designs, I also introduced variations like a rectangular cape, a rectangular cape with half moon, etc.
You study certain draping techniques so that you will know the placement of embroidery to make the dress more pleasing to the eye. Even thread sizes have to be taken into consideration because they have a particular effect on the overall look of your creation.
Q: YOU ARE NOTED FOR YOUR SIMPLE, NO-NONSENSE FASHION STYLE WHEN IT COMES TO SANTOS, IN SHARP CONTRAST TO THE TRADITIONALLY MORE-FAVORED, HEAVILY-EMBROIDERED VESTMENTS.
RAMON: It was a conscious decision, because I wanted to offer a more affordable alternative to embroidered garments, whose prices, as we all know, are way beyond the reach of ordinary santo owners. I believe that there is a market for the type of product that I offer, with that kind of style, practically priced for everyone.
When Mang Kiko asked me to give santo dressing a try, I had to study how a traditional garment is constructed. As you know, it usually comes in separate, “putol-putol” parts. Assembling these can be laborious and time-consuming. Now, I have come up with clothes that can be easily put on and styled with just a few nips, tucks and drapes — that even a santo owner can do by himself. Fool-proof. That can only be possible with the kinds of designs that I create.
Q: ANY PARTICULAR DRESSING CHALLENGE THAT YOU REMEMBER?
RAMON: The Last Supper done by Mr. Vecin for a Cavite client was one particular dressing challenge, because it required studying the layout and blocking of the different figures, therefore each had to be draped separately and differently! And if you see the presentation, the figures are seated facing each other, thus exposing their backs, so now I also have to pay attention to the back draping as well. It took a whole day to dress them up!
It’s the same principle I observed for the Transfiguration tableau in Paete. The figures are different but yet they must remain cohesive as they are part of a group. A linear motif unique to each vestment was what held the look together.
Q: WHAT FABRICS DO YOU FAVOR? WHERE DO YOU DRAW YOUR DESIGN INSPIRATIONS FROM?
RAMON: I go for upholstery fabrics. My favorite is brocade because it’s got body, and it has a stiffness that grows softer over time. I source these fabrics locally, in Divisoria, mostly imported from China. The cords and trims I also get from there, made mostly in China, Korea and Japan. It is quicker to sew trims on vestments rather than cordings, which have to be handsewn.
For my designs, I find inspiration in the architectural details of churches. I then sketch the initial designs until I get them right. I also follow a “one person, one design“ policy, so that no two santo owners will have the same garment design.
Q: PLEASE SHARE SOME TIPS ON HOW TO CARE FOR SANTO VESTMENTS.
RAMON: My creations are highly washable and more hardy than traditional vestments, which can be cleaned by dry-cleaning only. My garments can just be soaked in warm water, then quickly washed in soap. Tapos, pwedeng plantsahin with the fabric turned inside out.
Q: WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES IN THE SANTO GARMENT BUSINESS? ANY PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
RAMON: The challenge is in making the business viable by ensuring job orders year-round. As it is now, may seasonality ang pag-gawa ng santo clothes. Usually, orders come in December or January. Which is in synch naman with my mainstream made-to-order fashion business, which starts to peak from October, all the way to the holiday season. So I am assured of constant business over this time period. It would be better though if santo owners can place their orders earlier so that the load is evenly spread out the whole year through.
Recently, a friend of mine put up a business that specializes in ecclesiastical vestments. He’s been wanting me to join him. Of course, this is a new discipline altogether. It will be a whole new ballgame for me, so once again, I need to study the challenges of this more exacting art, as one is required to strictly adhere to certain liturgical guidelines.
Finally, I also want people to have a heightened awareness about the work that I do, as part of their education process — that I offer an alternative that’s easier and more affordable for every one.