By  on December 30, 2005

TREVISO, Italy - Stefano Zanella and Gianluca Scattolin live up to many a designer stereotype: They love to gossip about their top clients' prima donna tendencies, work in a loft-style studio and gush like proud parents over their five-month-old golden retriever, Otho.

But this sartorial pair isn't preparing for fashion week. Instead, they are gearing up for their next audience with the Holy See.

Zanella, 49, and Scattolin, 39, made 64 garments for the late Pope John Paul II, including liturgical robes, ornate stoles and the white gold-trimmed miter in which he was buried. Other top clients are New York Archbishop Edward Cardinal Egan and Baltimore Archbishop William Cardinal Keeler.

Now Zanella and Scattolin are trying to win over a reluctant Pope Benedict XVI, whom the pair believe lacks the style sense of his predecessor. The pontiff has worn just a few of the designers' pieces, including a miter studded with rock crystal crosses and a liturgical robe, or chasuble, in violet and gold. Zanella is still smarting that Vatican officials gave him incorrect measurements and the robe came out about three inches too short - a detail that didn't stop the pope from wearing it at an Advent mass.

"It was ridiculous," Zanella scoffs.

But fit isn't the only problem. The designers are even more frustrated by the new pope's tendency toward flimsy fabrics and dated motifs.

"He wears things made by those nuns and so ugly," Zanella shudders. "With Pope Benedict XVI, we are definitely seeing a return to the past in terms of style."

Devout Catholics, the designers still manage to have a sense of humor about men of the cloth. They are quick to dish about a cardinal's propensity toward sloppy hems or budgetless shopping sprees. (Just for the record, Turin's Archbishop Severino Cardinal Poletto is a real fashion victim, with more than a dozen miters.)

They also have plenty of business tips. When filling an order, avoid a diocese's rival soccer team's colors. (The Modena diocese sent back a red and blue cape because it reminded them of Bologna's uniforms.) And it's best to keep a prospective buyer's entourage out of the fitting area. Just as women like to shop with a friend for a second opinion, clergymen like having nuns around. Zanella and Scattolin don't share the sentiment and there's a no-go zone in their studio. Don't think they are particularly genteel about it, either. "We made a nun cry once," Zanella beams.A one-time disgruntled schoolteacher, Zanella tapped into his tailoring talent slowly, helping his local parish with minor sartorial alterations on his kitchen table. In 1987, he inherited enough money from his mother to buy some fabric and a sewing machine. About 13 years ago, he met Scattolin, a bored accountant, and they joined forces, still working out of Zanella's home.

"We said, 'Let's transform this hobby into a serious business,'" Scattolin recalls.

In 2000, they started designing under the name X Regio, which translates to "10th royal power." Their big break came when they met Piero Marini, the Vatican's chief liturgist, back in 1996.

"He said, 'I have four minutes for you,'" Zanella recalls. The pair pulled out rich emerald silk shantung and Marini was hooked. "He spent 40 minutes with us ... He had never seen a green like that in his life."

And thus a fashion partnership was born. Their biggest order came when they designed 3,600 pieces for Pope John Paul II's Jubilee celebrations five years ago. They custom-crafted a gold-threaded fabric featuring a motif of the porta santa, or sacred door, leading into Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Today, their studio contains 12 garments John Paul II wore, from a scarlet bejeweled robe clasp to a miter made of white quilted material adorned with red tassels. After the pope wore an item, Zanella would reclaim it as his own, sending the pontiff a substitute. "That way, I have my John Paul II museum," says Zanella, adding that he's open to offers from potential buyers.

Amid these religious relics, the designers craft the goods. Snubbing industry staples like polyester and Seventies-style foliage motifs, they turn to couture fabrics like bouclé or silk shantung in vibrant hues of violet, fuchsia and scarlet. For the ornate trimmings on collars and stoles, they layer ribbons or metallic threads and hand-sew pearls and semi-precious stones. They also case flea markets for brooches and break up cheap costume jewelry for beads.

The pair hopes to woo Pope Benedict once more with their atypical artistry. But sometimes the premeditated attempts to make it in papal fashion don't compensate for pure luck - or even divine inspiration.Shortly after the new pope's election in April, the Vatican came calling, requesting that Zanella and Scattolin return an emerald collar they made years earlier for John Paul II. The designers were thrilled to subsequently see the piece on the new pontiff - especially considering its reinvented purpose on their kitchen shelf.

"Pope Benedict started his pontificate wearing our fruit bowl," Zanella laughs.

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