Annibale Gammarelli proudly remembers the day six months ago when he and his brother, and the tailor and seamstresses of the Gammarelli business, had a private audience with Pope John Paul II. "We were received in the hall of the throne and the Holy Father said, 'If there were no Gammarelli, there would be no pope.' "
John Paul jested. Without the Gammarellis, there would be a pope, of course -- but not one as well-dressed. The Gammarellis have been ecclesiastical tailors since 1793.
No pope has demonstrated quite the flair of John Paul II. He has worn a white cashmere sweater vest and a windbreaker while traveling in the mountains. He wears a watch, perhaps the first pope to do so. He has been photographed in ski caps and in the traditional head coverings of countries he has visited. And his warm, somewhat theatrical presence prompts many who see him to comment on how splendid he looks in his red cloak or white cassock.
Yet John Paul is not overly interested in his appearance, his tailor says. "He carries his clothes well because he has a good comportment," says Gammarelli, who is tall and slender and looks more like a diplomat than a tailor. "He has a strong personality, and he is robust."
The Gammarellis first managed to fit John Paul II on short notice. Before a pope is elected, Annibale Gammarelli and his older brother Francesco take a full set of white clothes and accessories from their shop on the via Santa Chiara to the Vatican, each item in three sizes -- short and stout, tall and skinny, and average. They are for the new pope, chosen in secret conclave, to wear when he appears for the first time at the Vatican window. They missed the size once, and Pope John XXIII appeared on the balcony with his buttons open. But there was so little time between the elections of popes John Paul I and II that the Gammarellis only had time to prepare one garment. Miraculously, sort of, it fit.
The Gammarelli shop, with its dark wood and marble facade, tucked in a dark old building on a narrow street behind the Pantheon, once used the label "tailor to the pope." (The Gammarellis have made the attire for all the popes in this century except Pope Pius XII, a Roman prince whose family had its own tailor.) But Pope Paul VI discouraged the use of the ultimate designer endorsement.
In their floor-to-ceiling walnut shelves and cabinets, the Gammarellis carry clothes and accessories to suit all clergy, as well as vestments and fabric for custom-made items. Yet anyone who happens to stop in can find such good buys as cotton shirts with French cuffs ($20), black shoes and silk bathrobes.
"But we wouldn't sell a cardinal's hat to a tourist," Annibale Gammarelli concedes.
Clergy from around the world have their clothes tailored by Gammarelli. "They are better made in Rome, and once they have your measurements they stay for life and the things always fit," says Msgr. Anthony Howe of Westminster Cathedral.
Ordinary priests' cassocks are ready-made and sold over the huge, dark walnut counter, but garments for the pope are made to order, "like the alta moda" (high-fashion houses), jokes Gammarelli. "But it is cheaper than, say, Littrico" (a high-fashion, made-to-order menswear house).
The two Gammarellis, who were trained as businessmen rather than tailors, and a tailor go to the Vatican to measure the pope for his clothes. The fabric is cut upstairs in the shop and is finished by two seamstresses who work in the shop and four others who sew at home.
The clothes change little from pope to pope. There is the white cassock and cape worn daily, wool in winter and watered silk for summer, and a cap, which the current pope often forgets to put back on when it blows off. The sottana (robe or skirt) with pellegrine (small mantle) and cummerbund is the daily garb. When it is cold, John Paul wears a long red cape with gold border. The Gammarellis also make the wine-red slip-on shoes he wears in size 9 1/2. He appears to have forsaken the traditional velvet slippers, last worn by Pope Paul VI.
John Paul wears his black cassock and cape from his days in Krakow, especially when he is praying on the terrace outside his apartment. It is said that he heard confessions in St. Peter's last year in his black outfit, and no one recognized him for a long while.
No one has seen Pope John Paul II in his bathing attire, even though he swims regularly. When asked if it wasn't extravagant for the pope to have a swimming pool, he joked, "Less expensive than a new conclave." And though he receives many jogging outfits as gifts, there is no photograph of him dressed this way. When he received a red suede cape from Angelo Littrico, John Paul said it was much too beautiful for him but accepted it and thanked the designer. However, he has yet to be seen in it and likely won't be.
One change the Gammarellis do not expect Pope John Paul II to make is an accommodation to a bulletproof vest, in spite of the recent assassination attempt. He has never worn any security and they don't expect him to start now.