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Thursday, August 10, 2006 - Page updated at 05:26 PM

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Information in this article, originally published August 8, 2006, was corrected August 10, 2006. In a previous version of this story, Vox Sacra owner Shawn McNally was incorrectly identified as Nordstrom's former marketing director. McNally was the marketing manager for U.S. Façonnable, a wholly owned subsidiary of Nordstrom. The $120 shirt described in the article as a rayon and lycra shirt is actually made of viscose and lycra. While viscose is used to make rayon, it is not the same as rayon.

Wearing faith (subtly) on their sleeves

Seattle Times staff reporter

For many, high fashion signifies chic models on sleek runways, worldly cities like Paris and New York, exorbitant prices and daring incarnations of creativity. For Shawn McNally, 41, it is a path to charity, to recovery after an almost unbearable loss, and to God.

McNally is the brain behind Vox Sacra, a high-end Christian apparel brand based in West Seattle. (Vox Sacra means "sacred voice" in Latin.) McNally and his wife, Liz, founded the company in February 2005 and began selling online in late May 2006.

Vox Sacra's apparel is subtle in its Christianity. McNally said he chose verses that would open conversations about faith, not close them.

For example, a $120 viscose and lycra shirt features the following verse in custom calligraphy: "You are the light of the world, a city on a hill cannot be hidden." The shirt also has an ancient image in metallic gold and silk appliqués on the cuff and waist.

McNally said he hadn't always been a devout Christian. As a child, he said, he felt that church was an obligation. He would watch his father fall asleep within the first few minutes of service each week.

"I was bewildered [about] what this lofty language meant and how it related to life," McNally said.

It was shortly after his second daughter's birth that McNally truly turned to religion. Newborn Stella didn't cry or make any sound. She was quickly taken to the neonatal ward. She died 14 days later.

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When your body is a temple: For more information on Vox Sacra clothing, go to www.voxsacra.com

"Liz and I went from the epiphany of life to the worst thing that could ever happen to a parent," McNally said.

The night Stella was born, he ran into the bathroom. He felt like he was being suffocated.

"I fell on my knees, grabbed a towel and screamed into it," McNally said.

That's when he said God asked McNally to follow him.

"I said, 'Of course I will, I will,' " he said.

In the days after Stella's birth, McNally said he was able to find peace through God.

Today, a picture of Stella sits on McNally's desk alongside photos of her 6-year-old sister, Brynn. Inspired by her father, young Brynn has designed her own Vox Sacra dress collection. Her artwork proudly hangs on the walls of her parents' office.

After Stella's death, McNally returned to work marketing manager for U.S. Façonnable, a wholly owned subsidiary of Nordstrom. The fashion industry remained the same, but McNally had changed. The work no longer felt meaningful to him, and he later quit.

It was when he saw a red shirt that said "Lord Have Mercy" at a high-end store that he thought about returning to the fashion world, to design for Christians like himself.

"There's no such thing as a nice clothing brand for modern believers," he said. "We're of the world, we like music, we love fashion [and] probably like to buy clothes too much.

" 'Jesus is my homeboy' is great for young kids, I suppose. What about us?"

"Not about conversion"

Vox Sacra's first collection centers on light, and pieces feature custom calligraphy, scripture verses and 400-year-old religious symbols. Ample attention is given to the quality of the clothing, with shirt fabric milled in Austria then cut and sewn in Vancouver, B.C. The silk scarves are made in France.

The company's target market is men and women ages 25-54 with household incomes of $75,000 or more. Prices range from $75 to $120. The company has already begun donating 7 percent of its profits to the Rafiki Foundation, a Christian organization that provides medical care and education to children in Africa affected by the AIDS epidemic.

McNally hopes that Vox Sacra will appeal to Christians and non-Christians alike. He wants the pieces to open conversations and facilitate connections.

"It's not about conversion," McNally said. "If our objective was to open conversations, the shirts have certainly done that."

McNally said he's been stopped when he wears Vox Sacra clothing, had conversations about faith with the models who worked with him, and connected with a clothing factory manager who also lost a baby.

McNally has a blog on the Web site in which he shares his thoughts, questions and experiences — including the painful ones involving his daughter's death. He would like Christians to get outside the comfort zone of a church and share stories.

"Be bold to wear what you're passionate about," said McNally. "Open conversations in a gentle and humble way."

McNally projects that the company will make $800,000 in sales in its first full year of online operation. The company will take part in a large retail show in Las Vegas later this month, where McNally said he and his wife will search for retail partners who understand Vox Sacra and its goals.

Big dreams

With the success of Christian-themed books, music and movies, McNally said, there's no reason faith can't have its place in high fashion. While the combination might seem counterintuitive to some, McNally doesn't see a problem.

"What's wrong with spending money on a beautiful garment that imbues your faith?" he asked.

No matter how dedicated McNally is to fashion, he said his goal is not to walk down the street and see everyone wearing Vox Sacra clothes. His real dream is to hand over a check for $100,000 to the Rafiki Foundation.

His second goal? "I'm dying to do a Vox Sacra handbag."

Bibeka Shrestha: 206-464-2436 or bshrestha@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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