The rise of shmatte chic.

The language of style.
March 2 2007 1:31 PM

Shmatte Chic

The rise—finally!—of Jewish fashion.

Alexandre Herchcovitch’s summer 2007 show
Alexandre Herchcovitch's summer 2007 show

At Fashion Week in New York last month, Brazilian designer Alexandre Herchcovitch didn't so much unveil a collection as veil one. His aggressively modest looks included below-the-knee skirts, billowing silhouettes, and, most conspicuously, hats. Lots of elaborate, distinctly undainty hats, which bore a striking resemblance to, of all things, those worn by fashionable Orthodox Jewish women on holy days—making Herchcovitch's runway seem less like a Saturday at the Shows than Sabbath in certain synagogues. This followed on the heels of his summer 2007 men's collection show, in which models were draped in oversized Star of David necklaces, and more than a few others dressed in pants and belts that plainly recalled zizit, the ritual fringes worn by Orthodox Jewish men.

Herchcovitch's work has been startling, though it's not the first time Jewish life has been paraded down the couture runway. In 1993, Jean-Paul Gaultier offered a now-infamous show of Hasidic-inspired creations, replete with cups of Manischewitz for the audience and models sporting yarmulkes and sidelocks. But unlike Gaultier, whose fetishized looks came off as mockery by an outsider, Herchcovitch is mining a past very much his own: The 35-year-old, whose Jewish grandparents immigrated to Brazil from Poland in the early 1900s, attended a yeshiva and enthusiastically points to his religious background as an inspiration. "I was influenced by the modest Jewish attitude of dress, of not showing the body," Herchcovitch once told the Jerusalem Report, underscoring that "this goes strongly against the body-beautiful culture of Brazil."

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Herchcovitch's show was revolutionary, even though—or perhaps because—Jews have filled fashion's ranks for more than a century. For many decades, especially during the postwar era, Jewish designers actively shied away from flaunting their heritage, but this seems to be changing. In recent years, American culture has begun to embrace Jewishness as a sign of hipness—in books and film, on television, and even in housewares. And now, Judaism appears to have finally come to the runway, in a rare case of fashion's forward thinkers following, rather than setting, a trend.

Jews have been dressing America since as far back as the 1830s, when clothing was still handmade. In those early days, itinerant Jewish peddlers roamed the country selling cloth and accessories. (One such peddler was a man named Levi Strauss, who, after noticing that the miners in the California towns he passed through needed more durable clothing, designed a pair of trousers from his last piece of tenting canvas and changed fashion forever.) By the end of the 19th century, several technological developments—including, most crucially, the invention of the sewing machine—allowed for the wholesale production of clothing. There was soon a demand for labor at every level—designers, fabric cutters, seamstresses, and pressers, as well as merchandisers, distributors, and buyers—not to mention in the burgeoning accessories businesses (footwear, gloves, hats, buttons, belts, and more). In New York City, as well as in smaller urban hubs like Rochester, N.Y., and Cincinnati, Jewish immigrants flooded these fields—giving an entire industry a distinctly Jewish flavor.

Many garmentos rose to fame, with some—like the men who would become Hollywood's founding moguls—parlaying their instincts for the public's taste into success in other industries. But a sizable handful simply transferred their talents from the mass production of clothing for the average woman to the higher end of couture design—including Hattie Carnegie (nee Henrietta Kanengeiser), a Viennese immigrant and former dishwasher who went on to dress the Duchess of Windsor; Nettie Rosenstein, widely credited with popularizing the "little black dress" in America; and Gilbert Adrian (Adrian Adolph Greenburg), the father of Hollywood glamour, whose designs for Joan Crawford's broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted power suits "pioneered a revolution in the way American women dressed."

There was also the son of a Montreal furrier who in 1955 became the first Jewish designer to have his work featured on the much-coveted holiday cover of Vogue, though you'd be forgiven for not knowing he was Jewish. On his way to fame, Arnold Isaacs reversed the letters of his last name to fashion himself a new, less Jewish-sounding one: Scaasi. In the postwar years, more than a few Jewish designers distanced themselves not only from their surnames, but from the trappings of Jewish life in general. No one did this more famously than "Little Ralphie" Lifshitz, a yeshiva boy from a lower-middle-class Jewish neighborhood in the South Bronx, who, as Ralph Lauren, went on to create the ultimate sartorial fantasy of WASP America.

But times have changed. In contrast to the assimilationist postwar decades, ethnic identity has become a point of pride for young American Jews, one that is paraded in every field in popular culture. A Hasidic reggae singer has been in regular rotation on MTV, one of the biggest movies of 2006 was a piece of Jewish vaudeville, and prime-time television is strewn with Jewish references and characters. (One of these, Entourage's Hollywood agent Ari Gold, is played by Jeremy Piven, who recently appeared in a Gap ad with his Star of David pendant hanging from a necklace clenched between his teeth.)

Even given this broad re-engagement with Jewish culture and history, the nostalgia for and interest in the shmatte business over the past decade has been overwhelming. Philip Roth launched an opening salvo in his 1997 novel, American Pastoral, which included an impossibly precise, astonishingly beautiful description of the art and science of glove-making, the trade of the lead character's family. * There have also been historical explorations, including Jenna Weissman Joselit's 2001 A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character and the Promise of America, which then served as the basis for a museum exhibit in New York last year; a grass-roots hipster endeavor; and now, Dressing America: Jews and the Garment Industry, an upcoming project by filmmakers Joel Sucher and Steven Fischler. (Disclosure: I am a consulting writer on this project.) And then there's American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, who in life as well as marketing has positioned himself as a reincarnation of the 20th-century garment-industry Jew.

So perhaps it shouldn't shock anyone that most designers of Jewish extraction—a list that includes, among others, Zac Posen, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, and Donna Karan (whose father was a garmento)—now make no effort to hide their heritage. Isaac Mizrahi has offered tips on what women should wear to synagogue, the fall 2007 Fashion Week calendar was recently rearranged so as not to coincide with Rosh Hashana, and Diane von Furstenberg—the current president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America—is among the boldface names who have agreed to appear in Sucher and Fischler's documentary.

Nevertheless, designers have stopped short of weaving Jewish references into their designs—until now. The pioneer in this is Herchcovitch, a couturier of serious talent, but he is not alone. Earlier this week, designer Levi Okunov credited Kabbalah as the inspiration for the peacock-style Oscar dress he made for Sally Kirkland (leading some to wonder how many other blights Jewish mysticism has in store for the universe). Whether inspired or atrocious, though, the real surprise has been how slow the trendsetters in this traditionally Jewish industry have been to catch on to the fad for Jewishness. Except, of course, for Gaultier.

* Correction, March 5, 2007:This piece originally stated that in American Pastoral, the protagonist's ancestors made gloves. The protagonist and his father were in the glove-making trade. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.

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