Requiem for glitz Simple virtues: Designers don sackcloth look


Top designers, those folk of the cloth, are turning to religious trappings in hopes of converting fashion followers to a simpler, purer way of dressing.

It may be their way of doing penance for previous sins of excess -- baubled bustiers, peek-a-boo laces, and leather lingerie.

Whatever the motivation, clerical is chic, monastic is modern, and it's very non-denominational.

Calvin Klein introduced dark and ascetic-looking coats and tunics for fall. They could be designs borrowed from the Amish, Orthodox Jews, Protestant vicars or Roman priests.

Donna Karan read the beads on this trend by draping large, dramatic crosses of her own design bandolier-like over rich, covered-up suits and dresses.

Ralph Lauren showed long black dresses with demure white collars which made the models look like convent novices. Joan Vass sent out a red cassock suited to a cardinal. Richard Tyler, a former altar boy, also showed Catholic cassocks and starched white Gothic altar-cloth lace tunics.

The most unorthodox fashion turn, however, was Jean-Paul Gaultier's interpretation of Hasidic dress, complete with hats and prayer shawls. The designer himself took his bows wearing a yarmulke.

Barry Kessler, curator at Baltimore's Jewish Historical Society, sees great irony in today's move to buy into the look of a spiritual life as the fashion of the moment.

"These garments have evolved over the centuries, changed barely at all since the Middle Ages. There is a body of design in the world you can pick from and play with, and creative people love to do that."

This conversion to simplicity may simply be one more variation of the costume theme that this fall moved designers to borrow from the past. But designers who draw from the spiritual and material worlds see a small connecting thread.

Adam Kochlin and Michael Kirshbaum three years ago established Adam Kochlin Designs, a company selling original liturgical vestments, in Stamford, Conn.

Mr. Kirshbaum came to it after many years in the fashion business, including a stint at mail-order marketing for Bergdorf-Goodman.

Mr. Kochlin spent 17 years as a Benedictine monk working in the tailor shop at St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minn. Today he is out in the world winning prizes for his vestment designs.

"My time in the monastery gave me a sensitivity to liturgy, how one goes about celebrating liturgy and the elements involved," he says, "and vestments should have noble simplicity."

Simplicity is one of the key words Seventh Avenue designers are touting this season -- cleaner lines, virtually no jewelry except for crosses, which appeared in the designs of Bill Blass, Betsey Johnson and many places in between.

"The cross, the star of David, icons and religious uniforms are easily identifiable with tradition and I think we're a whole society of people desperately looking for a new direction, a raison d'etre," Mr. Kochlin says.

He says fashion may be picking up on this search for meanings on a subconscious level -- but out on the runway it's theatrics.

"Fashion people will grab on to any kind of self-expression and stretch those boundaries. Designers such as Ralph Lauren or Donna Karan seem to have a sense of the times, I don't know whether they articulate it, but the the idea of tradition, the rock-solid permanence of tradition, is very appealing."

Mr. Kochlin, who studied design at the Minneapolis College of Art and served an apprenticeship in pattern drafting at Butterick/Vogue in 1976, puts it in clothing terms.

"A cassock is nothing more than a variation of an A-line dress. Designers merely pick up on things that have been done already and give them a different twist."

And he's amused by fashion aberrations. "It wouldn't surprise me a bit if we saw bishop's miters being outfitted as a hat," he says.

There's an aesthetic issue too, says, Mr. Kirshbaum. Beautiful designs have a universal appeal. "I think people are discovering the cross is a heck of a piece of jewelry," he says. "Madonna first gave it a theatrical push, but that certainly wasn't enough to sustain the interest.

"It's all part of the eternal return -- something that hasn't been seen for a while reappears with great applause. After all, how many times has denim been re-invented?"

The religious fashion turn has boosted business for some designers. "We were going to a lot of trade shows. One designer brought a whole line of crosses to the bishops convention. She didn't do so well with the bishops, but is doing great on the fashion end," Mr. Kirshbaum says.

That designer was Margaret Ellis, who designs and manufactures out of Nashville, Tenn. She specializes in high-end jewelry sold in boutiques and specialty stores, such as Baltimore's Ruth Shaw.

For Ms. Ellis, it was design of a higher order.

"The crosses are a story," she says. "About six years ago, through a series of strange events, my life took a radical turn -- from extremely worldly to Christianity. I made a cross and it came from a spiritual place in me. That was right before crosses became a fashion thing, so you can't say that I hopped on the bandwagon."

She says her marketing representative in New York rejected the crosses as inappropriate, but "a few months later, Vogue did a full page editorial on them and I have been busy making crosses ever since."

Some of her newest designs are small and simple, but the pieces that attract attention are big and showy, incorporating various metals and messages. Some designs also incorporate the Star of David.

"I'm a full-Bible kind of person," says Ms. Ellis. "The whole religious fashion thing just happened. I think it's just an example of the universal vibe system. We're in a very spiritual time."

Where other designers are coming from, she doesn't know. "With me when I make a beautiful cross design, it's a gift from God. Don't get me wrong, some of them sell for as much as and I'm doing very well, but then the earrings I design are also expensive. Some people choose to buy a cross rather than earrings."

There seems to be more tolerance for religious references in fashion today.

In 1985, up-and-coming fashion designer Robert Molnar showed a collection which included rich cloth from a liturgical fabric house incorporating religious symbols and crosses in the weave. The cutting-edge clothes were a fashion hit and showed up in the windows of Bergdorf Goodman. Churchmen protested and the store canceled the order, leading the Wall Street Journal to headline its story, "Forgive the Poor Designer, for he Knows Not on Whose Shoes He Trod."

Karen Erickson, his partner at the time, says he gave up and got out, and is now doing very well as a stylist for magazines and photographers. "It's sad," she says, "because he thought the clothes were sending a spiritual message."

Today, the fashion hierarchy is more forgiving.

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