Thursday, February 09, 2017

These Orthodox Designers Are Making Frum Fashionable 

Chaya Chanin, 32, was telling me about the genesis of The Frock, NYC, her online business featuring styles designed for the seriously Orthodox woman who wants to be more fashion-forward. At the same time, her 30-year-old sister and company co-owner, Simi Polonsky, was busying herself taking pictures of us, clicking away on her cell phone, moving this way and that, always seeking the best possible angles for yet another posting on Instagram.

In Polonsky’s apartment in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, which also serves as The Frock’s headquarters, the two Australian-born daughters of a Chabad rabbi juggle their home lives with a 7-year-old business that is, by their own description, an amalgam of Down Under surf culture and Orthodox modesty.

“We were exposed to women in bikinis very early on, and we saw the pictures in Vogue magazine,” Chanin recalled. “We were aware of ourselves as different, and wanted to blend in, mostly so that people wouldn’t look at us and make a whole set of assumptions based on what we looked like.”

You would probably not guess they were Orthodox at all. For starters, you would never know that their free-flowing hair styles were sheitels.

Chanin was clad in dungarees, admittedly under a boxy dress, and Polonsky sported leggings with cutout knee holes, though she, too, had donned a tunic. These gals would not be out of place strolling along Madison Avenue.

The sisters don’t point to themselves as Orthodox Jews, but they are not trying to assimilate, nor do they advocate it for anyone else. On the contrary, they want to broaden the Orthodox community or at least not lose those practitioners who are turned off by the fashion restrictions.

Their hottest item at the moment is “the slip,” or, more precisely, a modified version of the clinging sleeveless dress evoking lingerie and often worn by celebrities strutting up and down the red carpet at awards ceremonies. The sisters’ slip is neither revealing nor body hugging, and they promote it with appropriate tops that are concealing yet represent the most modish layered look.

The Frock, NYC is part of a burgeoning movement of Orthodox momtrepreneurs — retailers and designers — who are popping up in response to a growing demand for more fashion choices by creating items that are at once modest and cool.

Elbows and collarbones need to be covered, and hems should ideally land 3 to 5 inches below the knee. Tight-fitting or sheer materials are out. Bright colors — especially red — are seen as immodest, though some Orthodox women do sport those colors (especially on accessories).

There are many reasons for this new demand for fashionable styles. A growing number of highly educated Orthodox women are working outside the home in nontraditional fields — they are not necessarily yeshiva teachers anymore. And the internet has created a ready platform for an online business that doesn’t need a middleman for promotion and advertising. It costs relatively little to launch.

Family-run businesses are common in Orthodox fashion. Mimi Hecht, 30, and her sister-in-law Mushky Notik, 28, founded their online fashion company, Mimu Maxi, five years ago, and they say it now generates $1 million a year.

Seated at a long table in their Crown Heights storefront studio basement, flanked by racks of clothes and merchandise-filled boxes ready to be shipped, they say their business was spawned by their collective dissatisfaction with the limited offerings available to them.

They wound up sketching their own designs, hired a pattern maker to create the garments, and, with $1,000 in seed money, inaugurated a homegrown online business. Their signature design is the square-shaped oversized shift — including chic cascading smocks and sack dresses. A top-selling item is “skirt leggings,” though strictly speaking they are not leggings at all, but rather comfortable, loose-fitting and attractive skirts that feel like leggings.

“The initial response in our community was, ‘What is this?’” Hecht recalled. “Some felt our clothes were not ladylike. You have to realize that in the Orthodox community, clothes are generally tailored.”


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