Cover US-based Filipino costume and set designer Clint Ramos bags the 2016 Tony Award for Best Costume Design in a Play (Image courtesy of : Clint Ramos)

Tony-award winning costume and set designer, Clint Ramos, shares how his love for theatre inspired a career in the arts

It is 9:30pm in New York when Clint Ramos enters into our Zoom meeting. “Sorry, it’s dinnertime around here,” he apologises smiling. I nod. For a man whose career is immersed in the colourful world of theatre, Ramos appears on-screen in a simple black shirt and glasses. His calm demeanour betrays a shyness that is awkward yet endearing. Though he is soft-spoken, it is easy to hear the comforting traces of that distinct Filipino intonation whenever he speaks.

Cebuano designer, Clint Ramos, loves a good story; and his line of work—costume and set design—has allowed him to create fantastic new worlds within the confines of reality.

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“I always think of storytelling as being a ‘container’ and having a ‘contained’,” he begins. “So, we’re all human beings and what contains us is sometimes not a physical walled house. It could be society, it could be marriage, it could be institutions. So design is never fully just about fashion, it’s never fully about architecture. It’s always about you.”

This philosophy has brought Ramos to the prestigious podiums of multiple awards ceremonies, most notably the 2016 Tony Awards, where he won Best Costume Design in a Play for his work in Eclipsed. In his acceptance speech, Ramos said: “The theatre has been my saviour in the darkest, darkest times of my life.”

“I’ve always been yearning for a sense of family,” Ramos now admits, sharing that estrangement served to be a defining impression in his youth. “Even when I was in the Philippines, growing up gay, like a misfit and sort of socially awkward, I didn’t really find a community. It’s always been theatre that felt like a home to me.”

This passion was not mere fleeting fancy; in fact, his love had stemmed from his youth’s experiences geared towards theatre and design. “I went to Philippine Science High School and whenever we put up a show, I was very involved in how to do the sets and conjure up that world. It was cemented when I entered UP [University of the Philippines] because I knew I had a very keen interest in design.” After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Ramos went on to pursue a Master of Fine Arts at New York University through the Gary Kalkin Memorial Scholarship.

 

As he emigrated to the United States in the mid-Nineties, the designer had had to come to terms with a sense of “otherness”. In a land of Western ideals, he arrived an emigrant with brown skin and a foreign accent. “All of a sudden, I was brown,” he shares. “It never occurred to me that I would have to take into consideration the colour of my skin, the way I speak, my accent, all of it. But the theatre helped me navigate through those dark times, particularly when I was immersed in self-doubt.”

Candidly, Ramos also shares the story of his emigration journey. “There would be really rocky times when I would be out of status in the US,” he reveals. In those times of limbo, Ramos could have easily been deported, especially without an extension of his work visa. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’ but a lot of people in theatre really helped me through that [even though] there’s a tendency for us Filipinos to keep that a secret, almost like it’s shameful to talk about.”

Through those years of struggle and hard work, Ramos now seems to have more than found his voice in New York. He’s built himself an impressive resumé in costume and set and has worked with the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Lupita Nyong’o and most recently, Jennifer Hudson in the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect. “Jennifer was deeply committed to this role,” he shares. “We built [most of items for her] because Jennifer is a different size. I wanted to control all of that [and she understood why].”

Having been a close collaborator of the film’s director, Liesl Tommy, in the last two decades, Ramos had already known about the biopic way before the idea went public. But it was only in 2019 that he was formally onboarded to breathe life into the script.

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“The creative problem [in Respect] was how to present Franklin as a complete woman, who had gone through the full spectrum of life,” Ramos ex- plains. “I did not want to idolise her, glamourise her, demonise her or anything like that, but in- stead wanted to show who she was including her ugly side and the trauma she went through.”

Ramos’ portrayal of Franklin on-screen needed to pay homage to her journey, not as a “diva” (his word) but as a woman who found herself voiceless and oppressed. “Aretha was a victim of every kind of oppression,” he remarks. “For me, the challenge was, how do I communicate that? It was really about how to complete this world around this woman and make sense of her.” In many ways, it was also about the turbulence of the African-American experience at the time.

It’s important then that Ramos’ research and decision-making is as specific as possible, especially when handling themes of such sensitive nature. “You become more and more specific in your research and try to find those people [you are trying to portray],” he explains. “Especially if the story is based on real pain and real people, the only way to honour them is to get it right.” He’s not one to shy away from taking the red-eye either, flying to locations in order to immerse himself in foreign realities. 

Yet, his own adventitious status seems to have served him well. “I love being Filipino,” Ramos says simply. “It informs every choice that I do, whether or not it’s a Filipino show. My culture influences everything.” Ramos is particular in naming the musical, Here Lies Love, as one of the most impactful he’s worked on. A musical based on the life of Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love was a turning point for the costumer. “The first question people would always ask me is, ‘What did you do for the shoes?’. I’m like, ‘This is not about shoes.’ This is about a country and a woman who had no agency and suddenly, found agency but didn’t deploy it in ways that should have served the country. It made me have so much compassion for us as a nation.”

In the upcoming months, Ramos is expected to release more exciting shows, one of which is a musical production titled K-Pop. “It’s very exciting, with a Korean-American team,” he reveals. He’s also scheduled to work on a musical adaptation of The Outsiders on Broadway, plus an intriguing new film project that is yet to be revealed. “It’s a very big title,” he teases with shining eyes. “Maybe I’ll get in touch with you,” he jokes, because it is now 10 and time to wrap up the conversation. His husband and daughter are waiting for him—it is, after all, dinner time. After what has been a presumably busy day for the Tony-award winner, it only seems right to let him enjoy his meal. “Thank you,” I say. He raises both hands and waves enthusiastically. “Bye,” he smiles. “Salamat.”

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This story was originally published on Tatler Philippines' November 2021 issue. Download it on Magzter for free.

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