From a Romanian convent to the runways of high fashion

Fashion designers draw inspiration from all over – indigenous dress, professional uniforms, royal costumes. Now designers with the fashion house Versace are looking to a particularly unusual source: the fabric made by Romanian nuns in a 19th-century convent.

The nuns in the Tiganesti Convent, near the capital city of Bucharest, weave a vivid Byzantine silk that is encrusted with metallic embroidery for priests' robes – and it may soon debut on the catwalks at fashion shows. The Romanian Orthodox Church disclosed recently that Versace is negotiating to buy the fabric.

Not all the nuns are thrilled by this news. "We don't want to dress mannequins. We want the cloth to be used in church," says Mother Mira, who runs the workshops but is not involved in the negotiations.

But some feel differently. "I'm happy the cloth will be used by a fashion designer," says Sister Justinian, her brown eyes dancing at the thought. "Don't they have material like this abroad?"

The convent began making the cloth in 1924 as employment for the nuns. The sisters have sold it before, but never to a fashion house. Bolts of the shimmering cloth have been purchased by churches in the United States, France, and Germany to make vestments. Wives of diplomats visiting the nunnery sometimes bought the colorful fabric to make jackets.

A yard of the Byzantine cloth – in tones of amber, aquamarine, mint green, scarlet, or cream – costs $4.50 to $14. Imported German or Italian material of similar quality would cost about $120 a yard in a Bucharest fashion shop.

Nuns work day or evening shifts in a room reeking of the oil that keeps the looms running smoothly. Paper icons of sacred symbols have been pinned to the machines to remind the nuns they are working for God, not haute couture.

Romanian fashion designer Catalin Botezatu, a protégé of the late Gianni Versace, agrees that the cloth would make beautiful clothes. "The Romanians haven't always appreciated this material, but they will," she says.

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