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Sydney sisters build empire with man-repelling Orthodox Jewish fashion

Time:2018-02-11 17:19Shoes websites Click:

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Sydney sisters build empire with 'man-repelling' Orthodox Jewish fashion

RN

By Siobhan Hegarty for The Spirit of Things

Updated February 11, 2018 13:03:49

Orthodox Jewish sisters Chaya Chanin and Simi Polonsky at Coogee Beach.

Photo: Brooklyn-based fashion designers Chaya Chanin (L) and Simi Polonsky (R) on a recent trip to Australia. (ABC RN: Siobhan Hegarty)

Related Link: Fashionably Faithful

Map: Coogee 2034

Growing up in the beachy Sydney suburb of Coogee, sisters Simi Polonsky and Chaya Chanin stuck out like a sore thumb.

"On Saturdays everyone is wearing bikinis, shorts, guys aren't wearing shirts," Ms Polonsky remembers.

"It's really just a fun, chilled beach vibe… and as a kid you just want to fit in, except we had to go to Synagogue."

Her sister chimes in: "And my mother would buy us these frilly, collared dresses and patent shoes with matching bows … and it's a really hot summer Saturday in Coogee!"

As Orthodox Jews and daughters of the local rabbi, the sisters were expected to follow the Torah's teachings of tznius: modesty.

The dos and don'ts of Orthodox dressing

The most common interpretation of tznius requires women to cover their elbows, knees and collarbones.

"If you do want to wear pants, leggings, trackies, jeans, whatever it is, it's with a skirt or a dress over it," Ms Chanin explains.

"We don't wear sleeveless [clothes] and no plunging necklines."

Rabbi Elozer Gestetner inside Coogee's Orthodox Jewish Synagogue.

Photo: Rabbi Elozer Gestetner says his daughters bring "beauty, hope and spirituality" to their designs. (ABC RN: Teresa Tan)

Married Orthodox Jewish women are also expected to cover their hair, but unlike in the Muslim faith, this is generally done with a wig.

"Once a woman gets married she covers her hair, whether it be with a wig, a scarf, a hat… any sort of level you're comfortable with, but it's covering the hair," Ms Chanin says.

"I think it's also beautiful that we make our wigs look like our [real] hair, because it just proves the point that this is a holy, special thing and it's not for anyone else.

"Nobody even needs to know that I'm covering my hair."

Making modest fashionable

What some might view as a restriction, Ms Polonsky and Ms Chanin saw as an opportunity.

Throughout their teenage years the pair nipped and tucked their conservative clothes, added extra fabric to on-trend outfits and spent countless afternoons paging through Vogue.

So when both sisters found themselves living in the United States working in unfulfilling jobs, fashion that promised a pathway to brighter things.

Inspired by glossy magazines and a phonebook of well-dressed female friends who were happy to sell last season's wears, the pair organised their first pop-up.

Model wearing The Frock NYC designs.

Photo: Clothing label The Frock NYC melds the sisters' Orthodox Jewish lifestyle with their love of fashion. (Supplied: The Frock NYC)

"Our husbands were schlepping and carrying garbage bags full of clothing to this florist that we rented," Ms Polonsky recalls.

"[The shop] was the first of its kind in our community, first of its kind in the Orthodox Jewish world of women, fashion, clothing… it was exciting."

Numbers-wise, the sale was a hit, attracting more than 600 customers on the first day.

But not everyone in the community was impressed with their approach, or style.

"We photocopied four different images from Vogue, cut them up, made a collage ... then by hand plastered them all around the neighbourhood," Ms Polonsky says.

"We got phone calls — people said, 'The posters put up, was that by you guys? It's not appropriate! The girl's wearing blue nail polish'."

Their business, The Frock NYC, grew, and so did their families. Babies were born, the label received write-ups from Vogue and Vanity Fair, and sales spiked internationally.

It wasn't just Jewish women purchasing their clothes, either.

"Over the past few years we've had hundreds and hundreds of women emailing us, and they would say things like, 'I'm Jewish or I'm Muslim or I'm Mormon or I'm Christian, and I never felt connected to my faith because I didn't like the way they dressed and I couldn't figure out how to combine the two, but when I see you guys I'm like, maybe I can'," Ms Polonsky says.

"That's our whole ethos, we're respectful of all different levels of religiosity, and people that aren't religious at all."

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