In a small beige building in a leafy Stockholm suburb, Maria Sjodin bustles
around her design studio putting the finishing touches on her sleek
fashions for an unexpected clientele: female clergy.

One of the pioneers in the industry, Sjodin creates sophisticated, tailored
garments for women pastors and ministers that feature a discreet flair:
form-fitting black tops and dresses with three-quarter or trumpet sleeves,
a pronounced architectural cuff.

“My creations are made and designed with women in mind,” says the 46-year-old
designer, all clad in black as she shows off her collection. Her clients
couldn’t agree more. “The other clothes (available for female pastors) are
clothes for men,
badly cut for women,” says Beatrice Lonnquist, a pastor from Stockholm.

Sjodin’s Casual Priest collection consists of garments for clergy to wear in
their daily work — mostly tops and dresses — but not vestments (the
robes worn for services). Most of the items are black, although some are
available in various colours depending on the position held by the wearer.

For example, green tops and dresses are reserved for deacons in Sweden’s
Lutheran Church. Sjodin had her design epiphany in 2002, when she
discovered there were no clothes made especially for women clergy members. “I
don’t come from a religious background. I met a young woman who was a pastor
who told me there were few clothes made for women ministers, and there was
nothing she felt good in,” Sjodin recalls.

So the designer set to work and made her a tee-shirt with a pastor’s collar,
and her collection was born. It is now regularly updated, with changes made
to sleeves or using new materials. Her first client showed her new top to
her colleagues and sales took off, first in Sweden and Norway before
spreading to the Anglo-Saxon world.

“The first top, EVA, is still the best-selling item,” Sjodin says with a
smile. Some men even contacted her to have clothes made for them, and she
now offers a small men’s collection as well. Sjodin’s collection is
available online, where young, hip and slender models pose in her designs,
putting to rest any thoughts of austere or frumpy pastors.

‘Comfortable yet professional’

“It looks comfortable yet professional. It celebrates the curves of a
woman without
making her look provocative,” says one user in a comment on the company’s
website. “With their clothes, pastors want to show that they’re human
beings just
like you and me. They don’t want to create distance, but rather proximity,”
explains Asa Haggren, a lecturer at the Swedish School of Textiles.

Sjodin says she encountered some sceptics early on, but time has proven them
wrong. “It was the right time… I made something that really filled a
need,” she says. Sjodin never mentions her clients’ vanity — and not just
because her
clientele is not meant to succumb to such mundane thoughts.

“In fashion, it’s often about creating a need. Here there was a need
to be filled,
it makes a lot of sense,” she insists. “I represent the Church (of Sweden)
and I pass on the message of Christ. When I do it, I want to be comfortable
in my clothes, to feel confident and be able to focus on my message,”
explains Elin Hyldeen Gartner, who has worn Casual Priest garments for more
than 10 years.

“I transmit a feeling of being a modern pastor in a modern society,” adds
Sjodin. In most of the world’s Protestant churches, women can be ordained
as pastors or ministers. There are 2,086 in Sweden, compared to 2,187
male pastors,
and they’re heading for equality: in 2015, 23 women will be ordained compared
to just 11 men.

Protestants generally consider a pastor to be a religious expert, a theologist
who has studied in preparation for a career in the Church, and not a
calling like in the Catholic Church, which does not ordain women
priests. Today,
Sjodin has some 4,000 clients around the world, and she spends her days
designing and selling her collection.

“We meet with clients, we package, we send things with care,” she says, adding
that she tries to maintain special contacts with her clients. Sjodin still
designs all the clothes herself, assisted by two seamstresses. Most of the
collection is made in a factory in Portugal, and part of it will soon be
produced in Italy. (Camille Bas-Wohlert, AFP)

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Image: AFP