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The new high priest of fashion

Confess - you're praying for a fashion bible to show you the way. Search no more. With the Vatican's new range of designer chic, you need never be a sacrificial victim on the altar of style.
For many years I had wanted an excuse to ring the Pope. And suddenly, here it was. Next week, it was announced, His Holiness will bring out a range of sunglasses, T-shirts and what were called, with a delicious lack of detail, leather items.

There were many things I had planned to say to him: "How can you find time to design outfits when you have all that corruption in the Church to deal with? How can you find time to design when you should be out on your balcony, Your Holiness, telling bad Catholic women that they shouldn't be using contraceptives?"

To be fair to John Paul II - but then why should I be? If it were up to him, I'd be on my 12th child by now. But, to try to be fair - he isn't the first to mix religion and fashion, and the Roman Catholic Church has been down this road before. Five years ago, their American branch allowed the Pope's name to be used on T-shirts, sunglasses and baseball caps, to raise money so that 150,000 young Catholics could go on a pilgrimage with the Pope to Colorado. They stopped short at "Pope on a Rope" soap, however.

Designers such as John Richmond and Dolce e Gabbana - all of them Roman Catholics - have for years used religious insignia on their garments in a most irreverent way. It's easy to see why. Religion, especially that creaky old ship Catholicism, is an easy target for those wanting to rebel.

When I was at convent school, we were taught that so much as putting the rosary over your head and wearing it as a necklace was a mortal sin. Pinning the bleeding heart of the Sacred Heart on your bodice as a fashion statement, let alone decorating gauze dresses with the Blessed Virgin Mary (both of which Dolce e Gabbana did last season) would have seen you on a diet of "Glory Be" for months. So if you want a quick and violent reaction, you can get it by sticking two fingers up at the Church.

"I was brought up in Manchester as a Catholic schoolboy and that guilt- ridden identity never really leaves you," explains John Richmond. "That anger manifested itself, especially in my early collections, with all those slashes and zips I did. But I'm calmer now; I've used the guilt and exorcised it from my mind on to material."

In 1990, the Vatican threatened to ban Madonna's Blond Ambition tour from Rome, saying that it was "one of the most satanic shows in the history of humanity". On stage, Madonna's props included blazing crucifixes, tabernacles and a bed covered in cardinal scarlet linen to frolic on. She also got friendly with a dancer dressed as a priest.

The Vatican threatened to excommunicate her from the Catholic faith, the harshest punishment it can impose. One poor misguided bishop even said, "The crosses used by Madonna are not only obscene, but also surprising. It was thought she had been brought up in the spirit of religious faith." Hm. Precisely why she was using them.

But don't listen to me, because (really) Catho-chic is the next big thing. The United States has already caught the first wave. Over there in "bible factory outlet" chain stores, you can buy items such as Latham's Testimints: each sweet is marked with a cross and wrapped in paper printed with an extract from the Bible. But their biggest seller is their "What Would Jesus Do?" range. These are bracelets and key fobs printed with WWJD and manufactured by a company called Fresco in Michigan (where Madonna is from - can't you see why she flipped?). The company (which claims that it doesn't have to market the product - "God sells it") have a terrific marketing angle. If you're wearing a bracelet with the WWJD initials and someone asks you what it means, you're meant to give it to them. So you have to replace it, and on and on it goes.

And the point of them? Well, when you're about to commit adultery or blow someone's brains out, you catch sight of your key fob or bracelet and think "what would Jesus do?", and then you do just that. Never mind that a great many paranoid types believe that God is telling them to kill anyway. World peace is sure to follow.

So. Il Papa and his new range of accessories. I called the Vatican press office who confirmed its appearance next week, but would give no more details. They know the importance of designer secrecy, plus, I think, it was time for their siesta (they work only until 3pm).

Naturally, the Pope will not be designing the stuff himself; he will just license his name to raise money for Project 2000, which is a scheme that sends young Catholics on pilgrimages. The sunglasses (which will cost about pounds 22 a pair) will be signed "Joannes Paulus PPII" in his own hand, and the words "Exist for Someone" will be printed on the frames.

I can but guess at the other designs in the range: possibly trousers with padded knees, for praying and taking kneeling penance on dried corn kernels; T-shirts that light up with slogans to show if you've indulged in (unlawful) sex the night before.

What do people in the industry think of the Pope's attempt to break into fashion? "Why not," says Richmond. "He's keeping up with the times; he should modernise the Church."

"I like the affirming message that will be on the frame," says Andrew M Brown, associate editor of the Catholic Herald.

"If it's done for a good cause, then I'm not against it," says Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, who has designed robes for the Pope (and Charlie's Angels). "Times are changing; if it's a good design and well conceived, then it's definitely good. But sometimes I go to Lourdes, or some other place of pilgrimage, and the designs are not so good."

Brown agrees. "The Catholic Church does seem to attract incredibly tacky merchandise, and Catholics seem to have a great tolerance, even fondness, for it."

Hopefully, this range won't be tacky. Two years ago, the Pope personally chose de Castelbajac to design his robes, and those of his bishops and priests, for the Festival of Youth in Paris, which took place last year.

De Castelbajac, too, has always had a religious theme to his clothes (most of them are based on the T-shirt or cross shape) but his use of such designs is not a rebellion against his faith. "Oh no," he cries. "I have always had a religious influence in my designs.

"I went to Catholic boarding school, and those images stay with you - they are so powerful. But I don't do it as a trend. I am very much at peace spiritually, and I think that it is right for me to use these influences in fashion."

De Castelbajac said that the Pope (who gave him carte blanche with the designs) was very nice to him when they met. "He called me `young man'," he sniggers. "But I am 49!" What a charmer!

After speaking to de Castelbajac, however, I think I may have to be more supportive of the Church, as the alternatives are even more horrifying.

"After I met the Pope," explains de Castelbajac. "I read a report that said the most famous symbol in the whole world, the one most recognised, was the `M' of McDonald's. The cross was only number four (after Marlboro and Coca-Cola). I think it would be good if the cross went back to being number one again."

Oh dear. There's still time for that phone call. "Bless me, father, for I have sinned..."