Posted on February 28 2017
Burke-Amey dresses made from single-widths of Tzaims Luksus. Photographed by Irving Penn for Vogue, March 1964.
“This iconoclastic designer scrambles colors, patterns and fabrics in unorthodox designs. Inventive and daring, his clothes were often startling, never tedious.”
New York Times, November 15, 1963Coming across Ronald Amey’s designs for the first time is a revelation. Though in basic idea they seem quite traditional for the 60s and 70s (skirt suits, long evening dresses), there is something skewed about them. Quirky prints of skiers or Buddhist deities… quilted satin yokes… wide diamante cuffs… the suit pieces matching in unconventional ways… giant cutout lapels… For those that love their vintage to be completely and wholly unique—while also of immaculately quality and cut—then Ronald Amey is the designer for you.
A Burke-Amey plaid coat with matching dress. Photographed by Irving Penn for Vogue, March 1966.
Growing up on a chicken farm in Arizona, Ronald Amey early showed an interest in fashion by creating paper dolls for the neighborhood girls from scraps—much to his conservative parents’ disapproval. He moved to LA to study fashion design at Chouinard, but after only a semester left to start work at a small design house before joining the Air Force during the Korean War. While stationed as a radar technician in Clovis, New Mexico, Amey began a secret side business of mending uniforms and creating custom designs for officers’ wives; sewing equipment and materials were hidden under the bed or in shower stalls. After he was discharged Amey studied fashion design at Parsons and then had brief stints at six Seventh Avenue firms; recalling his quick terminations in 1976, Amey said: “All those companies hired me on the basis of my originality and when I tried to be original, they insisted I conform.” While working at Scaasi he saved up enough money to found his own company, Burke-Amey, with an Air Force buddy in 1959. Joseph Burke was a Yale engineering graduate who took care of the business side, while Amey was the designer. Known in their early years for severe tailoring for day and seductive evening clothes for night, in a 1960 interview they remarked: “We do not acknowledge trends. We are not interested in designing show-stoppers.” Amey rejected fads while at the same time designing clothes that followed the strict social protocols of the day; the silhouettes were often more conventional with the choice of fabrics veering them into the fantastical. A sharply tailored skirt suit might be fashioned out of a giant black-and-white houndstooth, while an evening dress might be made of turquoise hand-painted chiffon, cascading with ruffles. Though Burke and Amey may have professed little desire to create scene-stealers by the early 60s Amey’s inimitable way with patterns was already making its way into their collections—a riot of patterns, textures and colors all combined for the most startling effect. Often Amey combined up to three or four fabrics or patterns on one ensemble. From 1963, many of Amey’s most sensational prints were designed in collaboration with Tzaims Luksus (the first person to win a Coty Award for fabric design in 1965)—these included dresses fashioned from huge watery stripes and whorls of rainbow colors, as well as magnified hand drawn paisleys for spring 1964.
A Burke-Amey lamé palazzo pant jumpsuit with fur cuffs. Illustration from the Chicago Tribune, June 30 1965.
A taffeta Burke-Amey gown in Vogue, November 15, 1967—photographed by Horst P. Horst.
In 1964 Bill Cunningham in the Chicago Tribune wrote: “Fashion independent, free wheeler, maverick. Talented Ronald Amey… is all three. He goes his own way, never looking at what his contemporaries may be doing, but simply creating the kind of clothes he believes today’s fashionable woman should wear.” Though there was a youthfulness to his mixing of colors and prints, his designs were never for the younger woman. Amey created chic yet fashionable clothes for women with money who appreciated fine workmanship and intricate details. Always immaculately tailored and finished, Burke-Amey (and later Ronald Amey) designs were for the woman who wanted to be the center of attention at every charity luncheon or gala party. Amey allowed: “I’ve always wanted to design clothes that are expensive, top-quality, totally elegant clothes in every possible way. And only the rich and sophisticated understand me.” Burke-Amey’s designs often cost up to $1,600; a hefty price in the 1960s.
A Burke-Amey suit of giant hounds tooth. From the Chicago Tribune, September 20, 1964.
Lauren Hutton in a Burke-Amey dress. Photographed by Richard Avedon for Vogue, March 1967.
Considered by many critics to be one of the most exciting designers in America at that time, Amey sought to help upcoming students by helping to establish a fashion course at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee in 1965 where he acted as the first design critic. In 1970 Amey bought out Burke and renamed the company Ronald Amey; continuing on designing the extravagant, expensive clothes that had made his name. Elaborate gold braid encircled the midriff, cuffs and neck in his first solo collection. Signatures throughout his career included a dress and coat set with the coat’s lapels matching an element of the dress, as well as quilted satin yokes and midriffs. By this time he was living in a glamorous all-white apartment filled with Louis XIV furniture on East 57th Street and being chauffeured around town in a limousine—in keeping with the lifestyles of his very privileged clients. Unfortunately Amey closed his company around 1976 and he passed away from heart disease in 1986 at the age of 52. During the last decade of his life he worked as a freelance designer for manufacturers including Harvey Levine and Aurura Ruffolo Inc.
Bonnie Cashin, Ronald Amey and Rosalie Macrini at the launch party for Mount Mary's Fashion Design program in 1965.
In the 60s and 70s Amey’s designs were considered timeless—Bill Cunningham wrote in 1973 that, “A Ronald Amey client can add to her wardrobe with no fear of being dated. He’s one of the few remaining designers dedicated to the craft of grand couture, consisting of exclusive, expensive fabrics, unique detail, and a totally personal design signature that is never mainstream.” All of these elements are why Amey’s clothes are so collectible, yet totally wearable, today. Though the silhouettes definitely look of an era, his unique design choices elevate them and make them much harder to date—the quirky details, the oversized and mixed prints all wouldn’t look out of place on the catwalk today.
Veruschka in a Burke-Amey dress. Photographed by Franco Rubartelli for Vogue, June 1968.
An early 70s Ronald Amey matching coat and dress ensemble with his signature quilted details.
Writer | Laura McLaws Helms
Photographer | Jessica Todd Harper
Hair and Makeup | Leilani Sunglao
Location: The Showplace Antique Center