Discreet endorsement: Pope Inc. A dedicated follower of fashion

With an eye for the finer things in life, Pope Benedict has been spotted wearing brand-name caps, expensive sunglasses and elegant shoes

Living in the heart of Italy, the country of the "bella figura", it would take the singlemindedness of a saint to remain completely oblivious to how one looks. Pope John Paul II, who wore the same plain vestments and nondescript Polish-made shoes for years, was such a saint. But his successor, Benedict XVI, is on a very different wavelength.

Since the first days of his papacy one year ago, the style sense of the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has been bowling Vatican-watchers over: brand name caps and sporty jackets for the holidays, trendy and expensive sunglasses, elegant shoes ... Now manufacturers of everything from luxury cars to loafers are climbing over each other to obtain the discreet endorsement of a man whose needs are so few that everything he lays hands on gets noticed.

What has given the luxury goods world a shot in the arm is the discovery that Benedict, unlike his predecessor, has a keen eye for the fine things in life.

Any pope is among the most famous and most closely observed people on the planet. John Allert, the chief executive of the British unit of Interbrand, a global branding consultancy, told The Wall Street Journal this week that for a product to be associated with the Pope was at least 100 times better than being sported by an A-list celebrity, because his following is more devoted.

At Christmas, the Pope told the crowd gathered in St Peter's Square that the priorities of the acquisitive modern society were all wrong. "In today's consumer society," he said, "this time of year unfortunately suffers from the sort of commercial 'pollution' that threatens to alter its real spirit." No one would dream of accusing this pope of being greedily acquisitive - but then he doesn't need to be: the stuff just keeps pouring into his office.

Geox, the Italian shoe manufacturer, admitted this week that it sends him six pairs of its maroon-coloured leather moccasins per year. "We say he's an average consumer," the company commented. "We are not seeking publicity, we will not exploit any image of the Pope wearing our shoes, it's just a question of paying homage to him." Geox managed to jump the shoe makers' queue thanks to a fortuitous personal connection: its founder, Moretti Polegato, is a close friend of the pope's press spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who also happens to be a member of the firm's ethics committee.

But how the other brands favoured by Benedict arrived at their exalted station is anybody's guess - and as the Vatican takes pains to unstitch logos and do everything else necessary to obscure the provenance of the things he uses, a lot of guessing is involved. The Vatican's fashionistas convinced themselves from the Pope's first steps that he was wearing red Prada loafers. Anonymous sources inside the Vatican demur, insisting that the chic shoes in question were stitched by Benedict's personal cobbler. Prada has chosen to be as gnomic as everyone else on the question - or perhaps it just doesn't know.

The sunglasses question on the other hand has been definitively resolved. For many months, Vatican hacks insisted he was wearing Gucci. Closer inspection, however, revealed that his favoured brand is in fact Serengeti, the model called Classics. "The classic appeal of the open road is only one of your options," burbles the accompanying copy on its website, possibly alluding to the Pope's relative uninterest in globe-trotting. "No matter where your impulses take you, Serengeti Classics improve the view."

John Paul II also wore sunglasses, but never in public: on one celebrated occasion the rock singer Bono gave him his famous Fly Shades in exchange for the rosary he had just received. "Not only did he put them on," commented Bono afterwards, "he smiled the wickedest grin you could ever imagine." But although the flashbulbs popped, no image of the pope in Bono shades saw the light of day. "It seems his courtiers did not have the same sense of humour," Bono remarked wryly.

Benedict has broken the taboo on wearing sunglasses outside the papal grounds, and was photographed sporting his Serengeti Classics on the way to his audience with Italian head of state, President Carlo Ciampi, last June. He has also been snapped wearing a snazzy white Adidas baseball cap on a trip in the mountains, has received (though has yet to be photographed wearing) 20 pairs of swimming trunks from the Roman company Fallani, and is the proud owner of a pencil-thin iPod nano, given to him by Vatican Radio on the station's 75th birthday.

All these companies take the same solemn line adopted by Geox: no comment, no photographs, no publicity. Yet the message takes effect regardless. A spokesman for Bushnell, the owner of the Serengeti brand, told The Wall Street Journal that it gave a boost to the company's relations with retailers. "Our salesperson comes in and the retailer says, 'My gosh! Did I just see the Pope wearing Serengetis? Show me that style!'" Likewise Apple Computer has nothing to say on the Pope's choice of listening technology - but as soon as the news broke, Apple trade magazines were full of it.

A senior Vatican official averred that the Pope's choice of products was "completely arbitrary". He's aware of the buzz," he went on, "but mostly he laughs about it because it's so absurd. What does he really have to choose? He doesn't wear a tie or a coat. The glasses he wears are the same glasses he wore as a Cardinal, as is the pen he writes with." The reply is, however, disingenuous. All the indications are that the Pope takes his choice of accessories very seriously. And the difference goes beyond brands of shoes and sunglasses to a profoundly different attitude to the material world.

Rocco Palmo, a Vatican watcher and correspondent for the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, says: "John Paul shirked many of the ancient trappings of the papacy for a handful of reasons... He wasn't keen to allow the 'props' to upstage what he saw as the main draw - his message and himself." Benedict has none of John Paul's expansive charisma; on the contrary he is an intensely shy man, who speaks of the 20,000 books in his personal library as his "old friends". He is a man to whom the bright lights and constant mass attention of the papacy do not come easy, and who in consequence takes immense pains to get his appearance right.

Even so he sometimes gets it wrong, and those moments have provided some of the few moments of charm in the papacy's first year: the sleeves of a humble black woolly vest poking out from under his vestments when he stood on the balcony of St Peter's after his election; the cassock that was a good six inches too short on his first appearance before the press a few days later.

As the Vatican official said, Benedict doesn't have to choose a tie or a coat. But the vestments that are his daily work wear constitute an immensely complicated and ancient series of style statements, in which this most academic of popes clearly takes great and learned delight.

Everything he wears means something - a fact he drew attention to when he chose to be invested as pope wearing a lamb's wool garment, called a "pallium", of a design dramatically different from those of his predecessors, one that harks back to the 8th century.

Most of his 35-minute homily was devoted to an explanation of what it meant. "The lamb's wool," he said, "is meant to represent the lost, sick of weak sheep which the shepherd places on his shoulders and carries to the waters of life." Since then he has gone further, reviving a red velvet cap trimmed with ermine which had not been worn since the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963, and a fur-trimmed velvet cape, called a mozzetta, which had not been seen around the Vatican since 1978.

To accompany the new pallium, Benedict commissioned a set of "particularly refined mass vestments", according to Palmo, one of which, a startling lime green in colour, set the Vatican tongues chattering.

The most striking difference is in the crucifixes. Throughout his pontificate, John Paul wore a single, simple gold cross. Benedict has a whole box of them.

The first he wore after his election was an elaborately filigreed cross with an emerald setting at its centre. Another has an aquamarine at the centre. During Advent he wore a carved silver crucifix.

Vanity may have something to do with all this, but more likely it is the shy theologian exploring the symbology of his church's oldest traditions, sending out messages through the items he chooses to use.

Maybe he's doing something similar with his modern accessories, too; silently endorsing Serengeti's claim to be "the finest sunglasses in the world"; going along with the claims of the pioneering Modernists that design that is clean, spare, functional and beautifully crafted is not just nice to look at, but morally bracing, too. No wonder they are all battering at his door.

The products

* Adidas baseball cap - papal white, of course - with the logo removed, worn on trips in the mountains.

* Serengeti sunglasses, as worn by Hollywood star Val Kilmer, claimed to be "clearly the world's finest".

* Geox shoes, with trademark holes in the soles to stop feet getting sweaty. Six pairs supplied per year.

* iPod Apple Nano 2GB, given to the Pope by Vatican Radio inscribed "to his Holiness Benedict XVI".

* Controversy rages over whether the Pope wears Prada red moccasins, or whether they are bespoke lookalikes supplied by own his cobbler.

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