Dialogue with Christian Fashion Week founder Jose Gomez

Last week, I explored some of my frustrations with an event called Christian Fashion Week, which took place in Tampa Bay, Florida at the same time New York Fashion Week was ongoing in NYC. Since then, CFW co-founder Jose Gomez has written out a very thoughtful and gracious response to my post, and also reached out to me by email. In addition, CFW fans have engaged with a post on the CFW Facebook page to critique and discuss their evaluation of my opinions.
In the interest of continuing to refine our ideas and learn from each other, I hoped Jose and I could continue having the conversation in an open forum. Below you will find a re-post of Jose’s original comments, as well as my response to them. I’m willing to continue conversing in this format for as long as we both feel it’s beneficial to ourselves and our community of readers.
Thank you so much to Jose for reaching out to me, and to all the CFW fans who have engaged the conversation on the Facebook page or elsewhere. I pray this can be a growing and sharpening process for everyone who participates!

christian fashion week jose gomez

Jose’s comment:

First, I want to thank you for this VERY thoughtful post. It brings several issues to the surface, all of which have been the subject of intense conversation and debate within the Christian Fashion Week team. So, kudos on such a well balanced argument and on the Biblical accuracy of your points.

However, there seems to be several assumptions made that I would like the opportunity to more accurately represent. The fact that we are even having this conversation tells me that we need to do more to put important issues more to the surface of what we do.

Policing Modesty:

Christian Fashion Week does no such thing. Although we do have a few guidelines for designers that we feel will keep them from offending our Christian audience and turning them off, we welcome diverse interpretations on modesty. If you listen to any of our interviews or even read our blog (especially the one call “Bringing Sexy Back: The Place of Sex Appeal and Physical Attraction in the Christian Life”), you will here us say over and over that Christian Fashion Week serves as a reason for the conversation and debate about modesty, not as an excuse to try to define it. So, there are some fashions that our audience doesn’t consider very modest while other ones they think are too modest. Our job is to present a range and allow the market and audience to make up their own minds.

Reducing the Christian perspective on fashion to modesty:

I have to say, I completely agree with this point. We DO lean on that angle too much, mostly in response to what resonates with our community of supporters. That has to change. The Christian perspective on modesty includes everything from sound business practices to labor rights, the environment, and especially its effect on and in culture. Thank you for pointing this one out. I’ve been feeling it for a while, too.

Creating an insulated subculture:

I would really encourage you to get to know us a little more. We are far from an insolated subculture. Most of the participants in the show are NOT Christians, but believe in the cause and in the people behind the show. Many of our designers are also not Christians. Our show is a challenge to the industry to cater to market where modesty is important (among other things). It distinguishes itself though taste and sensibility, not through who is carrying a membership card to Heaven. Many of our attendees are also nonbelievers, and they find our take refreshing and uplifting. We get a chance to show that we don’t have to do this in the context of a church subculture, even steering away from running our shows in churches. This year, only the style workshop was held in a church. But, that was due to a wonderful partnership with CityLife and a lack of budget for an alternative venue.

Amateur Designers:

This point is just dead wrong. Several of our designers have shown in New York Fashion Week and other large scale venues. Most of them have done several lines before the one they showcased in CFW. But, we DO have EMERGING designers in our show. We screen dozens of applicants before we choose the best of the best. We’d gladly include Calvin Klein in our show, but he hasn’t applied yet. :) So, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. We’re only in our second year and there is much to do before you see the larger brands on our runway. But, in the meantime, we are proud of the emerging talent we have showcased. Their garments are in no way subpar or cheesy (unlike Christian rap, which I have apologized to nonbelievers for many times). That’s why our designers showcase in many shows throughout the year, and several from last year are already in boutiques and selling garments.

Regarding our need for a “firmer grounding in the nuanced and rich way in which the Bible talks about clothing and a greater commitment to true excellence,” I just can’t agree. We have personally between the four founders invested tens of thousands of dollars to run our annual show. Although we have had some sponsorship from wonderful brands like Zondervan Publishing, we have invested from our pockets every year. If you look at the photos of our show, it looks and feels like Fashion Week. Everything from the runway, to the way we transform the venue, to the fashions, to the lighting, to the original soundtrack. Everything about our show is quality, which is why the media present has called our show the highest quality fashion show in the Tampa Bay area.

Is that enough. Well, of course not. But, we have to have more support in order to grow this forum. While I believe that your critique helps to identify blind spots in our approach, I encourage you to come and be a part of what we are doing. Help us make this what it needs to be. How about a follow up post where you list the things you would do differently if you were in charge of Christian Fashion Week?

Again, thank you for even taking the time to write this. Thank you for bringing together a collection of valid concerns and for complimenting the things you thought were good. Hopefully, we won’t suffer the fate you’ve predicted here. But, you know what? If we can’t rally a community around a meaningful purpose and a perspective with a solid foundation, we will. We knew that going in. But, when you’re the first act, that’s always the risk. Our hearts (and dollars, talents, and time) are committed.

BTW – If there are typos on the website, its certainly not intentional. Two people proof everything that is posted, so it would be helpful if you could point out a few and help us fix this. You’re honestly the first person to report that there are any typos.

Blessings, and thanks again for thinking about us!

One last thought. I would really encourage you to contact and get to know the designers we showcased this year. You will find years of fashion industry experience represented. We also have designers that have a “green” aspect to design, a designer that repurposes molted feathers, and one that employers former sex workers. Christian Fashion Week is not the shallow thing that some presume. There is a true heart here and a desire to influence.

christian fashion week jose gomez
Christian Fashion Week runway. Source: CFW’s Facebook

Whitney’s Response:

Policing modesty:

I’m glad to hear you’re actively seeking to represent diverse perspectives on modesty. My biggest point in this regard, however, was not that I believe CFW to be promoting an overly prudish perspective on dress. Rather, I wonder at the way modesty is being approached. Like you, I would generally steer clear of defining modesty; however, I think it problematic to try and build an event around a term one is unwilling to define. Would you mind sharing what guidelines you have in place for designers and how those guidelines were agreed upon?

Reducing the Christian perspective on fashion to modesty:

I’m glad we can agree that modesty shouldn’t be the central thrust. I look forward to seeing what CFW chooses to emphasize in the coming years.

Creating an insulated subculture:

I’m glad you shared this about who takes part in CFW. I think it’s great that both Christians and non-Christians are involved, and yet now I find myself wondering at the title. Why call it Christian Fashion Week in the first place? When the label “Christian” is applied to a person, I know what to do with it. But applying it to an event is a lot more tricky. What exactly is a “Christian” fashion week, or even a “Christian” concert? That label could mean a range of things: that the event is only open to Christians, that it targets Christians, or that it’s simply put on by Christians, etc. Do you see how this can be confusing when the word is applied to something other than a human being?

My guess is that the event was christened “Christian Fashion Week” because you and the other founders are attempting to create an alternative to other fashion weeks which better upholds your understanding of Christian values.

However, this leads to two problems for me: Firstly, my previously articulated frustration about the overemphasis on modesty, falsely painting it as a cardinal virtue of Christianity (which it seems that we can agree on). Secondly, putting “Christian” in the place of the city in the title (i.e. “New York”) creates a parallel that seems to set up the two terms as opposite. However, I think it worth noting that NYFW is not called “Secular Fashion Week.” Religious ideology is not intended to be the focus of the event—fashion is. This is not to say that ideologies are not communicated, but there is no unified, anti-Christian thrust of traditional fashion weeks. By creating a separate Christian fashion week, the unspoken implication is that Christians either cannot or ought not participate in the already-established fashion weeks while maintaining their integrity before Christ.

Perhaps this is indeed what you and the other founders of CFW believe, and that may just be a point on which we have to disagree respectfully. However, it’s a point I’d contest. Though I’d personally love to see many things about NYFW change, I don’t think it’s irredeemable. If you think it’s a worthwhile enough event to use as a model for your own endeavors, it seems to me more worthwhile to me to channel energy and resources into trying to help better the original structure—which is already reaching millions of people—than trying to reinvent the (already highly successful) wheel.

I suppose this is what I meant by an insular subculture; I see the separating out of Christians from a structure which doesn’t explicitly seek to exclude them as puzzling. Why retreat and create our own thing when there’s already a structure in place that could push us to greater excellence in our work by forcing us to compete with the best in the industry—especially when the industry in question could benefit from our biblical perspective?

Amateur Designers:

I’m so glad to hear that some of your designers are well-established! Admittedly, I did not research every name on the roster; forgive me for that. However, numerous designers I came across on the CFW site gave a less than professional impression. Out of respect for the designers, I’d prefer not to name any in particular, but a number of those listed didn’t have official websites of their own, or if they did, they showcased shoddy interfaces, broken links, etc. I know how petty that may sound, and yet I would argue that these are incredibly important components of professionalism and excellence in a digital age.

Once again, even this would be no problem if CFW didn’t try to pose an alternative to the likes of NYFW. I think giving exposure to the kind of designers CFW is showcasing is  wonderful and valid (and I certainly wouldn’t mind owning one of those Xiaolin feather dresses)! However, comparing your event to one of the most prestigious fashion events on the planet invites criticism if there are even tiny discrepancies in quality between the two. Being called the highest quality fashion show in the Tampa Bay area is certainly a compliment. Yet by creating a fashion week that is claiming to advocate for “Christian Fashion” as a whole, you’re asking to be compared not to the rest of Tampa Bay, but to fashion weeks the world over, since Christians are represented all over the globe.

And honestly, can one really expect to be on the same par as London, Paris or Milan when millions are expended on their fashion weeks? I applaud you and the other founders for the risk you’ve taken in investing incredible energy, time and capital in your vision, and it seems like you’ve made the most of the resources you have available. Perhaps the problem is not that there’s too little a commitment to excellence, and rather that you don’t have the resources available.

But if that’s the case, the solution seems quite simple: Be honest and humble about what CFW is and isn’t. Is it the best fashion show in the Tampa Bay area? Sure. Does that make it comparable to the likes of NYFW? No. And if not, ought it to stand up as the best Christians anywhere have to offer the fashion world? I’m not sure, but I’m admittedly uncomfortable with the idea.

In the end, our differences may come down in large part to our divergent perspectives on the best way to have a positive influence on the fashion industry. I appreciate your suggestion that I write a post explaining what I’d do differently if I ran CFW, and I could certainly talk about how strongly I feel about laborer rights and environmental ethics, but the truth is that I wouldn’t run CFW. I would rather see Christians become influencers by equipping them to become the best in their field, rather than pulling them out in order to create a parallel Christian version of whatever it is they’re already doing. This helps explain why I’m such a fan of the CFW fund to support designers—I believe excellence speaks volumes, and moreover, that Christians are called to pursue it. (The Center for Faith & Work is a great resource for those interested in this line of thinking).

I look forward to hearing your rebuttals or responses to the points above, and again want to thank you for taking the time to engage with me. Overall, I’m so grateful for your willingness to dialogue with me so graciously about things very close to your heart. Your humility and openness have won my respect, and I’m grateful to consider you a brother, Jose. Thank you.

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