16 June 2013

LIFE: Holy Smocks

CHIAVARI,  Italy –   Women’s Wear Daily, better known as WWD, is an fashion industry newspaper published in New York City by Conde Nast, the same company that publishes W Magazine, Vogue, Glamour, Allure, GQ and many others.

Fashion World's Bible 
WWD is part of a line of publications of specialized journals for the fashion industry. WWD is, in fact, the fashion world’s bible. It tracks industry trends, reports on industry mergers, who’s getting rich, who’s going bankrupt, in short, anyone and anything that had even the slightest wiff of fashion or design about it.   

When I worked as a journalist for WWD in their Milan office, I covered fashion events, industry fairs, interviewed designers and many, many public relations directors.  Fashion is big business in Milan, and one of Italy’s largest exports.

What's What in Fashion 

Apart from the twice a year Fashion Weeks with their headline grabbing fashion shows, there were trade fairs for make-up, shoes and leather goods, kids clothes, women’s ready-to-wear, emerging designers, fabrics, mens fabrics, gold and jewelry, housewares, bathing suits, underwear, and everything in between. The only fashion event we didn’t cover was religious fashion. 

Clergy Fashion Week isn’t held in Milan, Paris or New York. It’s held in Vicenza, a small town in northern Italy on the road between Verona and Venice.  The week long fashion fair is held every two years and is part of a larger exhibition of furniture and liturgical objects such as chalices and communion cups, as well as clothing.

Vincenza' Main Square 
It’s all pretty calm compared to the spectacles the fashion houses of Milan offer during Milan’s Fashion Week. No blaring disco music, no tall, leggy models swishing down the runway, no cocktails and industry chit chat at the bar, but that doesn’t mean the Italian designers like Laura Biagiotti, Fendi and Nanni Strada aren’t represented. They, along with other top designers,  invest time and creativity to dress the clergy.

It takes a considerable amount of that old Benedictine precept ,  ‘ora et labora’ -  time and labor,  to create fabrics and designs the Vatican will find acceptable, and do it all within a limited color palette.  There’s not a lot of creative wiggle room designing chasubles or the dalmatics needed for more solemn occassions. 

Elisabetta Bianchetti, Queen of Clerical Fashion 
Just like the big fashion houses of the non-ecclesiatical fashion world, clerical fashion starts in Milan, and the name at the top of the list is Manifatture Bianchetti. Manifatture Bianchetti is a family run business that has been designing and manufacturing priestly fashions since 1916. There are Bianchetti stores in all the major Italian cities including Rome, Milan, Florence, Torino, and an extensive distribution network which supplies parishes around the world, from the smallest in the Philippines to the Vatican.

The stylist-designer and sole director of the company is Elisabetta Bianchetti. She produces high fashion exclusively for the clergy, and has very clear ideas about her products. She never stops looking for new ideas, new approaches that can be applied to line of religious clothing and accessories. After seeing the abstract art of Italian artist and sculptor Lucio Fontana, she decided to try working with antique fabrics, and out of the initiative came a miter for Pope John Paul II.  Inspiration comes in all forms.

Variations on a Theme  

But don’t compare her to Armani or Gucci. She’ll tell you her company is even more exclusive than those two design houses. Bianchetti’s products are unique. There is an incredible amount of research that goes into the delicate embroidery work found on every garment, so much so that the famous fashion houses often ask her to produce prototypes and decorated fabric designs.

“Designing for the clergy has its own challenges and limitations,” she explained in a recent interview for La Repubblica. "In addition to the elaborate vestments needed for special occasions, priests and nuns also need practical, comfortable clothing. They need to be immediately recognizable as clerics, but they also need a place to put their cell phones and car keys. The cassock worn today is based on the same design as the tunic worn in ancient Rome under a toga, but time has moved on and while the design hasn’t changed, needs have.”  

Pope Benedict Had a Passion for Prada
And times have changed as well. It may seem odd for us to think of priests buying clothes on the internet but internet sales have become an integral part of Bianchetti’s operation. It allows parish priests an opportunity to see the latest in clerical fashion and purchase what they need with the click of a mouse. Of course if the client is a bishop or the Pope, Elizabetta and her team are always happy to make a trip to Rome.

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