Making Evangelization Fashionable
If women’s apparel seems like a challenging missionary territory, it is.
Chasing Grace, a Sonoma-based women’s apparel and jewelry company that bills itself as “Christian luxury”, began in 2015 with the friendship of Catholics Allison Sebastiani and Beth Fenton, and their Adventist friend Stacie Elkhoury. Currently, their store is mostly online, but their products are also available at a boutique and occasional pop-up shops. Chasing Grace markets itself as tasteful, luxurious Christian style. It attempts to bring timeless truths to the constant fads of the fashion industry. If this seems like a challenging missionary territory, it is.
Allison Sebastiani studied art history in Florence, where she saw the entwining of art and the Catholic faith. She had seen lots of modern Christian t-shirts, but she wanted one with the Virgin Mary that would be very feminine. Sebastiani wanted the company to be based in the United States. The fabrics are from Los Angeles, while the products are manufactured in Arcata, California. She said, “We want to be committed to ethics. We care about the environment and transparency… We make sure our cottons are ethical, sustainable, and local.” As a Christian in the business world, Sebastiani commented, “Our priorities are maintaining relationships, faith, humility, and generosity… We start meetings with prayer.”
Sebastiani discussed how Christianity is portrayed in her apparel line. She said, “Sometimes it’s subtle. The cross is the most popular t-shirt. It sold out at our first launch party. We have the dove that represents peace. The Holy Trinity is shown as subtle, modern, and geometric. The stigmata are representing the brutality of Christianity. The Virgin Mary is from a vintage prayer card, deconstructed.” Sebastiani summed up her clothing line’s style, saying, “We try to keep it simple, subtle, and open to interpretation. We keep it pure, simple, artistic, to be interpreted by the buyer. It’s stripped down and raw. The beauty is what speaks to them.”
Beth Fenton said the clothing line reflects her faith in that “they create an opportunity to share my faith and allowing others to share theirs. The prospect of starting a movement of testimony, love, and kindness, is thrilling.”
Stacie Elkhoury, who is married to a Catholic, commented that the apparel line evangelizes “Through subtle yet welcoming imagery and words. Using local companies and sources that contribute to the communities that we live in and support our children and families.”
Fenton remarked, “I wanted to be a part of Chasing Grace because I truly believe our approach to testimony is novel. It is creative, it is positive and it offers an opportunity to those that want to share their faith in a manner that is comfortable for them, in the elegance and the subtleties of the artwork and messages. I love the idea of tackling the challenge of creating pieces and artwork that transcend denomination and prompts conversation about Christ and His love.”
“Modesty and elegance are not mutually exclusive,” said Fenton. “One cannot evoke elegance without a modest approach to fashion. Often looks that are overly ostentatious or too revealing do not have the needed simplicity or sophistication associated with tasteful dress. When we design, we start from a place of simplicity and as the piece comes together we incorporate individual styling elements that represent the Christian faith honestly ... but always from a place of reverence and appreciation.”
The term “luxury” has been problematic. Elkhoury admitted the term is a “loaded one.” Fenton and Sebastiani define “luxury” as being made in the United States, and California in particular. Sebastiani commented that Chasing Grace has been criticized for its pricing of items like T-shirts and baseball caps, saying she’s been working to make it more affordable.
Sebastiani discussed the ecumenical nature of her business. She said, “The differences between Adventists and Catholics definitely impact for the better. The Adventists bring something new. It’s all saying the same thing. We have a better understanding of what is shared by all Christians. We focus on what we have in common. It’s been educational and unifying.”
Elkhoury commented on “the partnership of the two of the very polarized sectors of Christianity”, saying, “We believe in Christ, we put Him first, and we work hard to share that belief together with others.”
Fenton said, “We practice our faiths differently as individuals but ultimately we want to engage with and proliferate Christ’s peace. ... It is that idea of unity and commonality that makes Chasing Grace so unique.”
Chasing Grace is partnered with the Compassion Collective, a charity with notable celebrities like former pastor Rob Bell and “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert. Sebastiani said, “They were doing a campaign for (Syrian) refugees. We will be working with a local Sonoma Christian charity.” Fenton and Sebastiani said they prioritize mothers and children when they choose charities.
Businesses like Chasing Grace bring up important questions that are a source of struggle. But promoting one’s company as evangelizing a ‘mere Christianity’ poses problems for Catholics. And we see the difficulties when ‘evangelism’ devolves into ambiguity and indifferentism. Can one evangelize by transcending denominational and religious boundaries? Are religious symbols merely appropriated for décor, without treating their meaning as having any ultimate importance? In 1 Corinthians 9:22-23, St. Paul says, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” While he saw inculturation as important, such as in his dispute with St. Peter (Galatians 2:11-21) over the inclusion of Gentile Christians without circumcision, he warned against conforming to the fashionable (Romans 12:2). St. Paul preached to Jews and Gentiles alike, but it was not a watered down spirituality that “transcended” the Church or Christianity. When he and his companion St. Barnabas were mistaken for the gods Zeus and Hermes, they preached the Gospel (Acts 14:8-18). If anything, the incident at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-41) shows that religious symbols have meaning. The Ephesian silversmiths saw their statues of Artemis not only as their livelihood, but also as a figure of worship.
Preaching the Gospel — evangelism — cannot be rooted in indifference. One must be inflamed like the Apostles at Pentecost, or St. Paul, when he was illumined with his conversion. It requires the courage of one’s convictions.