Fashion Expert: ‘My Greatest Inspiration Is Our Lady’
Catholics, the Fashion Industry and the Call to Beauty: Meet the academic who believes beauty and fashion are linked to holiness.
“Fashion is about communication. We are all unique. God has not created us only to wear black and a t-shirt. We are all different in dress, according to our looks and lifestyle. Real fashion looks at our weak and strong points so we can become an artist in expressing God’s beauty through our bodies.”
Meet Isabel Cantista.
She lectured at the Catholic University in Porto, University of Porto and and ISEM (the fashion business school within IESE) in Barcelona before obtaining her Ph.D. in management and business studies from the University of Sheffield. She has worked in the fashion industry for more than a decade. Today, she lectures in marketing and innovation at Universidade Lusíada do Porto. She is a member of the Expert Panel for the Executive Agency for Competitiveness and Innovation of the European Commission. As well as being guest editor at the Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management and referee for the European Journal of Marketing, she has published several books and papers about fashion. Her last book, edited with Teresa Sádaba from ISEM Fashion Business School, part of the University of Navarra, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in November 2019 and is titled: Understanding Luxury Fashion: From Emotions to Brand Building.
Cantista is under no illusions about the importance of today’s fashion industry, “not only because of the huge amounts of money it makes,” she says, “but because fashion is a powerful tool in terms of communication, both in individual and in social terms. It makes us happier when we see ourselves in the mirror, but it also affects other people’s opinion of us. That is why fashion makes money.”
So who better than Cantista to answer the questions: Is fashion something Catholics should be concerned about? Or is it only for the worldly?
Speaking to the Register this fall from her home in Porto, Portugal, Cantista is clear about her mission, stating, “Being an academic, I try to study fashion, bringing together other people from academia and industry who may make a difference, pushing forward more positive fashions that will bring people closer to what God is: Beauty and Goodness.”
Is there, therefore, a spiritual dimension to her work in the fashion industry? “Yes, absolutely,” she replied. “The two dimensions that set human beings apart from other species are aesthetics and ethics. This means we are the only living beings who may feel strong emotions, a mix of joy and wonder, when we stumble on something beautiful. And, at the same time, we are the only beings who are able to realize the purposes of our actions and to determine whether we want to pursue them or not. There is no other industry — other than fashion — in which we may actually ‘touch’ these two characteristics in such a powerful way.” She added, “Being a Catholic, I believe God is Beauty and Goodness, so there is definitely a strong spiritual dimension in fashion.”
In financial terms alone, the global fashion industry is huge. According to Euromonitor, the fashion industry is the world’s second-largest consumer goods business, coming in just after food and drink. In 2018 alone, clothing and footwear had a retail sales’ value totaling $1,786 billion U.S. If you add to this perfumes and other beauty products, as well as high-end watches and jewelry, you get a glimpse of the vast sums.
For many Catholics, however, the fashion industry can appear to be positively anti-Christian, with one word missing from any advertising, namely, “modesty.” Does Cantista agree with this negative view? “No,” she replied. “Looking at fashion from the start of the 20th century, it has been linked to lifestyles that were perceived as bohemian, if not immoral. I think things are better today. People working in the industry are more professionals rather than ‘mad artists.’ But I do think fashion communication lacks professionals: models, photographers and video producers who can contribute to situations so that fashion might be perceived in a different way.
“If you walk down the street, in most places you see people who are modest in their dress. But presenting yourself in an elegant way does not come easily: You have to invest time (although not necessarily lots of money) so that you have the right fashion items in your closet — not too many, but just what you need to go ahead with your life: the right colors that make you shine and that will make you feel attractive and comfortable. If you want to write a good book, or clean up your house, it comes with effort. So does fashion.”
Cantista goes on to point out that one of the recent trends in fashion, and one that is growing stronger yearly, is the idea of a “capsule wardrobe.” She explained, “You may only have 12 pieces of clothing, but you dress with them in 30 or more different ways. This is good for the planet, and it is definitely good for you. But it does not happen by accident.”
Cantista’s reference to the planet is timely. The fashion industry may be a huge entity, but it is also one of the most polluting. “It is the second-most-polluting industry [in the world]; that is why it is so important to move towards a circular economy and a more sustainable model of fashion: producing less, with biodegradable materials, buying less, caring more for what we buy,” she said.
In her career, does she have any examples of where being Catholic has made a difference for the better in a fashion design or project? “One of the projects I have got involved with is an annual conference that promotes a more sustainable fashion with human life and dignity at the center. It is called the Global Fashion Conference. I started this project 10 years ago, and the success it has achieved so far is due to a lot of good people I met over the years and through God’s will. My publications can also help in this regard. I try to make a difference through my work.”
Human dignity is the key component to her work. Cantista said that, “regardless of culture, the fashion that is according to human dignity will naturally present you as a man or a woman. It will bring attention to your face, as this is the first part of your body to be seen when you enter a personal relationship with someone. When you do not look at someone’s eyes, you may say you never met this person. It is impossible,” she continued, “to be identified as someone if you are just a body. This evidence stems from different streams of research. Sometimes people feel this but are not fully aware of it.”
This does not seem to be the prime motivation for many working in today’s fashion industry, so is it difficult being a Catholic in that world? “It is not difficult,” admitted Cantista, “but sometimes it is very hard. In all the work I have developed, I have never encountered so many difficulties of different sorts to overcome as in projects that have to do with fashion. Sometimes I say to people working with me that I can almost see the devil’s hand trying to stop me. But then, every single time, by the end, I see miracles. That is why I am convinced that God wants more good people working in the fashion industry.”
Would she go further still and see her work in fashion as a corporal work of mercy, namely, “clothing the naked”? “I see fashion as having multiple dimensions,” she observed. “It has a dimension of mercy, ‘clothing the naked,’ but, as I said previously, fashion is much more than just that. It has a dimension of beauty and care for ourselves, for others and the planet. Every human being is a child of God. Therefore, we should not keep our mission in this [fashion], or in any other matter, to a minimum.”
So who are her spiritual inspirations? Is there a patron saint for those working in fashion? “Interestingly,” she pointed out, “when St. Thomas Aquinas was asked about wearing makeup by his sister, he replied in the affirmative, as it was a way of making women attractive to others.” Then she went on to say, “My greatest inspiration is Our Lady. We can never think of her without noticing her presentation as being simple and beautiful at the same time. From the Bible we know that the tunic of Jesus was seamless, and this means it was made with care. So Jesus had probably very little to wear: a white tunic, a pair of sandals; but his tunic was probably made for him by his mother, and that was the reason why it was not ripped apart [at the Crucifixion].”
Finally, what advice would Cantista give to any Catholic thinking of working in today’s fashion industry? “We are called to make the world what it should be. A negative approach to the world means that we refuse to go into certain types of environments, such as fashion. But I say: Go ahead. Be coherent. Trust God. Whatever you do in the fashion world, you will certainly make a difference, as Our Lady, our Mother, will be with you always.”