Sacred Gowns

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

Santería is rooted in the faith of the Yoruba people of West Africa, almost a million of whom were taken to Cuba as slaves in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. On the Caribbean island they maintained their ceremonial arts traditions, and adapted their religious practices to their new, oppressive living conditions. To disguise their beliefs, they superimposed over them a veneer of Catholicism, adopting an equivalent Catholic saint to represent each of the orishas.

As he learned more about the faith through his work, Escobar became a believer. Eventually he sought to be initiated. In accord with the principles of the Afro-Cuban religion, practitioners traditionally must be baptized as a Catholic (although some santeros today do not require it). Escobar searched all over Miami until he found a priest at downtown's St. Barbara Catholic Church who agreed to perform the baptism. He was initiated under Aggallu, whose Catholic equivalent is St. Christopher. Aggallu is said to hold the Earth in place and preside over volcanoes, the desert, and barren terrain. His colors are brown and gold. Escobar says his ceremonial tunic and pants, which he made himself, are sober in design compared with those he creates for his customers. He keeps them in a box in his closet, stored away until he will don them for his life in the hereafter.

Escobar continued to sew for his mentor, and as sometimes happens in the cutthroat world of high fashion, the protégé's creations were soon overshadowing those of his teacher. "He never imagined I could do the things I did," says Escobar. "When he saw my work, he saw me as the enemy." Believing he would never be able to reach his full potential, he decided to leave the house. (The elder garment maker died last year.)

Beads of the trade
Beads of the trade
Statues of Catholic saints share a luxurious household altar with porcelain urns that are home to the orishas
Statues of Catholic saints share a luxurious household altar with porcelain urns that are home to the orishas

At a drumming ceremony three years ago, Escobar met Gonzalez and later moved into the house in Kendall. Gonzalez, 52 years old, has long made his living "working the santo" -- growing and gathering ceremonial plants, making beaded necklaces and bracelets, and aiding priests in various ritual activities. He encouraged his new companion to launch his own business sewing for the saints and helped him set up his workshop in the backyard cottage.

Escobar started out making crowns, headpieces worn by initiates or placed on altar "thrones" -- large ceramic urns, soup tureens, or vases believed to house the orishas. Constructed from cardboard and wire and covered with shiny fabric, fancy trim, sequins, shells, and beads, Escobar's crowns were more flamboyant than most. "I tried to bring my ideas from the cabaret to the religion," he recounts. "Not to break the rules, but still to create fashion." The crowns soon attracted attention among Gonzalez's santero clientele. Flooded with orders, Escobar raised his prices from $150 to $300, and began making garments as well.

Sitting on the couch in his studio, he takes out a thick album containing photographs of his work. The pictures show tunics that look fit for a fairy-tale prince, with epaulets, high brocade collars, and embroidered sleeves. Gowns in blue, gold, and white are more fanciful than any Scarlett O'Hara ever wore, their high bodices sewn with intricate swirls of glittering trim over cinched waists and full skirts that fall in stiff pleats to the wearer's ankles. Plastic dolls that devotees keep in their homes to represent the female saints are clad in similar, miniature finery. Black and proud, they wear lace turbans and tiny gold earrings. More pictures show panuelos, satin scarves appliquéd with machetes, gourds, knives, or drums that are draped over the orisha thrones.

The Santería priests who order clothes for their clients, or the initiates themselves, sometimes look through this book and choose one of the designs. More often they trust Escobar to come up with something for them. The designer explains that his work is superior to that of other santero garment makers because he creates original designs for each customer, and also because he sews on every piece of decorative trimming, by machine or by hand. Others, he says, simply glue the jewels and trim onto the clothes. Some, Escobar claims, rolling his eyes in horror, even buy ready-made sequined appliqués at Precios Bajos and attach those to the front of a dress. "Eusebio's clothes are fascinating and beautiful," says Irma Faina, a former client who commissioned clothes for herself and her husband, Eddie. "Everything he does is one-of-a-kind and that's why people go to him. He sews everything by hand. He's unique."

In the shadowy living room of the house in Kendall, Gonzalez's elderly mother relaxes on a lounger, watching an afternoon telenovela. Escobar moves to an adjacent room and turns on the light. "This is where the orishas live," Escobar announces. "They own the house."

On one side of the room, in front of a multicolored satin curtain, is a row of porcelain Oriental urns. Standing waist-high, they are draped with panuelos and strings of beads, or topped with crowns. Statues of Catholic saints, including St. Lazarus and La Caridad de Cobre, Cuba's patron, are placed around them. A glass-door cabinet holds smaller porcelain jars and tureens. A sideboard is crowded with more ceramic figures, and patterned porcelain plates hang on one wall. Flowers and fruits have been set out in vases and bowls. Escobar looks fondly at the elaborate altar, which he arranged for the home he shares with Gonzalez. "Some people have the impression that Santería is diabolic," he says. "But it's such a beautiful religion."

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