New pope will step into ready-made togs

Gammarelli tailors ready for all sizes

New pope will step into ready-made togs

Rome, February 15 - The odds on the favourites to succeed Pope Benedict XVI are jumping around each day but one thing is already stitched up - the suit the new pontiff will step into as soon as that famous white smoke plume goes up. That's thanks to the foresight and skills of Rome's Gammarelli clerical outfitters, tailors to popes since the mid-19th century and what a Catholic website calls "the Rome-based equivalent of an ecclesiastical Brooks Brothers." "We have no magic tricks but we do like to be discreet and thorough," says Filippo Gammarelli, 68, latest to lead the bespoke dynasty, in a rare break from the firm's tight-lipped line since Benedict stunned the world with the first papal resignation in 600 years Monday. The Gammarellis already have three sizes of vestments waiting: small, medium and large. The famously zipped-up tailors give nothing away but Vatican watchers think the large one could be based on the measurements of top tips Angelo Sodano of Milan or New York's Timothy Dolan, both heavyweights in the physical and ecclesiastical senses. The medium-sized one might well be modelled on the solid but sleeker figures of Africa's two great hopes, Peter Turkson of Ghana and Nigeria's Francis Arinze, observers think. And the models for pope suit mark three could be the slender Leonardo Sandri of Argentina or pint-sized Filipino contender Luis Antonio Tagle, some reckon. Even if the conclave opts for a really gigantic or minute candidate, the Gammarellis won't be fazed. They've already taken measures to ensure they won't have to dive into their rolls of white silk and start snipping and stitching at the last minute. The three sets of robes, Filippo Gammarelli explained, are cleverly made to have a lot of give or take in them. With that leeway, the Vatican's seamstress nuns are able to make major adjustments before the brand-new pontiff steps out to greet the world. Then, that night, the Gammarellis step in for the more intricate work that moulds a figure-hugging outfit. But that's not all. The Gammarellis actually offer the pope a choice of white silk or fine white wool with silk cuffs. "To be precise, it isn't really white, it's ivory," says Filippo Gammarelli. Founded in 1798, the Gammarellis have a deserved reputation for immaculate service and the utmost discretion. This only seems to fuel the media's imagination. Reporters have said the weirdest things about the Gammarellis: that they use the most exotic plumes of a rare South American bird for part of the pope's outfit, or that they use the finest wools from Andean beasts for their cardinals. All nonsense, of course, as head tailor Massimiliano Gammarelli, 47, briskly confirms: "All we use is the best Italian wool: the best, not the rarest." The only other materials are the silk that goes into sashes, buttons and braids and the linen used for flowing, embroidered surplices, he said. All the outfits are handmade in the same style and the work is carried out in the time-honoured, lovingly crafted way that maintains the shop's name. "Our products are the best publicity we have," says 79-year-old Annibale Gammarelli, patriarch of the clan. The Gammarellis were fuming at a recent allegation that they pride themselves on being able to predict the next pope. Among the past reports they've angrily dismissed was that Pope John XXIII, a big man, got the wrong box and nearly burst out of his cassock back in 1958. The tailors' rather un-Italian reserve is so watertight that they won't say how much any rig costs, won't name their customers, and won't for the life of them go into any details about their number one client, the pope. Asked how many popes the Gammarellis have dressed, Massimiliano Gammarelli was typically cautious: "The last eight popes for sure...before that things are a bit mistier." The small shop near the Pantheon is working overtime at the moment, creating the six sets of vestments. As soon as the white smoke appears and Rome's bells start a huge celebratory din, the two floor-length cassocks are whisked over to the Vatican. The cassock - the main robe that all clergy wear - will be made of about four metres of the best Italian fabric. Then there'll be a a sash and a mozzetta, the shorter waist-length garment worn over the robe, often crimson in color. Gammarelli is only one - and one of the smallest - among a clutch of clerical tailor shops huddled behind the Pantheon in a sort of Vatican Saville Row. But it invariably lands the most select orders. The Gammarelli name has become synonymous with papal and clerical dress. In 1998, when Pope John Paul II travelled to Cuba, Time magazine published a cut-out pope with garments and accessories, citing Gammarelli. Before that, in 1995, when the Vatican reminded prelates that they should wear proper clerical dress to show respect for the sanctity of their office, a magazine called it "Bad news for Benetton, good news for Gammarelli." "Perhaps one of the things that makes us stand out is that we make everything by hand, including the button holes," Filippo Gammarelli says. John Paul had 30 buttons on his cassock, a fairly typical size. During his 26 and a half years as pope he ordered an average of one or two a year. "He wasn't fussy at all. He was a delightful customer," Gammarelli says. Benedict cut a tidier figure with 28 buttons and was "a little more attentive to detail," as the German pontiff's fame as a fashionista who revived long-gone snazzy hats and shoes attests. Virtually all Gammarelli's tailoring business is with clergymen. But the tailors' reputation is so high that they are inundated with requests from the laity, some of which they accept: a tuxedo, perhaps, or an officer's uniform. Former French premier Eduard Balladur, a man with refined dress sense, ordered his socks from the little shop. Some of the Roman aristocracy's better-known dandies are also known to pride themselves on the delicately woven pinkish-red socks usually only sported by cardinals.

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