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Rafe Totengco at his home in East Marion. (Photo Credit: Kaitlyn Ferris)

Our Front Porch Interviews take you to the homes and neighborhoods of notable North Forkers. This week, we met up with accessories designer Rafe Totengco. You’ve seen his architecture-inspired clutches for Rafe New York everywhere from high-end boutiques to a capsule collection at Target. But you’ll find the man himself in East Marion, where this year he’s discovered new community, a new gardening addiction and a new happiness with longtime partner Mike Lawn, whom he married in a backyard ceremony earlier this month.

About 10 years ago, when Mike and I had just started dating, a friend of ours had rented a house in Orient and invited us for the weekend. It was so quiet. I remember walking into the Orient Country Store and the guy looked at me and said, “You’re new.” And I love that! He knew everyone. And I was just like, How do we get invited back? A few years ago, I decided, okay, I can’t be just holding my breath every spring and summer hoping to be invited.

I love everything about our home in East Marion, and we’ve been here weekends for the past five years now. It’s our happy place. I mean, what could be better? This lake keeps on giving. It’s always different, and in the height of summer the wildlife is insane. There’s crazy, huge prehistoric snapping turtles, ospreys fishing, and last summer we saw a bald eagle.

But being here in the winter is what made me realize there is something special about the North Fork. I remember going into Little Creek Oysters in January, wanting a clam chowder. And they’re like, “You’re still here!” That’s when people start to want to know your name. It’s a feeling of, “You’re with us.” We broke the ice. And I love that sense of community.

Rafe Totoengco and Mike Lawn in their backyard facing Marion Lake. (Photo Credit: Kaitlyn Ferris)

“I grew up in a small province in the Philippines where everybody knew everybody. On one hand it’s stifling and on the other hand, it’s also really nice because you get this sense of belonging. And we do feel that here.”

Then all of a sudden, we’ve been here since March. My mom has been right here with us. We kidnapped her from Brooklyn to come out, because she lives in an apartment building with 20 floors and one elevator. She’s been going for daily walks, meeting all the neighbors. We have a little street association. We know everybody. If I have too much cake, I can take it next door. In the city I would never dream of knocking on my neighbor’s door and saying, “Do you want a cake?” But here it’s not weird!

I grew up in a small province in the Philippines where everybody knew everybody. On one hand it’s stifling and on the other hand, it’s also really nice because you get this sense of belonging. And we do feel that here.

The story of how I found fashion design is a funny one. When I was a little kid, I had a huge chalkboard and would draw on it literally every day and I would be covered in chalk. And then we’d go to Sunday mass. And of course in the Philippines, being Catholic, you wore your Sunday’s best. My sisters said to my mom, “You have got to clean him up. Look at him, he looks like a street urchin!”

So one day when I was in about fifth grade, my mom handed me an old box of fabric and said, “Go the tailor and have some clothes made.” I thought, well, if I’m going to have it made, I might as well get to decide what it looks like. So I bought a men’s fashion magazine and I traced it with onion skin. And a week later: Eureka. I thought, I just drew that, and now it’s on me. And then I remember going to church and people treating me differently. Nice. I realized the effect of looking good and putting on your best. After that, I kind of couldn’t stop.

I went to New York to study at FIT. I had the New York dream. Coming from the tropics, I would always get the fall issues of fashion magazines. It was burnt orange and ochres and olive greens, and I wanted to understand all of that. Because for me it was always fuchsia. I felt like I couldn’t fully understand fashion until I saw all the four seasons. This was the late 80s, early 90s. It was kind of an incredible time to be in New York.

Eventually I ended up doing accessories, especially handbags, and it all sort of fell into place. Handbags are probably the most democratic fashion that you can have: One size fits most! My mom can wear the same bag as my sister or my niece. All three of them can love the same thing and there is no such thing as being “too young” or “too old” for it. And it’s so rewarding when people tell me, “Your bag makes me so happy.”

I never thought I’d leave the city because the city has so much to offer on the weekend, especially. But now I can’t wait to leave the city on weekends. I love being in the city, but I also love being out here. It’s a different time in my life, I suppose. And this place has really been our solace. We have a one bedroom in the city and we love it, but had we been there during Covid, we would have killed each other. We would not have enjoyed each other’s company the way that we have here.

Another thing: I’ve become a gardener. Because Mike is British, he grew up with it, and ever since we’ve had the house, he has always puttered in the garden. I however grew up very differently. I never took an interest. But one day this spring I looked over and thought, I cannot just watch him in the garden while I play on Pinterest. My iPad is not enough. So I started helping him.

Before, I would go to Trimble’s Nursery and think, Oh God, can we be done? And now it is like a grocery store. I cannot leave, I want everything. I guess it’s never too late. We kind of laugh about that: Old dog found a new trick and now it’s something that we can enjoy together. It’s been nice to discover that side of me.

We’ve been together 10 years, so we had talked about marriage off and on, but not really seriously. We were sitting in a little corner of the garden that he had just finished. And I thought, this is the most time we have ever spent together, and it’s been lovely. I think Covid has brought out the best and the worst in everyone. Some people realized that they can’t live without each other or they realized they can’t wait to leave each other. What we realized was, yes, we are meant for each other. You have my back, I have yours, and we’re in this together.

Growing up Catholic in the Philippines, I never fantasized about it. Never dreamt about it. Never had that vision of walking down in a suit, because why dream of something that can never happen? And I thought, now that we can, well, why don’t we? And why do we have to wait until next year? We can throw a party next year, but we should do it now because I don’t want to be with anybody else. We kept it really small with just a few members of my family. And of course we did it here. This place has really been a source of happiness for us. It’s been such a blessing to be able to be out here and to isolate here — and not feel isolated, in a way.

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