By Peter Castro
August 25, 1997 12:00 PM

THE REVELATION THAT JEAN-CHARLES DE CASTELBAJAC WAS chosen to design vestments for Pope John Paul II provoked covetousness in some circles. At the house of Dior in Paris, says a fashion insider, “people were complaining: ‘Why is he doing the Pope? Why aren’t we? After all, we’re Christian Dior.’ ”

For that matter, neither Christian Lacroix nor Saint Laurent were chosen to clothe the Holy Father when he visits Paris Aug. 21-24 for World Youth Day, a religious gathering held biennially and expected to draw some 600,000 young pilgrims. In fact, Castelbajac, 47, is the first major designer to outfit this—or any—Pope. Why him? “I’ve always been inspired by the clothes of the church,” says the Catholic Castelbajac, who donated his designs. “My shapes come from the liturgy celebration.” The chasubles (robes worn over cassocks) that he designed for the 500 bishops and 5,000 priests attending the event are of ecru wool gabardine with an outline of the cross. Of the Pope’s robe (it will be unveiled at the vigil), Castelbajac says only that it “was inspired by Noah’s Ark. When the flood ended, God made a rainbow appear as a sign of reconciliation. I used the rainbow as a universal flag of hope.”

The Archbishop of Paris chose Castelbajac because, a spokesman says, “We could count on him to do something that would be acceptable to both the priests and young people without being shocking.” A curious criterion for a designer known for vibrant collections featuring teddy bear coats and derriere-grazing minidresses. But before the name of Castelbajac became synonymous with a daring palette, he was a pious and dutiful son growing up in Limoges, southwest of Paris. His father, the Marquis de Castelbajac, died when Jean-Charles was 15, and his mother, Jeanne, supported her only child as a designer in her own company. “A sense of color runs in the family,” says Jeanne, who at 75 runs a women’s-and-children’s-wear company. “I discovered it and my son followed me.” Castelbajac began designing for her after finishing high school in 1967, and by the mid-’70s, after he had already branched out on his own, his eclectic creations had earned him a job designing costumes for Charlie’s Angels from his studio in Paris. Clients have since included Nastassja Kinski, Lauren Bacall, Elton John and the Duchess of York.

Today, Castelbajac shares an apartment in Paris and a medieval castle outside the city with his fiancée, model and aspiring actress Tasha Mota e Cunha, 27 (his sons, Guilhem, 18, and Louis-Marie, 14, are from a past marriage). He finds outfitting the Pope nothing less than inspirational. “This project has given, me a wider view of what I’m doing,” he says. “Like the man in the field scattering seeds, I like to spread color around.”