At Christian Fashion Week, Modesty Is One Policy
c.2015 New York Times News Service
TAMPA, Fla. — As Tom Ford presented his fall 2015 collection in the modern Sodom of Los Angeles, and Marc Jacobs tended his “garden in hell” in Gotham-Gomorrah, around 300 Christians were gathering here for a fashion extravaganza of their own.
There were no buyers from Bergdorf Goodman, or celebrities moving in slow security phalanxes. But Jayson and Silva Emerian, a Presbyterian couple from Fresno, California, were among the spectators Feb. 20 at the Vault, a bank turned party space downtown.
“I’m just here to support my wife,” said Jayson Emerian, a general contractor.
Silva Emerian was gathering material for her blog, On My Shoebox.
“She’s big on shoes,” Jayson Emerian explained.
“Who isn’t?” said Silva Emerian, nudging him playfully before turning serious. “I think fashion is so important because it really represents yourself — how you see yourself, how you want others to see you. I want to show the young girls in our church that you can be stylish and still have a strong faith.”
Or, as Jayson Emerian said, “You don’t have to look like a slut.”
The models who would come down the runway shortly thereafter, however, were hardly dressed like nuns. Though none of the 11 designers scheduled for the hourlong presentation showed anything as outré as the utterly transparent dress Jacobs had offered, or Ford’s top cut to the solar plexus, there were plenty of skintight leggings, thigh-grazing miniskirts and clingy T-shirts among the women, even as many of the men donned monastic hoods.
Ah, well, as the old throw pillow goes, “The higher the heel, the closer to heaven.”
The issue of feminine modesty has bedeviled Christian Fashion Week, as it is known, though this year the runway show was confined to one evening. The rest is a series of parties, panels and prayer circles, all founded three years ago by two other married couples: Jose Gomez, an entrepreneur who, among many other projects, helps churches amp up their Web presence; Mayra Gomez, a former model who once appeared on Janice Dickinson’s reality show and now runs TruModel, a mentoring program for young women; Tamy Lugo, a stylist; and Wil Lugo, a graphic designer.
In their objective to remake the cold and cruel fashion world with love, sweet love, they summon to mind the Paul Mazursky movie “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” minus the infidelity and wife-swapping.
A smooth talker with a goatee and kindly manner, Jose Gomez is also an ordained minister, is the obvious ringleader of the group. The night before the fashion show, he huddled on a stiff modernist couch in the lobby of the Aloft hotel at a “VIP Rendezvous” attended by models, stylists and audience members paying up to $50 for admission, and explained how his creation has evolved from a simple showcase for designers who happened to be Christian.
“Really quickly we found out how hard that was,” he said. “The designers that wear Christianity on their sleeve are not that good, and the ones that are really good don’t wear it on their sleeves.” (Indeed, only one of this year’s designers, Jean Huni of London, had an overt religious reference in her brand, Messiah Couture, which offered gowns to rival Badgley Mischka’s. Another, Constance Franklin, with a trousseau-inspired collection that included high-waist red pants and a big white hat, said she had been inspired by the futuristic, geometric buildings she saw on trips to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.)
The four then decided to challenge designers, secular ones as well, to make conservative clothes “for that modest, covered Christian woman,” Gomez said. “We’re not talking about Muslim Fashion Week.” (And yes, Virginia, there is such a thing.) “Just a little more conservative.”
But policing hems and necklines proved “highly subjective and culturally relative,” as another Christian fashion blogger, Whitney Bauck of Unwrinkling, posted after the shows in 2014. Online critiques like this, some rather more fiery, drove the Gomezes and Lugos back to their Bibles. “What we found was that what we were promoting and advocating was very weakly enforced in Scripture,” Gomez said. “There’s not really a lot about covering up. It’s mostly about not acting gaudy.”
Like Scripture itself, the gaudiness of conventional fashion is open to infinite interpretation. But curiously enough, both theological language and missionary zeal have been ringing through the high temples of retail lately, from Net-a-Porter’s Bless (Be the Best, etc.) to Zappos’ commandment-like set of 10 family core values.
Christian Fashion Week’s organizers have produced their own abbreviation, CARE, which stands for contextual modesty (“there’s different things you wear at different times, and that’s absolutely OK,” as Gomez put it), affordability, responsible use of natural resources, and ethical hiring and casting.
“Those things are much closer to the heart of God than cleavage is,” Gomez said firmly.
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Still, the organization has struggled to find sufficient funds; its leaders would like to attract a major Christian corporate sponsor, as Mercedes-Benz has been to fashion weeks in New York, London and other cities.
“We probably don’t want a Chick-fil-A,” Gomez said, “but maybe a Forever 21.” (Or maybe not, given Forever 21’s repeated citations for workplace safety violations from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.)
In mid-December, forced to trim a marketing, venue and production budget of $30,000, Christian Fashion Week issued a dramatic pronouncement that this season would be its last.
“But this is Christian Fashion Week,” Gomez said at Aloft with a practiced twinkle, “and so there could be a resurrection.”
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The coffers may not be overflowing, but there was contextual modesty in abundance the next afternoon at the Vault, where vendor tables bore pink and purple bottles of Sexiest Fantasies Body Mist, large containers of protein powder for bodybuilders, lacy lingerie and samples of a makeup line called Divine Image Cosmetics (“Get the Look of an Angel”).
Upstairs, models were staring into the eternal glow of their smartphones, waiting to have their hair scraped into buns and braids and their faces painted.
One, Edwich Desroches, 30, said Mayra Gomez had essentially saved her after a bad experience in Miami with a John Casablancas Career Center, the modeling school franchise with tenuous, at best, connections to the Elite founder for whom it is named.
“I’ve been doing photo shoots, commercials — it’s been fun,” she said. “I’m more into empowering young girls. There’s a lot of young girls that don’t know their self-worth. They don’t have that confidence, not knowing that beauty is not outside, with the makeup and stuff. It starts from within.”
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In the hallway, Olivia Pollard, 19, a nursing student modeling as a hobby and about to embark on her maiden voyage down the runway, was slurping a slushy pink drink through a straw so as not to disturb her lipstick.
“I’m really nervous, but I’m excited,” she said. “I like the Christian background, because I’m a Christian — nondenominational. It’s nice that you have designers that cover you up.”
Zoe Thomas, a sloe-eyed high school student who wants to be an actress, agreed. When it comes to the fashion mainstream, she prefers Tory Burch, Vera Wang “and Michael Kors, of course,” she said, but “I wouldn’t wear anything that is showing my butt, or a really low V-neck or anything.”
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Gomez was vigorously shepherding these young charges, though a broken right foot had deterred her own plans for a lap around the catwalk.
“You need more lips! You need more lips!” she hollered at one colleen whose chin was trembling with anticipatory anxiety. “Tell them to deepen your lips. You need to tell her to shine you up. Shine you up!”
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Working behind a curtain from her “graveyard,” a large box of pigments and unguents, was the hair and makeup coordinator of Christian Fashion Week, Neva Durham, aka Neva the Diva.
Durham, of Lakeland, Florida, said that she had trained herself on YouTube and specialized in body-painting, but was focusing here on muted versions of cosmetics’ current greatest hits, assisted by about 15 people.
“I have an eye to be able to create on demand with the gift that God has given me,” she said. “You can have a dramatic eye and not look like a drag queen, you know what I mean? You can have a smoky eye and look nice and elegant.”
She was fixing the hair of a designer, Aleksandra Salo of Provo, Utah, who was preparing to send out a collection of carefully seamed sheaths and said with some disdain of the mainstream fashion industry: “We’re focusing so much on the woman’s body and less on who she is. If you look in the history, women of class, like Jackie O. — what kind of clothes did they wear? All of it was modest, all of it was tailored.”
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Downstairs again, Gomez barked: “This will start on time. I am not the kind of person who will start a 7 o’clock show at 7:45 — oh hell no!”
But first she led a short prayer session, asking God for the safety of everyone on the runway and for the audience to be open-minded about what constituted Christian fashion.
When it came to the latter matter, Gomez would have her work cut out for her.
“What does not appeal to me is this trend of less and less and less material for women’s clothing,” said Kim Albritton, an interior decorator from Lithia, Florida, who was sitting in the middle of the front row, as glamorous as Anna Wintour with her brunette bob, black-and-white jacket and coppery necklaces. “I have two daughters, and I cannot tell you how many times I said to them: ‘Absolutely not. You will not be getting booty shorts!'”
Decrying “50 Shades of Grey” and the Kardashian circus, Albritton said she teaches Bible study to high school girls and regularly lectures them on the shortness of their skirts.
“Those goodies that God gave you are supposed to be saved for your husband, so you need to put things away and leave some mystery in there,” she said. “I don’t care anything about seeing a woman with everything she has showing through her shirt on the runway. I don’t have any desire. That’s not fashion to me.”
In fact, in the show’s finale, a model did come down the runway with her bra showing through her lace capelet.
Emerian, the blogger from Fresno, leaned over and said in a stage whisper, “How’s that for Christian fashion?”
Not that she seemed too exercised about it.
“Christians are being beheaded around the world, and people are debating yoga pants; it’s really upsetting,” she said. “I mean there are more important things we can be talking about.”