For Two Men of Cloth, Clerical Designing Is Built on Altar Egos

updated 03/25/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/25/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

A decade or two ago, it wouldn't have been such a hot business. "In the '60s and '70s there was a trend to simplify everything," William Turbay recalls, "so many clergymen stuck their old vestments in storage and put on polyester. In the universities, some even wore tie-dyed garments or sackcloth. Now clergymen are returning to the ornate, to religious symbolism and tradition. We're even restoring old vestments that are coming out of the closet." The polyesters, however, are beyond redemption. "You can't embroider gold thread," Turbay explains, "on a double knit."

Turbay and his partner, Richard Rock, are thankful times have changed. The two run one of the most successful companies in the world—there are only six others—making liturgical dress and clerical garb exclusively. Turbay and Rock, both 34, number as clients more than 2,200 clergymen and churches from 27 denominations worldwide, although most of their customers are Roman Catholic. After only two years in business, their company was listed as an over-the-counter stock last year. "We're millionaires—on paper," says Turbay. He credits much of their success to the fact that they service so many different religious denominations.

The partners note that when it comes to choosing vestments, clerics can be just as picky and vain as anyone else. Rock remembers one Catholic priest who objected to a green chasuble because "it will make me look like an avocado, the way I'm built." Another, a bishop, managed to talk the duo into charging him only $1,000 for a $3,500 red-velvet and brocade set complete with gold bullion trim and red silk lining. "We were new and we lost money on it," laughs Rock. "He knows he got more than he paid for."

Turbay and Rock first met as students at Loyola University in Los Angeles in the late '60s. Turbay, whose family emigrated from Colombia to Los Angeles when he was a child, was an art major. As a boy, he stitched dresses for his four sisters on the family sewing machine. His mother, now the company's head pattern maker, worked for both Disneyland and Disney World. "She helped to make the costumes for Pirates of the Caribbean and Small World," Turbay says proudly. "She's been in the industry for years, and I've been designing all my life."

Rock, a San Francisco native, majored in theology and after earning his degree taught the subject at a Catholic high school in Anaheim, while Turbay taught art at Loyola High. When the two bachelors met again in 1976 they discovered they were both restless—and poor. "Why don't we try something together?" Turbay suggested, so they pooled their savings of $900 and started selling parochial school uniforms, sometimes playing Bingo to pay for their daily bread. They made up a vestment for Rock's brother, a priest in New Jersey, and got so many compliments they decided to try their hand at creating and selling clerical garb. When they had made up five vestments, they packed them into Rock's beat-up 1966 Rambler, drove to San Francisco and knocked on the door of a Catholic rectory. The priest-in-residence saw their line, bought all five pieces and ordered more.

The company was launched and christened Martinez & Murphey (names picked at random, says Rock, because "Turbay & Rock sounded like a hardware store"). Months were spent traveling to various religious conventions, hustling sales. "We were getting $12,000 and $20,000 orders," says Rock. "We would ask for half the money in advance, then run home and sew the orders." Despite their success, money always seemed tight until Wall Street tycoon Morty Davis decided that M&M could be a viable public company. The move yielded $2 million for Martinez & Murphey. "Now we can be creative and put our catalog together," says Turbay. Adds Rock: "We are trying to help with the dignity of the service of God."

But they aren't selling just garments these days. Included in the new catalog will be a full line of religious articles. Says Turbay: "We're involved in chalices, monstrances, statuary, communion sets, candlesticks, ciboria and even stained-glass windows." The idea, say the ecumenical entrepreneurs, is to provide the clergy of every denomination with "one-stop Shopping."

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