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NEW BOND ST in London's West End is fashion's Aladdin's cave, devoted to the excesses involved in dressing the elite. So when I visited the new store opened last week by Donna Karan, the American designer, I expected the flamboyance befitting Mammon's outfitter. Yet, after taking just one step inside, I felt that I was actually entering the holy of holies, a temple not a bazaar.
The simple, plain stone frontage gave way to a large open space with suspended stone floors. Candles flickered and ethereal music wafted among the scents. Black walls lent an air of solemnity as assistants clad in finely-cut black suits drifted monastically across the floor, bearing glasses of water on trays for the thirsty. In the corners, the adored clothing was displayed as if in a side chapel.
It was all pretty weird but strangely familiar to a simple Catholic lad such as myself. All that was missing was someone wandering about in a soutane carrying a thurible. And it's not the first time in recent months that I've had to blink and wonder: "Am I in a Church?" At Belgo's, a huge basement restaurant in Covent Garden, you're served by waiters dressed in brown habits. There's no eating alone just long refectory tables, as you tuck into Belgian beer (the best brewed by monks) and sausages. Fortunately, you are not expected to stay silent. But across town at St John's restaurant, real asceticism has set in. The surroundings are utterly plain, the walls whitewashed, the atmosphere once again communal.
Yet this restaurant, like Belgo's and Donna Karan's shop, is all the rage. Meanwhile, the real churches are empty, at least on weekdays. Near St John's, beside Smithfield market, is St Bartholomew's church, a wonderful Norman construction, that has seen the long rise and fall of the great hospital bearing the same name. Yet what is it most famous for these days? As a setting for one of the weddings in Four Weddings And a Funeral. What's happening, of course, is that churches are being ripped off, their image is being stripped and hijacked for commercial ends. Why? Because the spirituality, the solid, safe feel of religious experience sells everything from Dona Karan's strapless chiffon to Belgo's burgers. The anxious Nineties, the decade leading to the millennium, seems to crave at least the appearance of something deeper, lasting and trustworthy.
So what should the churches do as their centuries-old imagery is pillaged? Unlike McDonald's, they can't patent their style. Should they then join in the exploitation? We've got cafes in some crypts. Why not have fashion parades upstairs? Wouldn't those aisles make great catwalks?
Perhaps not. Roderick Wright has demonstrated that commercial exploitation and religious folk should be kept at arms length from one another. Instead, we should look at this remarkable phenomenon and hope that those who flock to see Donna Karan's new store might eventually end up in a proper church. Think of how the popular craze for classical music and opera has grown over the past few years. Maybe, after gaining a taste for the religious world in Belgo's and St John's, people might find it just a little superficial and decide to visit a proper church. As Coca Cola likes to tell us, there's nothing quite like the real thing.