Vatican tailors, cobblers try to adapt to Francis's 'papal athleisure'

Vatican tailors, cobblers try to adapt to Francis’s ‘papal athleisure’

Vatican tailors, cobblers try to adapt to Francis’s ‘papal athleisure’

(Credit: Claire Giangravè.)

Pope Francis's emphasis on simplicity and frugality is a hit all around the world, but it's produced just a bit of backlash among fashion-conscious Italians, including an exclusive club of tailors and shoemakers who outfit pontiffs -- some of whom are a little nostalgic for the days when being pope also meant dressing to the nines.

ROME – An exclusive group of tailors and cobblers who cater to the Vatican are slowly adapting to Pope Francis’s penchant for simple and plain clothing, which has inspired a demand for more practical and comfortable frocks from clergy around the world.

The Argentinian pope’s call for a Church that is dynamic and “on the move” has translated into a preference for religious clothing reflecting that zeal, and is no longer constrained by heavy fabrics and embellishments.

“Maybe once we were a bit excessive, and now slowly…” said Raniero Mancinelli, who has been a tailor for the clergy and popes for decades, in an interview with Crux.

Popes through history have always been fashion trendsetters, since they exercise influence over a vast community and their choice of jewelry and clothing often says a lot about the mission and message of the pontificate.

The past three “foreign popes,” meaning not from Italy, took a unique approach to classic papal style, and, sharing an astute grasp of the media, have left us with iconic images that will last for the ages.

No one could rock a cape like Pope John Paul II, and pictures showing his red mantle billowing in the wind, or gently wrapped around children, have left a lasting impression on Christian and secular culture. Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, a European, dusted off the classic papal staples and ushered them into the new millennium with his unique sense of style.

Francis’s preference for ‘papal athleisure,’ meanwhile, has already begun to leave its mark on history.

In 2013, the magazine Esquire, which focuses mostly on male fashion, named Pope Francis ‘The Best Dressed Man of the Year.’ The choice was obviously controversial, and the magazine explained it by saying that the pope’s style has “signaled a new era (and for many, renewed hope) for the Catholic Church.”

Adapting to Pope Francis’s style

In a small shop on the Borgo Pio, a picturesque street next door to the Vatican, Raniero Mancinelli slices away at fabric on the counter, scarlet and black scraps falling to the ground with every cut of his scissors.

Over his head, etched in wood is his name and the date the shop was opened: 1962. Mancinelli has been in the business of dressing popes for a long time, and therefore has had a front-row seat to the changes that occurred in religious garb from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) to this day.

“It’s not as if before the clothes were more luxurious or pricey, maybe a bit more flashy and rich with details,” Mancinelli said. “Today this has changed a bit. Now with Pope Francis’s direction, people want things that are much lighter, simpler and more sober…. and consequently less expensive.”

As an example, the veteran tailor said that the cross usually worn by bishops and cardinals used to be adorned with gems and gold plating.

“Now these are more popular,” he said pointing to plain crosses made of metal and wood. A quick look at the tags shows a significant difference in price.

Asked if this pope is not very good for his business, Mancinelli laughed.

“Yes… a bit,” he said, because the demand has diminished and the clothes are less costly. “A double loss, in a sense.

“It’s not a question of agreeing. One accepts this manner he has of doing things in a simpler fashion,” Mancinelli said.

But the tailor is not saddened by the change, though he admits that, to him, religious clothing has become a little plain.

“Maybe too plain compared to how they were before,” he added.

Mancinelli started his business just as the Church underwent a profound revolution. He was there when Pope Paul VI eliminated the train that cardinals used to wear, which could be up to seven meters long.

He spoke of a time when “a crease could not be ignored,” while today anything is acceptable. Pope Francis’s torn-up sleeve as he returned from a visit to the beach town of Ostia, for instance, took over the Internet in 2013.

“His vestment is very simple, he has had it for a long time,” Mancinelli said, adding that white is a very sensitive color and, by being in close contact with so many people, is susceptible to being ruined.

“I don’t exclude the possibility that in the evening he just puts it to wash, and wears it again the next morning,” he sighed.

Pope Francis also chose to have a smaller sash that is not made of silk, and breaking with tradition he refused to have his emblem etched on it.

“He’s not picky,” Mancinelli said. “I wanted to make him a new pair of trousers. His are black, and I wanted to make lighter pants to wear under the cassock. ‘No,’ he said. ‘These are fine.’

“In everything, the pope has chosen simplicity,” he said. “Things that are not expensive.”

Mancinelli admits that having grown up in a different time, he has a preference for things that are well-fitted and precise, but he also recognizes that “if the pope decided to take this position, it means that there is a reason.

“Maybe now we can concentrate more on the will of God instead of men,” he added.

The two main things to keep in mind when working for the pope, he said, are discretion and adaptability.

“The first day can be a bit shocking,” Mancinelli said, since you have to get used to a different taste and aesthetic, but after a few days he says, “you learn the differences.”

Mancinelli had a good relationship with Pope Benedict XVI. He “used vestments that were a bit more beautiful, let’s say, in the sense that they were more beautiful to look at,” he said.

Now, clergy from around the world ask Mancinelli for Pope Francis-inspired cassocks, ready for the daily wear and tear. But this new style has its advantages when it comes to time consumption.

“Once we only used silk, today the fabrics are simpler. I am making clothes for some cardinals,” Mancinelli added pointing to the scarlet scraps that littered the floor. “The fabric is very simple, made of wool and light [material].”

Silk takes much more time to sow, and the simpler fabrics mean less time to make the clothes, he said.

Pope Francis “is more focused on being a good father, a good shepherd, rather than having a beautiful cassock or pants, or even shoes,” Mancinelli said. “I wish I could live many more years, so I can see what happens next!”

The Case Of The Red Shoes

Any Italian will tell you that one key to a good look is a fine pair of shoes. Footwear is not taken lightly in the Bel Paese, and a poor choice is guaranteed to provoke criticism and directions to some cousin who can fix you up.

Pope Benedict XVI knew the importance of a good pair of shoes, and his custom-made red slippers became a trademark of his style and even earned him the title of ‘Best Accessorizer of the Year’ by Esquire magazine in 2007.

Gossip ran wild with who might be the maker of the ruby-colored papal slippers, with some claiming that they were made by the Italian fashion powerhouse Prada. But in 2005 the rumors were finally put to rest when the a cobbler from a small town in northern Italy presented Pope Benedict XVI with the shoes for all the world to see during a general audience at St. Peter’s Square.

“Dressed in white with that red shoe… it really catches the eye!” Adriano Stefanelli, a cobbler and the creator of the famous slippers, told Crux in a phone interview.

“When it comes to clothes and such things he is a very, very elegant person,” Stefanelli said about the emeritus pope, adding proudly that “the peak of his splendor” took place when he first wore the red shoes.

Italian cobbler Adriano Stefanelli presents Pope Benedict XVI with his custom made red shoes at the Vatican. (Credit: Adriano Stefanelli.)

Italian cobbler Adriano Stefanelli presents Pope Benedict XVI with his custom made red shoes at the Vatican. (Credit: Adriano Stefanelli.)

Stefanelli prepared six shoes in total for the German pope throughout his pontificate. He was commissioned by the Vatican for the first time in late 2013, but the high-ranking client was not satisfied with the order. Stefanelli had made the shoes in claret, the color preferred by the now-saint John Paul II, but the demand was clear: They had to be red.

“During his pontificate I received requests from all over the world for the same slipper, some wanted it red, others black,” Stefanelli said, citing among the buyers the former president of the United States, George Bush, for whom he made an identical pair in black.

The cobbler from Novara defines Pope Francis’s style as “rustic simplicity,” and places him as the “polar opposite of Pope Benedict” in terms of fashion.

“Pope Francis represents humility. Very plain clothing and a simple cross,” Stefanelli said.

“… He doesn’t wear the red shoes.”

Pope Francis opted for the services of his cobbler in Buenos Aires, Carlos Samaria, after he was elected. Speaking to the Italian daily La Stampa, Samaria said that the pope insisted that there be “no red shoes, black as always.”

And again, speaking to his niece Maria Ines, the pope said: “See that I am not wearing the red shoes?”

Stefanelli denies being hurt by the pope choosing not to wear his flamboyant slippers.

“Every man has his style,” he said.

He began his career as a papal cobbler by gifting a pair of shoes to Pope John Paul II, who preferred them to be dark brown and was so pleased with them that he became a regular client.

“Pope Wojtyla is kind of similar to Pope Francis. Maybe Pope Wojtyla was slightly more refined, while Pope Francis views clothing and style in a very humble way,” Stefanelli added.

When asked if he would be happy to make red shoes for Pope Francis, should he ask, Stefanelli said “Gladly. But I have my doubts.”

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