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DEVOTED FOLLOWERS OF FASHION

The stand belongs to the Bianchetti family, Italy’s leading supplier of ecclesiastical clothing – its clothes, the joke goes, are prete-a-porter, a pun on the Italian for “priest” and the French for “ready to wear”. The head of the company, Elisabetta Bianchetti, personally designs and produces each and every vestment in the collection.

Every two years, in the little Italian town of Vicenza, merchants gather for the biggest religious fair in the world. Vestment producers, sculptors and rosary sellers satisfy a growing demand for religious articles, from Pope Francis fridge magnets to devotional candles, a business that generates billions in Italy alone.

It’s 08:30 in the morning and muscular workers are unloading trucks full of boxes marked “Fragile”, clothes wrapped in tissue paper with “New collection, 2015” written on the hangers are being carried into the exhibition centre, and young women in miniskirts and stilettos are rushing around getting things organised.

But when church bells chime the hour and the doors open, we enter what some might take to be a priest’s version of Heaven, filled with life-size statues of Mary, every possible type of holy water sprinklers and the very latest collection of cassocks and tunics.

Once every two years Catholic clergy from the four corners of the world come to Vicenza to buy church supplies, learn how to enhance their liturgy or just to renew their wardrobe.

Father Pasquale has travelled 13 hours by train from his parish in Calabria to check the new trends in sacred merchandise. With a little pad and a camera, he roams around the 15,000 sq m of the fair, furiously taking pictures. He doesn’t have much time – he has to catch the train home in a few hours to report back to local chaplains.

“I wouldn’t miss this fair for anything in the world,” he says. “It’s a bit of a hassle, that’s for sure, as I spend more time on a train than anything else, but it’s important for us – humble priests in southern Italy – to see how the Catholic church develops, what’s new in terms of technology that would make our lives easier and to check what priests from big cities wear and how they perform the liturgy.”

Other parishes in Calabria chipped in to cover his travel expenses, and he tries to get the best deals.

Father Pasquale suddenly stops and wonders in front of a stand that displays light blue vestments embossed in silk velvet and gold laminated prints, his eyes filled with amazement and joy. He reaches to feel the fabric with his fingertips and hums with delight. “You have Armani, Gucci or Prada,” he says. “This is our version of haute couture.”

The stand belongs to the Bianchetti family, Italy’s leading supplier of ecclesiastical clothing – its clothes, the joke goes, are prete-a-porter, a pun on the Italian for “priest” and the French for “ready to wear”. The head of the company, Elisabetta Bianchetti, personally designs and produces each and every vestment in the collection.

“Through the years we have manufactured pieces of clothing for three Popes: John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis,” she says. Meanwhile, her daughter talks Father Pasquale through the 2015 collection, which was apparently inspired by 1960s fashions. “We are always in search of new inspirations that will drive sacred fashion forward,” she says.

Ecclesiastical clothing in Italy is a £18m ($27.4m) annual business, but Bianchetti’s vestments do not suit every budget with prices for a tunic ranging from £400 to £1,300 ($600 to $2,000). The Bianchettis say they clothe “top clergymen from around the world”, who want the best – a combination of tradition and “original Italian fashion”.

During his tour, Father Pasquale stops a couple of times at a stand that sells devotional candles. “They look like normal candles from afar and they are made of wax but, to my surprise, they are powered by electricity,” he says. The producer, Danilo De Gaspari, came up with this idea for his parish near Milan a couple of years ago and now he’s exporting his product around the world, to countries such as India and Brazil.

“Churches across Italy are pretty old and fire represents a serious hazard for worshippers. What we came up with is a wax candle with an LED inside. When you insert the coin in the machine, the LED lights up and a little magnet makes the plastic flame-shaped component on top of it wiggle. Parishes save money and they eliminate the risk of fire.”

Father Pasquale is impressed but not entirely convinced. “I like the act of lighting a candle myself to be really honest,” he says.

Others, from India and the US, are placing orders. “We can set the candles’ timer to 20 seconds so the parish in my home town can make a little money out of it and we can finally afford to renovate the house of worship,” says Labham Sogani, a trader visiting from Delhi.

The overall religious goods business in Italy is estimated to be worth something like £3.4bn ($5.2bn) – more than the country earns from exporting wine. And a year-long “extraordinary jubilee” called by Pope Francis, which is due to start in December, provides opportunities for growth.

As I talk to religious merchandise businessman Rocco Ascione, we are frequently interrupted by the ringing of his mobile phone. “They constantly call me from various shops in Rome, they place orders every waking hour because they’re afraid to run out of Pope fridge magnets or pens with the image of the Holy Mary when the chaos begins,” he says.

The Vatican will be visited by millions of pilgrims during the jubilee year and like any businessman, Ascione wants to capitalise on this opportunity. “Worshippers would spend any amount of money for a Jubilee souvenir,” he says. “It’s a business like any other, but this is more special: this is blessed by God.”

CLERGY STYLE, VESTITI COME DIO COMANDA

«Mi sono ispirata a un taglio di Lucio Fontana, e ho cercato di realizzare la mia idea con un tessuto antichissimo»: così è nata una mitria per papa Giovanni Paolo II, firmata da lei. Alta, altissima moda, solo per il clero. Possiamo paragonare questo atelier a quelli di Armani e Gucci? «No. Noi siamo ancora più esclusivi – spiega soddisfatta –. Molti nostri capi sono unici». Si nasconde una ricerca incredibile dietro i ricami di ogni abito. Tanto che spesso case di moda famose in tutto il mondo hanno chiesto a Elisabetta di elaborare per loro prototipi e decorazioni.

Cinque generazioni di lavoro intenso dal 1916, sempre in famiglia. Fino ad arrivare, oggi, agli schizzi di Elisabetta Bianchetti, stilista-designer-restauratrice, nonché amministratore unico dell’azienda. One woman show.

stilista del papa

«Mi sono ispirata a un taglio di Lucio Fontana, e ho cercato di realizzare la mia idea con un tessuto antichissimo»: così è nata una mitria per papa Giovanni Paolo II, firmata da lei. Alta, altissima moda, solo per il clero. Possiamo paragonare questo atelier a quelli di Armani e Gucci? «No. Noi siamo ancora più esclusivi – spiega soddisfatta –. Molti nostri capi sono unici». Si nasconde una ricerca incredibile dietro i ricami di ogni abito. Tanto che spesso case di moda famose in tutto il mondo hanno chiesto a Elisabetta di elaborare per loro prototipi e decorazioni. «Ma non posso fare nomi, l’ho fatto in amicizia». Uno studio che non finisce mai, per trovare i materiali migliori, facendo indagini nella lunga, prestigiosa storia del tessuto italiano. Una storia che non si affronta a scuola, ma che ha radici profondissime nel nostro Paese. Secoli di attività manifatturiera per dare alle dinastie ecclesiali abiti inimitabili.

Da anni ormai la stilista milanese affronta la sua personalissima sfida: unire i tessuti migliori con le esigenze della modernità. Qualche esempio? La taschina per il cellulare nel saio dei frati. Oppure lo shop online. «Alla fine degli anni ’90 ho avuto quest’intuizione – racconta Elisabetta – perché mi sono chiesta: come fa un prete in un convento di clausura a collegarsi con il mondo?». E così, sul loro sito chiunque può scegliere tra i modellini degli abiti con il prezzo indicato sotto, proprio come accade su moltissimi altri negozi in rete. Con la differenza, però, che in questo caso si tratta di paramenti sacri, pensati per fare da intermediari simbolici tra l’uomo e la divinità.

Una grande responsabilità, quella di vestire chi, durante la cerimonia, fa da mediatore tra i credenti e il loro Signore. «Responsabilità, ma anche emozione. Specialmente quando mi è stato chiesto di creare alcune casule per papa Giovanni Paolo II e Benedetto XVI. E dopo tutti questi anni, ora non riuscirei a disegnare golfini e gonne per le altre case di moda. Quei vestiti sono solo “coperture”, sono fini a se stessi. Gli abiti ecclesiastici, invece, hanno un messaggio, una vita intrinseca».

Ma la “designer del sacro” si occupa, in realtà, anche dei preti in versione casual. «Parroci, suore e sacerdoti hanno una vita sociale e lavorativa molto intensa. Per questo hanno bisogno di abiti comodi, ma che allo stesso tempo permettano alla comunità di riconoscerli a colpo d’occhio». E se di solito “l’abito non fa il monaco”, in questo caso vale tutto il contrario.

POCKETS ARE ADDED TO FRIARS’ TUNICS, AND THE SKY FALLS

Ms. Bianchetti’s company is among Italy’s leading suppliers of ecclesiastical clothing, and it was her renovation of a voluminous pleated black habit worn by a small community of Franciscan friars in Assisi, barely altered for hundreds of years, that landed her in the headlines.

Since receiving the commission last year to redesign the habit worn by 90 Franciscan friars of the Third Order Regular, Ms. Bianchetti and her design have been praised, debated and excoriated in the Italian press. The state-run television network RAI broadcast a documentary on her innovations, which were termed prete-à-porter, a pun on both the Italian word for priest and the French term for ready-to-wear.

”What Elisabetta Bianchetti did is quite radical,” said Adriana Sartogo, who produced the film for RAI-TV. ”Italians are very conservative about the clergy, and to restyle their clothes never, ever happens here.”

The changes made by Ms. Bianchetti were, in fact, duly modest. Streamlining a heavy folded wool robe, she also adapted its color to accord with records of St. Francis from the 13th century. But it was her replacement of two small slits on the garment with a pair of shirt-style pockets that apparently tickled a bemused Italian press.

It is open to question whether the Rev. Lino Temperini, the monk who commissioned the alteration, ever made the claim that the pockets were to accommodate keys and a cellphone, as was widely reported. Father Temperini now disavows the quotations. ”We really don’t understand where all the fuss came from,” he said in a telephone interview. ”A lot of it is hype.” The news media ”picked up on the cellphones, which is a little ridiculous,” he added.

Father Temperini’s reticence is understandable given the image giddily conjured by the Italian press, which depicted followers of the saint who by legend spoke to birds trading their asceticism for text messaging, digital paging and caller ID.

”Who could ever imagine the mediagenic power of two pockets?” Ms. Bianchetti said of the stir generated by the new habits, which were delivered earlier this month and worn for the first time by the monks of the 90-member community, based near the shrine of St. Francis in Assisi.

”There is a lingering sentiment that modern gadgets distance us from the poor,” said the Rev. Michael Cusato, an associate professor of history at the Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, N.Y. ”It’s always been a squeamish issue. The poor don’t have cellphones — why should we?”

Globally the principal clerical branches of the Franciscans — the Friars Minor, Friars Minor Conventual and Friars Minor Capuchin — number about 33,000, although Father Anthony LoGalbo, the librarian at the Franciscan Institute, said the order counts as many as one million followers including lay members. As the Rev. Cassian Miles, the director of communications for the order’s Holy Name Province in New York City, put it, ”The main branches are something like the Army, the Navy and the Marines.”

Although a part of this mainstream, the Third Order Regular friars in Assisi would seem too small a group for their changes of dress to make much stir, even within the Franciscan world. But, Father Cusato said, ”there is a deeper issue involved.” The new habits, he suggested, are a way for the Third Order Regulars to separate themselves from the clerical mainstream.

The alterations Ms. Bianchetti made would have seemed respectful enough to suit the most ardent traditionalist. A broad, unadorned tunic of lightweight wool, the habit is cinched with a plain white rope belt knotted three times, as it is believed to have been in the time of St. Francis, to signify vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. The color is the dun hue of undyed wool. ”In England we were once known as the Gray Friars,” said Father Cusato, ”because the habit of St. Francis used wool without dye.”

Yet when news of the renovated habits was first broadcast last year, the Rev. Waldemar Barszcz, a top official of the Third Order Regular, which has 900 friars worldwide, curtly told Il Giornale, the Milanese daily, that ”many don’t agree with the experiment to change the habit.”

”That is why the order to Miss Bianchetti will be 30 and not 3,000,” he added. (In fact, the initial order was for 60 robes.) Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily, lamented that ”even Franciscans have given in to the fascination with ready-to-wear.”

The Rev. Enzo Fortunato, a spokesman for the Conventual Franciscans in Italy, took a more moderate view. ”It certainly doesn’t mean that they are abandoning the message of poverty or simplicity,” he said.

Ms. Bianchetti also professed some surprise at the outcry over her adjustments to the habit, which she researched in historical depictions of St. Francis and in archives that showed rules governing the way the earliest Franciscans dressed. A papal bull of 1289 first authorized the Franciscans to design a habit distinguishing them from ”simple hermits.” The cloak of the time was most likely a brown or gray tunic like that still worn by a majority of Franciscans worldwide. It was not until the Rule of Bonaventure of Vicenza, a document issued in the 16th century, that the pointed shape of the Franciscans’ characteristic hooded cape was established. In the early 1800’s the gray of the habit of the Third Order Regulars became black, and so it remained until Ms. Bianchetti got Father Temperini’s call.

”A commission like this is not a matter of fashion,” said Ms. Bianchetti, 39, who studied Slavonic history at the University of Milan and wrote a thesis on Russian icons before joining her husband’s family firm, Manifatture Mario Bianchetti, which makes textiles as well as clothes for priests and nuns. ”It is a uniform that has to communicate the wearer’s working function as well as symbolically to represent the soul.”

Ecclesiastical clothing in Italy is a $26 million annual business, including nuns’ veils, monastic cloaks and off-the-peg chasubles for priests. Another of Ms. Bianchetti’s designs — a papal miter — received what some would consider the ultimate imprimatur when Pope John Paul II wore it during a mass for the feast of SS. Peter and Paul in June. Adorned with antique gold braid, it was incised with a cross that alluded to the slashed canvases of the Italian modernist painter Lucio Fontana. It was meant to symbolize ineffable mysteries.

Changes in ecclesiastical garb, explained Filippo Gammarelli, scion of a Roman company that has served as the Vatican tailor for centuries, are ”necessarily a little bit different from fashion.” That is not to suggest that those changes are altogether uninfluenced by the world of style. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) simplified clerical garb, high-ranking members of the clergy were often tailored with an ostentation that might put the Parisian haute couture to shame. Official depictions of Pope John XXIII show him wearing sumptuous laces, an ermine-trimmed cloak and an emerald roughly the size of a pigeon’s egg. By contrast, Mr. Gammarelli said, John Paul II dresses humbly. Save that they are white, his everyday cassocks are not vastly different from those of a parish priest.

”Before the Second Vatican Council, cardinals, bishops and monsignors used to have a very rich wardrobe,” Mr. Gammarelli said. ”Now, all that is simplified.”

In researching the garments, Ms. Bianchetti concluded that the tunics and hoods worn by some Franciscans had strayed from their original plainness. ”They would not have been dyed black,” she said, as were those of the Third Order Regular. They would not have been voluminous and richly folded. They would not have had pleats.

”The idea was to contextualize, to design with humility,” Ms. Bianchetti said, seated in her firm’s cork-paneled office near Milan’s central railroad station, around her a collection of priestly mantles and button-on veils. ”These people are teaching, traveling, praying, meditating, and it’s much more important to accommodate the symbolic and practical functions than to say, ‘This is a design by Elisabetta Bianchetti.’ ”

Some years back, Ms. Bianchetti said, she was offered a job designing for one of Milan’s many well-known fashion houses. She turned it down. ”To design for the religious world gives you much more depth of satisfaction than coming up with some new kind of skirt,” she said, brushing aside the media brouhaha. ”This is not Versace, you know.”

Photos: Elisabetta Bianchetti, whose redesign of a Franciscan habit raised eyebrows in Italy.; The new robe at the monastery of St. Francis. The models were not compensated.; The Rev. Lino Temperini fits his spectacles (not a cellphone) into one of the celebrated pockets. (Photographs by Piero Pomponi/Getty Images, for The New York Times); (Pigi Cipelli for The New York Times)