The Genteel
December 17, 2017
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Left: the extended family of Lubavitch Hassidic Jews by Magda Segal. Right, a Soho Synagogue party. Sources: museumoflondon.org.uk, sohosynagogue.org.

Living in New York City, home to the largest Jewish population in the country, and one of the largest outside of Israel, it's hard not to be reminded daily of a strong Orthodox presence. Darkly clad men and women continue to follow a modest dress code that dictates they wear long, traditional wear. However, enclaves of young devotees are finding ways to engage with contemporary fashion and express their individual style, while still respecting traditions.

Crown Heights, Brooklyn has long been the centre of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a Hasidic movement in Orthodox Judaism that has over 200,000 adherents worldwide. The neighbourhood is home to a striking contrast of cultures; African-American, Jamaican and West Indian communities have a strong presence and, at certain periods, have violently clashed with their Jewish neighbours.

MIMU MAXI. Source: mimumaxi.bigcartel.com.

But amidst the mix of cultures, identity is manifest in different ways. Some people revert to strict cultural traditions as a means to reinforce their sense of belonging to a particular group. Orthodox women follow the Torah's laws of tznius, or modesty, where elbows and collarbones must be covered, stockings must be worn and skirts must go past the knee. However, Mimi Hecht and Mushky Notik, founders of MIMU MAXI, are taking a more organic, innovative approach. They have engaged the surrounding influences to create a skirt line for Orthodox women, offering colourful alternatives that still adhere to cultural rules.

Hecht explains: "A lot of our styles pick up on what's out there and what women would WANT to wear but usually have modesty to contend with. I would say that living in an ethnically diverse neighborhood keeps us on our toes a bit. We would love it if our skirts reached across the spectrum of Crown Heights to attract not just the religious Jewish women but beyond. So far we see that happening a bit, and that's exciting. [I]t means people appreciate the actual style, not just the cover-up factor!"

To the public, the strict codes tend to add to a somewhat negative perception of Orthodox practice. However, Hecht and Notik are doing what they can to change this, and considering that the gentrification of their neighbourhood has brought them a whole new audience (and dressing modestly seems to be "in"), they haven't picked a bad time at all.

"The world is slowly waking up to the idea that leaving something to the imagination is more beautiful," states Hecht. "With style icons like Kate Middleton, Olivia Palermo not to mention many runway looks increasingly turning to long dresses and skirts, there is something very beautiful and fashionable about dressing modestly. We consider Mimu Maxi to be a small part of a bigger revolution that is happening, and we're proud of that."

The world is slowly waking up to the idea that leaving something to the imagination is more beautiful.

By giving women an alternative means of creative expression in their daily lives, dress codes don't necessarily need to be seen as condemnation. Orthodox men also have their fair share of fashion fixes as well. From Savile Row to SoHo, alternatives to the mandated black hat, coat and pants with a white shirt are popping up - and they're attracting Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike.

Although he claims that "the Chabad dress code is not mine to change," Yosel Tiefenbrun, a 23-year old Chabad rabbi and apprentice at Maurice Sedwell's in London, knows the importance of dressing well. "I really think that making life a little more colourful in general is a good thing," Tiefenbrun told The Genteel. "It makes it more interesting even as a religious person. Dressing with a little edge and style can add that colour, that new life for some; and for others, they can find it in other places too. However it doesn't have to go against any religious laws and beliefs. It can coincide."

The young rabbi caught international attention last year when his picture was snapped during the Golden Shears Award ceremony honoring the best in British fashion. It appeared the next day on British GQs website with the tag, "best in show" and was quickly passed around by the Jewish online community. He now keeps a Tumblr page where others can turn for inspiration.

Following the fashion trail, I quickly came across Stylecaster's 2012 list of "50 Most Stylish New Yorkers" which included husband and wife duo, Rabbi Dovi Scheiner and Esty Scheiner, founders of the SoHo Synagogue. The boutique-like synagogue in Lower Manhattan was started in 2005 and has attracted many followers. The trendy spot has become known for its great loft parties, which have received some criticism for the seeming lack of religious content. Adding to the skepticism, the Scheiners officially broke from the Lubavitch Hasidic movement to found, what New York Times writer Sharon Otterman explained as, "The Soho Synagogue 'brand' - a mix of traditional Jewish practice with a modern urban aesthetic."

Yosel Tiefenbrun. Source: gq-magazine.co.uk.

The couple seems to be doing well, having formulated a three-year plan to attract other modern Jews to their non-denominational brand in cities across the world. They know that gaining the attention of a young, distracted audience is not an easy task and it will require a little more innovation and hoaxing than previous generations. But operating from where a Gucci store once stood may be an ominous sign for just how challenging it is to maintain momentum and excitement in this era.

With an unprecedented 16.1 per cent of Americans saying they are not affiliated with any particular faith, it remains to be seen whether fashion alternatives and flashy parties will be enough to draw new members for the long run. However, attempts to modernise customs for those who are already devoted members looking for new sources of excitement could prove to be a good method for retaining numbers.

In fact, several of the resulting styles can already be seen infiltrating the mainstream in unexpected ways. "Recently I saw a young Brazilian designer that did a collection inspired by the 'tallit' and other religious garments," Tiefenbrun noted. As new designs that are influenced by specific dress codes continue to emerge, perhaps we will begin to rethink our own sense of modesty and the fact that a good cut is appealing no matter the length or intended audience.  

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