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FASHION : Divine Inspiration : More for a Cool Look Than for Religion, the Virgin Mary Icon Is a Best-Selling Icon

August 18, 1994|ROSE APODACA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The faithfully fashionable are at it again.

Trendy devotees wore crosses last year on advice not from the Pope, but from Donna Karan. Modern evening dressing meant somber, monastic designs from Calvin Klein.

Now the truly hip have gone a step further. Their inspiration is neither Karan nor Klein, but the Virgin Mary.

Her image is turning up in nightclubs, coffeehouses and wherever else scenesters congregate. And in no other incarnation is she more popular than as Our Lady of Guadalupe.

So much so that the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art is negotiating with the Mexican government to bring the collection of artifacts from Our Lady of Guadalupe basilica in Mexico City to Santa Ana. This, spokesman Brian Langston says, is because of continuing pop interest in the blessed mother--including hot sales of T-shirts and car stick-shift knobs from the museum store.

"La Virgen de Guadalupe is a very high-profile image in Southern California because of the large Latino population," says Billy Shire, owner of La Luz de Jesus gallery and Soap Plant on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, which stocks a host of Catholic- and Day of the Dead-related items for home and body. The attraction, he says, is "imagery that's so intense." He adds that the appeal for many young customers is pure kitsch.

Na Na's Paul Kaufman attributes the fascination with things Catholic to an abundance of "great stuff available, like a 3-D picture of Mary that turns into Jesus or votive candles. There are so many rich visuals." Na Na has carried earrings, chokers, brooches, bolo ties, candles and pillows since the original store opened in Santa Monica in 1976. "It's about having a healthy irreverence for things that people take seriously," he says.

That take hits home for Hi-Fi owner Sean Barger, who credits a "really heavy, strict Catholic upbringing" for his design inspiration. "Our Lady" appears on wallets, watches, undershirts and on buttons sewn on pants and knit shirts by the Costa Mesa-based streetwear label.

"It always amazed me how my family's lives were so consumed by their religion and how certain symbols made them react," says Barger, who has included other Catholic images in the collection.

Sacred heart items have done well for Hi-Fi, as well as for the more mainstream designs of Mossimo, who has stamped his own version on Zippo lighters. As a tattoo, the sacred heart shows up in more renditions--space age and literal interpretations, with veiny valves and all--than the Virgin.

Although genuinely religious customers account for some of the brisk sales, the general consensus is that the trend has less to do with faith and more to do with fashion.

"People are always locking on to symbols, like crosses or tribal pattern tattoos," says Steve Wagoner of Rack N Ruin/Dead Cow in Lake Forest, which distributes belt buckles and chain wallets featuring "Our Lady" to alternative-wear boutiques and to skate and surf shops. "They want to be bold, but I don't think it's to shock like it used to be. I don't think you can shock anyone with anything anymore."

Are consumers of Catholic-themed merchandise searching for some deeper meaning in their lives?

No, Wagoner says. "They're just looking for something cool."

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