Sacred Gowns

Eusebio Escobar may dream of a career as a fashion designer, but his current line is doing well: Haute couture Santería

Eusebio Escobar sits at the sewing machine in his Kendall workshop, smoking a cigarette and listening to Sarah Brightman's pop arias with the stereo turned up loud. On his lap he holds a manila folder full of fantasies. He sifts through a sheaf of colorful sketches illustrating his designs for showgirl costumes: sequined gowns with plunging necklines and swirling skirts, skimpy bandeau tops, tangas trailing satin trains, and towering feathered headdresses. Escobar, who is 31 years old, hopes he'll make such outfits one day. But now he has more pressing work to do.

"Everything in this country is about money," he declares in a heavy Spanish accent, speaking the colloquial English he learned from tourists he met at the Cabaret Criollo in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, where he worked as a costume designer. He snaps the folder shut and sets it on an adjacent couch. "You don't have time to do what you love. You have to give the people what they want, baby."

He stubs out his smoke and turns to his sewing machine, a professional model he bought secondhand shortly after his arrival in Miami three years ago. Large spools of red, yellow, and white thread await on the spindles. The fabric for orders from eight customers sits in a pile on a table. Escobar picks up a piece of red satin he has already appliquéd with pieces of white satin in floral designs. He pulls some gold brocade from a reel, places it down as a border on the white material, and begins to sew.

Yards of brocade and lace, colored beads, and enough sequins to outfit Liberace are stored in Escobar's workshop
Yards of brocade and lace, colored beads, and enough sequins to outfit Liberace are stored in Escobar's workshop

Eusebio Escobar is in demand. This summer afternoon will, typically, stretch into a fifteen-hour shift at the sewing machine. But he is not creating the theatrical costumes that, as a new immigrant in the United States, he had fancied himself making for nightclub dancers or casts of musical theater. Escobar's customers are practitioners of the Afro-Cuban religion commonly known as Santería, and what they want is ropa de santo -- tunics or dresses worn during their seven-day initiation ceremony. Santería, which many worshippers refer to as Afro-Cuban orisha worship or la Regla Lucumi (the Yoruba rule), claims an estimated one million followers in the United States, the majority in New York and Miami. Local priests, acting as the "godmothers" or "godfathers" who initiate newcomers into the religion, order the clothes for their charges from Escobar. They give him the client's measurements by phone and he fashions the outfits in colors symbolizing one or another of the orishas -- Afro-Cuban deities. The clothing is worn by novices to honor the saint in whose name they will be initiated; the festive garments aid in cementing a spiritual bond between the deity and the person undergoing the ceremonial rite.

As the devotees aim to please their gods with opulent clothes, Escobar's designs must similarly entice customers in a competitive market. He charges $450 to $700 for his creations, up to $1000 for a particularly elaborate dress or suit. The outfits are worn only twice, and never in public. Devotees don them for the initiation, and are again dressed in them when they die.

"I'm very expensive," concedes Escobar, who knows of four other people in Miami who make the ceremonial clothing but guesses there are more. "I'm the most expensive in Miami, but I do the best work."

He holds up the material he's been sewing, now covered with swirls of gold braid and brocade and red sequined trim. The piece is part of a red tunic honoring the deity Shangó, the brave-hearted god of thunder and lightning. "It's like, are you going to buy a shirt at a flea market, or are you going to buy it at an exclusive store?" he asks rhetorically. "I'm top of the line, baby."

Escobar smoothes the glitzy fabric across his chest, and it makes a brilliant contrast to his own workday outfit of a faded tank top, shorts, and Birkenstocks with socks. He preens, turning this way and that in front of a full-length mirror on the wall. "People joke with me," Escobar says, proudly eyeing his handiwork. "They say I'm the Versace of the santeros."

Multicolored bolts of satin and lamé, and remnants of leopard-print fabric and sunny gingham fill several shelves of a large closet in Escobar's workshop. More shelves hold dozens of mayonnaise jars, coffee tins, and Tupperware containers filled with a rainbow of bugle beads, rhinestones, tiny colored crystal balls, and cowrie shells. Reels of lace, braid, and brocade trim hang on wooden rods mounted on a wall beside the closet door.

Escobar buys most of these materials by phone from catalogues for wholesale outfits in New York City's garment district. Occasionally he'll make a trip downtown to Precios Bajos on North Miami Avenue, a fabric and bric-a-brac store that is a popular santero resource. He frequently runs into others there involved with the religion. "The salespeople there tell me I'm a pain in the ass," Escobar says loudly, laughing over the whir of his sewing machine. "I'm always arguing about their prices."

His workshop is housed in a cottage behind the home of Escobar's friend, Ezekiel Gonzalez, who is also his roommate. The sewing room is modestly furnished, without religious icons that would indicate the pious nature of the work being produced there. No altar is visible. Devoid of household saints, the room is presided over by a photo of Escobar's mother, a youthful blonde, looking down from atop a television set in the corner. "When I feel lazy, she inspires me," he says. "She pushes me. She's up there [on the TV] saying, 'Don't forget to send money every month.'"

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