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Spun From a Belief in God's Design

After shedding his life as a fashion designer, a Filipino monk draws on his past profession to create remarkable vestments from indigenous fabric suited to the island climate.

May 02, 2000|MARGARET RAMIREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The subdued Filipino monk in the flowing black robe suddenly becomes animated. He's talking about clothes.

He has caused a stir in religious circles by designing a striking collection of Roman Catholic vestments, those pieces of liturgical clothing worn by priests. There are 50 vestments, all hand-woven by indigenous people of the Philippines and each with its own origin.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 5, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong number--A telephone number listed Tuesday for information on an exhibit of liturgical vestments at the Museum of Cultural Diversity in the South Bay Pavilion was incorrect. The correct number is (310) 324-4702.

But behind the vestments lies another story of how a man at the height of his fame as a fashion designer turned to God, then to solitude, and finally found a way to use his gifts as a clothier to serve his maker.

He was once known as Gang Gomez, one of the hottest fashion designers to emerge from the Philippines. Noted for the crisp lines on his Filipino-inspired gowns, the couture designer was all the rage in his homeland during the 1980s. He eventually opened a shop on Manila's fashion row--Remedios Circle--and gained notoriety by clothing the richest, most powerful women of the Philippines, including former first lady Imelda Marcos.

Then, in 1990, after 17 years in the business, Gomez shocked the fashion world when he closed his design house to become a monk. For most of his life, Gomez felt something was missing. Only after abandoning his family, friends and a career he loved did he find that his true identity lay in a Benedictine monastery, under a black-hooded robe, close to God.

Almost seven years passed when, in 1996, the monk now known as Dom Martin de Jesus Gomez was asked to lecture on materials and designs for liturgical vestments in Rome. That request reawakened the designer who had died within him and, after some initial research, he was inspired to design again. Only this time, the collection would use fabrics woven by the indigenous people of the Philippines. This time, the clothes would be for the celebration of the Mass.

Work on the collection took him on a journey through the uplands of the eastern Cordilleras mountains to the rain forests and mountains of southern Mindanao, where fibers are spun from the trunks of banana and pineapple trees, and tribes guard their fabrics as if they were gold.

His collection of vestments was unveiled at an unusual fashion show in Manila in 1998, with priests walking the runway in the garments. The religious wear arrived in Southern California on March 4, through cooperation with the Los Angeles Archdiocese Office of Filipino Ministry, and was shown at the annual Religious Education Congress in Anaheim last month before being transferred to the little-known Museum of Cultural Diversity in Carson. It will be displayed until May 28.

After the exhibition closes, it is uncertain where the vestments will go next. The collection may go to other museums in the United States, but, eventually, the garments will be returned to the Philippines to be used by clergy.

The collection includes a magnificent variety of stoles, the long strips of cloth worn around the neck; chasubles, sleeveless outer garments; and copes, cape-like coverings. Of the vestments, several stand out. One rose-colored chasuble made from Yakan fabric from Basilan Island also has a stole with threads of seven colors, a Muslim influence. A cream-colored chasuble highlights the intricate patterns of T'nalak cloth. The woven banana cloth, which looks like a fine linen at a distance, is made by T'boli, an indigenous people in the lake-studded Tiruray highlands of Cotabato.

"I'm proud of this one," he said. "But put that word in quotes. I'm a monk; we're not supposed to be proud."

For Gomez, who was in Southern California for the exhibition's opening, the collection remains a grand feat. On April 18, the day before he left Los Angeles to return to the Monastery of the Transfiguration in the Philippines, he said the collection had revealed a way for him to weave the two patterns of his life into one fabric of faith.

"I knew exactly what I was doing: I was offering something to God. At some point, it dawned on me. What I had given up years before, the Lord has now given it back to me," Gomez said.

When some of his old friends hear him talk like that, they still can't believe it's Gang--a nickname that came not as a trendy fashion label, but from younger cousins who had trouble pronouncing his given name, Edgardo.

A Quest for the Spiritual

While many associates were stunned when he left for the monastery, Gomez said the idea had been inside him for a long time. After he received the annual design award from the New York Fashion Designers Foundation in 1971, he visited a seminary in New Hyde Park, N.Y. His parents didn't like the idea of his pursuing a religious life and urged him not to let his gifts as a designer go to waste.

Still, a spiritual hunger kept gnawing at his soul until he couldn't bear it any longer. When asked about the difficult decision to leave fashion and enter the monastery, Gomez hesitated a moment, trying to hold back his tears. Then he smiled and explained:

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