Sewing the Sacred: Finding the Catholic Faith Amid Fashion
Star designer-turned-tailor of the liturgical-garment world says, ‘God drew me in through beauty.’
NORWALK, Connecticut — Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone in San Francisco and Father Paul Murphy in Darien, Connecticut, have a thread in common. Vesting for the solemn pontifical Mass for the feast of St. Junípero Serra at Mission Dolores in San Francisco on July 1, Archbishop Cordileone put on the pontifical alb custom designed and tailored for the occasion by Susan-Jayne Caballero, the founder of Sacra Indumenta in Norwalk, Connecticut. Putting on new rose vestments on the last Gaudete and Laetare Sundays, Father Murphy in Darien, the town next to Norwalk, donned the chasuble commissioned from the same designer-tailor.
Caballero designed the alb for Archbishop Cordileone using a custom new pattern with vintage details, complemented with vintage construction techniques and hand-sewn details. For the intricate detailing, she used “pure lightweight Irish linen and coordinating lace cuffs of special handmade Italian lace, designed with a cruciform and floral motif, over the crimson silk moiré lining.” Four acolytes at the Mass wore surplices made by Sacra Indumenta.
In Darien, St. Thomas More Church did not own rose vestments for the two Sundays a year this liturgical color is used. When a family offered to donate them, the church commissioned Sacra Indumenta. The result: a Mass set of 13 pieces, including dalmatics (the tunics worn by deacons) and a chalice veil.
“This was one of the most joyful to work on. Joy was infused due to the color and the purpose of using them on Gaudete and Laetare Sundays,” said Caballero.
Only 50 miles separates Norwalk from the fashion-design world in New York City, but it is a world away from the kind of designing-tailoring Caballero once did for Ralph Lauren, Diane Von Furstenberg and Tommy Hilfiger, where, in vice presidencies, she eventually headed teams of designers and artists. But today, with Sacra Indumenta, she sees a connection — even to how, along her fashion journey, she converted to Catholicism.
A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology with a BFA in tailoring specialization, which is a specific type of fashion designer, Caballero continued her tailoring education at ESMOD, a private school in Paris. Then came a 15-year stretch with Ralph Lauren, “an extremely long time for the fashion industry,” she recalled to the Register. “It gave me everything that I use today, from the love of antiquity and the love of detail to consummate tailoring at its finest.”
Her work afforded Caballero the opportunity to travel the world, “having the advantage of going to vintage flea markets all over Europe, being inspired by handwork from yesteryear, beautiful embroideries, great stitching techniques, construction qualities of fabric, woven prints, you name it. It was such an education because everything that we designed was inspired by the great things of the past, museum pieces.”
She continued, “And there’s the synergy with sacred vestments because there is not a disconnect between what is classically inspired by the art of sacred vestments. All of the liturgical arts, every one of them, is at the highest point of connecting what we have here on earth, as the best we have, the humblest offering to God, who gives us way more than we could ever give him. So the pursuit of beauty — beautiful lines, beautiful fabric, beautiful execution, lasting modern heirlooms — is part and parcel of what sacred vestments are. I just didn’t know it at the time. But there was a foundation that God gave me in my first job.”
More groundwork for what would become Sacra Indumenta was also laid unknowingly in Parisian vintage markets, where she remembers seeing lots of “dilapidated sacred vestments. It always pulled on my heart. I wasn’t Catholic. I was an extremely devout, very traditional Lutheran, where vestments mattered, but not to the degree that they do in the Catholic Church.” Paris also provided another faith step for this fashion designer: In Europe, she was exposed to “cathedrals beyond my wildest imagination that looked even bigger and more decorated than St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I just couldn’t even imagine that because I had been in New York for so long.” In Paris, she visited Sacre-Coeur, Notre Dame and many other grand Catholic edifices. “I just got on my knees, and my conversion definitely started in Europe in some of those churches,” she said.
“The awakening began. It was a long road before I actually ‘crossed the Tiber’ and became Catholic. But basically, God drew me in through beauty and through beauty in liturgical arts in tandem.”
Back in New York City, she met her future husband, Heitor, the music director at a Lutheran church.
“We fell in love in church,” Caballero said. “He was a Catholic but had fallen away from the Church” at the time, before his reversion. Seeing the “beauty of the Church” in forming their children’s lives in Catholic school and her husband’s life, she “ran out of excuses why not to cross the Tiber and come home to the Church.” That was 2012. Their marriage was later validated in the Catholic Church.
The stage was set for a change. Five years ago, with an unexpected blessed birth later in life, with daughter Cecilia coming to join brother Sebastian and sister Sofia, Caballero recalled her discernment, “While I have this amazing third chance to raise a child, I’m going to choose my family vocation first.”
By then, their son had started serving Mass at St. Augustine Cathedral in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where Heitor was now the sacred music director. Consequently, she made her son’s “cassock and surplice because I loved sacred vestments,” a love that “had grown stronger since I became Catholic back in 2012.”
Simultaneously, Caballero “felt this call to do something beautiful, something that glorifies God.” Praying about it gave her the answer: “I never meant to turn this into the second half of my career. But God did that for me.” It was then she formed her own design and tailoring atelier, Sacra Indumenta, Latin for “Sacred Garments.”
And what she is doing brings beauty to the liturgy with the artistry of contemporary heirloom-quality bespoke ecclesiastical garments. She designs and creates five-piece and solemn Mass sets, altar cloths, custom Mass linens, liturgical accessories, and gowns for the reception of baptism and Holy Communion.
Every finished item is remarkable and often one of a kind, such as the set inspired by St. Thomas Becket that was requested by a new priest for his ordination in May. As Caballero explained, “He wanted this martyr for his inspiration on his Gothic Mass set.” She used 1930s’ vintage silk trim and gold touches everywhere on the white-and-blue silk-lined garments.
“And,” she said, “the specific cruciform designs were inspired by the Mass set that St. Thomas Becket wore the day his life was taken.”
She receives many such requests for exceptional homages in Mass garments to saints, Our Lady and Our Lord since Sacra Indumenta is such a highly specialized design source, tailoring works of liturgical art that reflect the beauty of worship and sacraments.
This sacred sewing includes server ensembles like the ones she makes for the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest across the country. A favorite development is their blue cassocks that have matching cape and linen surplices with cotton and English crochet lace. She makes the pectoral cross medallions as well because trim along with textiles is also what she honed in the fashion industry. In addition, Sacra Indumenta also does specialty work, such as the ferraiolo, a traditional cape worn by clergy, and hand-knotted fascia for the ends of the sash worn by prelates.
Laity also call upon Caballero to design unique baptismal and first Communion gowns. Couples and grandparents want to create a family heirloom such as a christening gown using, for example, their own vintage lace or bride’s wedding gown. “There is such joy that we have — especially me, personally — because the sacrament of marriage is directly connected to the sacrament of baptism, which is directly connected to the first Communion, and directly these textiles tell the narrative,” Caballero said.
“As a mother and a wife, there’s really special joy in what Sacra Indumenta is doing with the traditional first Communion gown because of the connection with sacraments and because it’s connected back to the family.” She sees this connection with another sacrament: In some countries it has been traditional when a son is called by God to the priesthood for his first Mass set for ordination to use lace or trimmings from his mother’s wedding gown. “The fineness of cloth has a oneness with beauty,” Caballero reflected of her work, adding, “It’s form and function, art and beauty all in one.” Above all, her passion for restoring beauty in the Mass is at the heart of every beautifully tailored detail in the service of Christ and his Church: “The Catholic Mass and the beauty of the Mass drew my heart to the fullness of grace in Christ. Over time, even my professional career is infused with my love for the Mass and showed me that God has the best plan for our talents.”