A chorus of camera shutters clicks over a throbbing bass as models emerge onto the runway in single file. Clad in black leather and lace, they confidently maneuver the catwalk despite the veils over their faces and the towering stiletto heels on their feet. A woman in the front row pulls out her phone to Instagram a textured cape, and a reporter scribbles notes on a yellow legal pad.

As a fashion blogger, I’ve flown across the country to observe this fashion show for myself. But I’m not in New York or LA—I’m in downtown Tampa, Florida. And while I’m surrounded by media personalities and fashion aficionados, the audience is also peppered with pastors and Sunday school teachers. When the show closes, attendees stand up and fall into a queue as they wait to take pictures on the catwalk. The sign they want to pose in front of? A simple red and white logo reading "Christian Fashion Week."

About a year before I took my seat at this runway, I learned of Christian Fashion Week (CFW) online—and my instinct was to cringe. Visions of T-shirts bedazzled with crosses danced in my head; proof-texted verses about modesty rang in my ears. Would this be another example of well-meaning Christians baptizing one more creative medium in Christian “relevance”?

A rapid Google search proved my T-shirt premonition correct, as well as my guess about an emphasis on modesty. Its website explained that the focus on modest clothing was part of CFW’s desire to “create a series of international fashion shows and events around the idea of fashion from a Christian worldview.”

Now I was in Tampa at the invitation of CFW’s founders to see what “fashion from a Christian worldview” looked like to them. And what I found there was less easily dismissed than I expected.

Modesty and Beyond

As someone who writes about fashion from a faith-based perspective, I spend a good deal of time interfacing with other Christians on the subject of clothing. You can’t do that for long without discovering one thing: Talking about fashion with the Bible in mind typically means talking about modesty.

The association is not unfounded. The Bible explicitly addresses modesty, perhaps most famously in 1 Timothy 2:9, which instructs women to adorn themselves “with modesty and self-control” (ESV). Other Scripture passages similarly encourage Christians to focus on inner beauty over outer adornment (1 Pet. 3:3–4; Prov. 31:30).

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Yet modesty discourse today rarely acknowledges how the meaning of the word has changed over time. Modesty in our 21st-century context typically means “not revealing too much skin.” Today, a burqa-clad woman encrusted head-to-toe in pricey designer goods is considered more modest than a homeless teenager wearing a handout tank top and running shorts. But the New Testament’s original audience would have understood the word modesty as “unassuming or moderate.”

‘Fashion matters because bodies matter. We have to reconcile ourselves to bodies, the sensual and the creative. And fashion is a means for doing that.’ ~ Lucy Collins, Fashion Institute of Technology

In focusing the modesty discussion primarily on sexualized bodies, many Christians have lost the thread of the biblical discourse on clothing. The Bible addresses socioeconomic issues in the church as well as sexual ones when talking about apparel. For example, James 2 warns against showing favoritism to wealthy churchgoers who displayed their status through clothing. Paul’s charge in 1 Timothy 2 can be read as a similar caution for people choosing to flaunt their wealth. Today’s modesty rhetoric tends to add skewed gender politics into the mix without looking at the way motive and context inform modesty. In general, Christian conversations about clothing tend to let modesty overshadow all other dimensions. Thus, I was unsurprised to learn that CFW’s original platform in 2013 was built almost entirely on advocating modest clothing.

But after spending five days with the people behind CFW, I came away believing that, despite some imbalances, they still have much to teach the broader church. Most centrally, CFW believes that fashion itself matters. Engaging the industry—whether through design, modeling, or photography—is worth pursuing, because it’s one more human endeavor that God intends to refine and redeem for his purposes.

“In terms of investing emotion and time, we’re 150 percent in,” said Mayra Gomez, cofounder of CFW, as well as president of the TruModel mentoring program. “I love working on this show.”

Along with her husband, Jose, and cofounders Tamy and Wil Lugo, the Gomezes have put countless hours and their own money into making CFW a reality. Having worked in the industry themselves—Jose and Wil primarily as photographers, Tamy as a stylist, and Mayra as a model—the couples’ desire to found CFW was born of their own experiences in a climate sometimes inhospitable to their values.

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In the months leading up to CFW 2015, press releases announced that their platform was broadening beyond modesty to include ethical concerns that haunt the industry. CFW now intends to follow the care model:

Contextual modesty: A moderation that goes “beyond policing hemlines and cleavage.”

Affordable, sustainable fashion: A commitment to “clothe our world affordably with garments that will last.”

Responsible use of natural resources.

Ethical hiring, casting, and labor practices: “No one should profit from the abuse of human beings for the purpose of sex or labor.”

Admittedly, other than an announcement before the final showcase that it was broadening its platform, it was difficult to discern what CFW was doing to address ethical and environmental issues. Jose announced before the runway show that “all of the designers adhere to amazing practices.” But he told me later that some of the designers know little about their own production, especially aspects with potential ethical costs, like textile sourcing. Picking a fabric to make a garment may seem morally neutral. But the process of manufacturing a textile may include using toxic dyes, dumping harmful chemicals, or employing workers in unsafe conditions. Further, Jose confirmed that the vendors who sold at multiple CFW events weren’t asked about production and sourcing.

More Familial Than Corporate

Even still, the change in modesty rhetoric was encouraging. At the week’s finale, Jose said, “CFW has been dubbed in the past, ‘One more button, one more inch of fabric,’ like that’s the difference between us and everyone else. But modesty is determined differently by a lot of people, so we leave that to the individual.” Coming from the person largely responsible for barring men from viewing the now-defunct swimwear portion of CFW two years prior, this is a marked shift.

Biblical principles permeated CFW in other, behind-the-scenes ways. Notable fashion weeks, like the one in Milan, are infamously lacking in diversity. By contrast, CFW—from attendees to founders and every level of model, makeup artist, and designer in between—represents a range of ethnic and national backgrounds. And while many fashion events feel cold and competitive, the spirit at CFW was downright friendly.

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‘I have been to fashion weeks in New York, Paris, Milan, London. This strikes me as an event driven by creativity and spirit and principles.’ ~ Alexandra Jacobs, The New York Times

The Gomezes and Lugos show a sincere desire to love every person involved in the event. Models noshing on snacks backstage said they had never been better cared for. Young designers told me that they had been mentored after exhibiting their first line with CFW in years past. One makeup artist said that she was “living her dream” because of the Gomez family, who had taken her and her daughter in for months while she was weathering a divorce. For the Gomezes, hospitality is clearly a way of life; their living- and dining-room floors were littered with air mattresses the night before the showcase to accommodate out-of-town participants.

Whether due to its small scale or a genuinely Christocentric spirit or both, CFW felt more familial than corporate. Alexandra Jacobs, fashion critic and features editor for The New York Times, had flown in with her photographer to cover the final showcase. She noted this as one of CFW’s unique characteristics.

“I have been to fashion weeks in New York, Paris, Milan, London. I feel sometimes like those are megabranding events and there’s a sort of choreography to them,” she said. “This does not strike me as a branding event. This strikes me as an event driven by creativity and spirit and principles.”

No Disembodied Beings

Despite changes for the better, 2015 may be CFW’s final year, due in part to losing sponsorship from Zondervan. But many attendees believe it will stay afloat. “The great thing about a Christian Fashion Week is that there can always be a resurrection,” Jose told me, only half kidding.

And whether it’s via CFW or some other program, Christians are participating in fashion every day—by purchasing one brand over another, joining in the latest denim trend or not, choosing what to wear to work, or deciding how to talk to kids about their school’s dress code. Further, some fashion insiders as well as theologians (see “Clothed in Mercy") are doing the intellectual heavy lifting to develop a deep biblical engagement with clothing. One such person is Lucy Collins, a professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. She says that Christianity informs her work because “ideally faith should saturate every aspect of our lives.”

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“Fashion matters because bodies matter,” Collins said via email. “We are not disembodied beings existing only in a spiritual realm. We have to reconcile ourselves to bodies, the sensual and the creative. And fashion is a means for doing that.”

Whether we prefer a bedazzled T-shirt or a couture gown, we all interact with clothing on a daily basis. My hope is that CFW will be joined by a growing chorus of Christian voices engaging fashion with a rich biblical vision in mind.

Whitney Bauck (Wheaton BA, 2015) is a freelance writer and photographer who blogs about the intersection of fashion and faith at Unwrinkling.com.

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