It is known for its heavenly bodies and its unholy tantrums, but the world of the catwalk is about to receive spiritual guidance.
A leading fashion college is setting itself apart from the industry’s more lurid standards of sexual excess, drug addiction and furious egos with the addition of a Church of England chaplain to its staff.
The Rev Joanna Jepson is swapping the life of a parish priest for the more glamorous environs of the London College of Fashion (LCF). It is the first fashion college in the country to appoint a chaplain to give pastoral care to its aspiring Vivienne Westwoods and Stella McCartneys.
As someone who has long taken an interest in fashion, Miss Jepson, 30, feels that the Church should have a presence in the business. “The fashion industry has a huge impact and influence on vast numbers in our society,” she said. “It has a particularly powerful role in shaping the self-image and views of young people, and it’s important for the Church to be involved with this type of community. It’s amazing that it hasn’t had this link before.”
The curate, who has previously criticised society’s preoccupation with image, said that she was switching from full-time parish ministry to the fashion world because she could make more of an impact there. Miss Jepson, the curate of St Michael’s Church, Chester, earns a stipend of around £16,000. She will be paid a similar amount by the college.
Miss Jepson, who will take up her post in September, believes that the Church needs to rethink how it tries to relate to popular culture. “We cannot merely remain in holy huddles in parish churches. It is imperative that there are more of these kinds of chaplaincies that reach into cultural networks and communities, which would otherwise be untouched by the Church.”
While Miss Jepson is an Anglican priest, she will act in a multi-faith capacity, providing pastoral care to all the college’s 4,500 students, whatever their religion – or lack of it.
Jimmy Choo, the shoe designer, welcomed the move by his former college. “I’m a Buddhist, and my faith is a very important part of my everyday life,” he said. “I have a spiritual teacher to whom I speak three or four times a week, so I would have welcomed this kind of spiritual support while I studied at LCF.”
Frances Corner, the college head, said that the move reflected a more holistic approach to education. She hoped that the unusual combination of fashion and religion would help to break down prejudices and misconceptions.
“It is important to highlight that fashion is more than just clothes,” she said. “The industry can be seen as being just about how tall and skinny you are, but there’s more to life than just how you look. Fashion should be able to make you feel good, and spirituality can have the same role. I want to show people that fashion has a serious side, too.”
She hopes that London’s other fashion colleges will follow suit. While religion hasn’t been fêted as one of the more fashionable accessories, a number of top designers and models have a declared faith. Iman, the wife of David Bowie, was one of the first internationally known Muslim models. The American model Christy Turlington is a Roman Catholic, and the designer Stella McCartney is a devotee of Kabbalah, the mystical Jewish faith that teaches its followers to find their “Light”.
Miss Jepson was born with a congenital jaw defect and first hit the headlines in 2004 when she took her local police force to court while campaigning against two doctors who assisted in the abortion of a 28-week-old baby diagnosed with a cleft palate.
With the emphasis in the fashion business on looks she acknowledges that there are lots of problems in the industry. At London Fashion Week, many of the models that she will see could be hiding eating disorders or image problems, but she said she wanted to be able to support the students through whatever difficulties they might face.
“I’ll have a permanently open door. I want to be like a drop-in service for anyone with questions or problems or those who just want to talk,” she said.
Steve Bloomfield, a spokesman for the Eating Disorders Association, praised the college for its appointment. “It is very easy to concentrate on making a profit and striving for the most creative design, but… any move that helps people to explore their spiritual side can only be a good thing.”
He said that the association was aware of many people in the fashion world who had concerns about their own looks and their own place in society. “Taking a few moments to look at the more spiritual aspects and have a chance to talk about their worries will be useful.”