Runway to holiness? Young entrepreneur finds vocation in liturgical design
Peter Jesserer Smith Aug. 10, 2017
Los Angeles is one of the fashion capitals of the world, where for many Catholics, the path to holiness can be found walking down the runway, or styling a photo shoot.
But for the past three years, Sequoia Sierra, a young Catholic entrepreneur working in style and design, has channeled her love of faith and fashion into a unique start-up, The Liturgical Co., with a mission to make the Church’s beautiful liturgical design more accessible.
Sierra, a lay Third Order Norbertine and alumna of Christendom College, gained experience in the secular fashion design and style world, working in both television and film. She studied costume design at Los Angeles City College, and fashion merchandising at Los Angeles Trade Tech. Over the summers, she continues to take courses on faith, sacraments, and the spiritual life at Christendom College’s Notre Dame graduate school.
In this interview with Angelus News, Sierra talks about her liturgical and religious design firm, The Liturgical Co., and how serving the liturgical needs of the Church has become part of her own personal path of holiness.
Sequoia, what are the origins of The Liturgical Co.? What inspired you to apply your experience from the world of fashion to designing beautiful liturgical and religious garments?
I guess the inception of it, the little desire to do it in my heart, was actually when my pastor at the time, the month before I was going to go to Christendom College, said, “will you make the curtain for the adoration chapel?” And I wasn’t a huge seamstress or anything like that at the time. I hadn’t even gone to school for design work or anything yet. But I said “sure,” and I did it, and I really loved doing it. Then I went to school at Christendom and came back, and then I started getting into costume design.
It wasn’t until a few years later, when a [religious] sister asked me to redesign their habit, that I realized “oh, liturgical design work is something I could do.” And then different people came into my path, different religious, seminarians, and priests. This one parish in L.A., they have a really old adoration chapel because their parish is over 100 years old. Their priest wanted really beautiful curtains put into it, so we got this beautiful fabric from Italy. We sewed tassels all along it, as well. From there, he had me do other projects: altar linens, restoration of vestments, and things like that. I probably had more liturgical design projects going on at least once a month at that time. It kept growing and growing until I realized that I could just do liturgical design, which would be awesome. That’s when I decided to start my liturgical company.
How do you see design as your vocation, or your own path to holiness?
Right! For design in general, I’ve always had a love or inclination to do it, since I was little. My mom would give me fabric or [fabric] scraps, and I would make clothes for my dolls even when I was 3 or 4-years-old. I have sketches from when I was 5 or 6-years-old of designs that I wanted to make. It is such an integral part of me. There has never been a time where I haven’t looked at a garment and thought about a way to make it better, or wanted to design something.
As far as my vocation in life, I really do see [design] as a calling, because I do have the gift. God has given me the talent and love for it in my life.
I have had a lot of priests and religious tell me this is a really important ministry, because a lot of the sisters who used to know how to sew their own habits have all passed away, and all the young vocations who have entered do not have that skill. And you not only have to have the skill, you have to have a love for it, because it does take a lot of patience. So they are really happy because I’ve been able to supplement a need in their community that they haven’t had, especially if they can’t find someone [affordable], or if they find someone who isn’t Catholic and doesn’t understand certain things. When I design things, I looked at the history of an order, and the different things of their habit that may be symbolic. Even the cassock has 33 buttons down the front of it to symbolize the life of Christ, and then five buttons on either side of the cuffs to symbolize His Wounds. Different things like that they love that we pay attention to, and understand when we are working with them. So, that is why they feel like you are not here just to make a buck, you are here to help them with the work that they do.
A lot of people think that liturgical beauty must be expensive. Is that always true?
A lot of liturgical design that I do, I try to keep very reasonably priced. Because I did notice that there were a lot of liturgical design companies that charged really exorbitant amounts for their garments. And while these things are expensive, you can get tiers of pricing for things.
Everything is custom-made to order, so a lot of times we get asked if we have a catalogue. I reply, “No, it is all made for the client.” So that is one aspect where I think we really try to make something for them that’s going to last, but it is also keeping a price that’s reasonable. I think the reason why the Church doesn’t have as many beautiful items is because it is so expensive. So a mystery is trying to bring that beauty back into the Church, into that artistry.
The church has always been the patron of the arts so I feel like we should keep carrying that on. This [design company] is a part of continuing that, but then we are also providing items for the church that are actually affordable. So that if we want a set of vestments, it is not going to cost us $25,000, like some things I have seen. And that is obscene. You do not need to charge them that much, even if it was pure gold.
Why do you think it important that people are able to experience artistic beauty that draws from the 2000-year span of church history?
In our society, people are not reading theological books, so I think it is important to reach people through their senses, through something very tangible. In vestments, for instance, just the beauty of the work itself in the vestments is going to be attractive to them, but I hope that it draws them into thinking, “well, why is the priest wearing this?” And then they realize, “oh, this isn’t just any event, this is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and God is going to be present in our midst.” And that is why the priest is wearing this. It’s not just because he wants to look nice, or wear some cool kind of thing. It is because of whom it is for — God’s glory.
Can you share with me the projects you are working on now?
Right now we are working on exorcism stoles. We have several religious orders that want us to look into redesigning their habits, tweaking them a little because they are newer orders and there are some things they don’t like about their habits that they want to fix. There is always a cassock in the queue; that’s something we do a lot of. I’ve even done special orders like a veil, made of unusual material like silk. There is a lay apostolate and we did a special shirt designed for them as well. It is always a big variety! I am not one to do the exact same thing all the time, so it is nice to have a variety of things.
So what’s a funny experience you have had with the Liturgical Design Co.?
When I got the exorcism order, one of the things that they listed as a need in the designing is that it needs to be washable. Most stoles are not washable, they need to be dry-cleaned or spot-cleaned, but this one needed to be … because of the projectile vomit and stuff. I was like, “wow — that is the strangest thing I’ve ever heard in my life!”
And then I had a priest who called me a month later and said, “You know, I really loved the stole you made for us, they are beautiful, thank you, but can I order two more?” I said, “Oh, Father, is there something wrong?” He said, “well, no, but I have been using it so much, I have been washing it every day, and it is going to wear out.”
I was like, oh, my gosh, how many exorcisms is he doing that he has to wash it every day?!
How central is prayer to your design work?
It is always from prayer. Sometimes the machine will do weird things, and so you get the holy water and you pray. Or if I am making a stole for a friend or whoever, who is going to be ordained, you are praying for that person. I made one of our new [auxiliary] bishops of Orange, Bishop Freyer, a confession stole as a gift for his ordination as bishop. We are able to pray for them while we are doing that.
Thanks you so much for speaking about The Liturgical Co. Any final thoughts you’d like to share about your vocation as a designer?
I have had a lot of confirmation from religious orders and bishops and priests, who say, “you are serving a very important need we have and you are fulfilling that.” I think our Lord is saying, “well, you have a talent for design and a love for religious and I think you should combine that.” When you have an art you do, that comes from you, I think you second guess yourself as to how good you are. I always stress out about my work until I see them light up. Then I think, “okay, my work here is done,” and I feel at peace about it.
This interview has been edited for length.