Designs For Living

If you're past the age of 3, you're making your own fashion decisions and, face it, you care about where fashion-with-a- capital-F comes from. Chris— Harvard grad, Whitney program grad, serious artist— thinks of clothes only in terms of function; often he wears gray twill uniforms, the oval name patch still bearing the moniker of the original owner. Mathieu, androgynous graphic artist, is likely to be tricked out in expensive, austere German utility gear and silver glitter nail enamel. Luke, socially conservative, a theatrical director and professor, dresses off the rack from Eastern Mountain Sports; his gear is functional, but color-coordinated. Rex, a Southern writer/snake wrangler, looks to be the spawn of Iggy Pop: sweaty, skinny, half naked, vinyl trousers so tight you can tell he's circumcised.

All of them would lay claim to intellectual property before material culture, but each one takes fashion seriously, whether he knows it or not.

And those are just my guy friends.

For all of you, the following are a few of the Long Island people who have, or will have, influence on what you wear:

Ramo: The New Look of New Hyde Park

Tucked away in a run-of-the-mill strip of Jericho Turnpike in New Hyde Park, behind a utilitarian storefront façade, Mario Ramo lives and works in a frothy couture fantasy world the mental compass of which points toward Paris.

Lavish silk draperies the color of whipped butter, hand-sewn on his industrial sewing machine, drift to the floor— separating the back workroom from the headless mannequins (recently exorcised from the Ralph Lauren operation) that wear his finished creations in the space up front— creations that can be seen from the street through an unadorned and cracked show window. I ring the buzzer that guard dogs the front door and am greeted effusively by Ramo, 38— a slim, tidy, dark man who is wearing charcoal-colored cotton drawstring trousers of his own design and a sky-blue nylon V-neck T, also made by his own hand. His assistant of seven years, Genevieve Iaboni, a friendly middle-aged, robust blond seamstress, is working on a bridal gown for a steady customer.

"She never told me it was her wedding dress— instead she said that it was a dress she would be wearing to a wedding," Ramo comments acidly.

"Why?" I ask.

"I charge more for wedding dresses than for special-occasion dresses," he explains.

Well, I would have lied, too.

I examine a slubby pistachio silk design on the padded dress form in the middle of the linoleum floor: Simple jewel neckline, three-quarter-length sleeves trimmed in white gold organza flat tape; the dropped waist is bordered in the same tissue-thin gold fabric. It is fitted to the waist, slimly continuing to the hipline, where Ramo now pins and re-pins the wrapped ankle-length shirt. He drapes the back in origami folds of Asian silk, pleating the fabric into a modest train. He is lost in the complexity of the emerging design.

The buzzer rings insistently.

He lets in a dark-haired beautiful slim teenager, who touches the current model appreciatively. It is for her mother. She slips into the curtained dressing room holding a Jackie O pastel blue A-line sheath with matching coat.

Ramo expertly pins the alterations on the girl's body. She thanks him effusively and leaves quietly.

Although Ramo dreams of a career sewing original designs summoned from his artistic soul, the reality of turnpike couture biz is that the finished output is often the scut work of alterations or collaborations with customers, who want celebratory gowns merely copied from glossy fashion mags— at a bargain.

Ramo has even been asked to create a burgundy dress for a favorite pup.

"It had silver lace trim," he says, piecing together the scraps of memory, "a matching basket for the dog to carry down the aisle...for a long-term customer's was $200."

He laughs as he looks amid his files for a wedding snapshot to prove his point.

Ramo grew up in a family of seamstresses, in Guyana, seven miles from Georgetown in a little town called Better Hope. "Only later did I realize the humor in the town's name," he says. "Both my grandmothers sewed for a living. One was quite a social woman— her sister was a ballerina— so she had many fancy dresses. I remember one in particular, all pink and black alternating draped panels on the bust...the skirt was tulle, the fabric fanned out in pink and black, pink and black. I loved the work of Christian Dior— so did my grandmothers. There were always many fabrics, fashion magazines and sketchbooks lying about. I got all of her things when she died."

It sounds like a lovely childhood: Ramo sewing at the feet of the women who so clearly loved him, making frocks for his sisters.

"I could walk down the street and name 75 percent of all the people in the town," he recalls, "go into Georgetown, then hail a taxi from my town and be assured that the parcels I put into the car would be delivered to my house in Better Hope— no worries! Go out dancing at a club or go to a party without any burden."

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