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Jewish Fashion Founders
By ISJL Education Fellow Kesler Friedman
For many of us, it’s a true treat to be in a big, high-end department store. Walking into Neiman Marcus during the holiday season at the end of the year is especially magical. Neiman’s puts out an annual Christmas catalogue, which hits every Christmas jingle: All the twinkling lights and classy Christmas music add a little extra sparkle to the whole Neiman Marcus culture of “high-fashion.” Shopping at Neiman’s with their marble white floors leads to that satisfying “click” with heeled-shoes, complimented by all the clean countertops and elegant music. With the assault of all the “Christmas twinkle,” we may not even realize that all this glitz, grace, and glamour started with a member of our very own tribe.
Neiman Marcus is only one of many fashion pillars whose foundation is Jewish. A multitude of major labels were founded by members of the tribe. From Marc Jacobs to Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein to Donna Karan, and Tory Burch to Levi Strauss—these big names aren’t just providing the high-end trends for the up-coming season. They are lighting Shabbos candles and eating challah, too.
The story of these “fashonistas” is interwoven into the fabric. It’s understandable for the history to be eclipsed by the iconic textures and cuts, but each look was inspired by something. We can find out what by looking at fashion decade by decade.
Many Jews immigrated to the United States to flee German persecution in the 1800s. This was also the time that the sewing machine was built, which largely decreased the amount of self-made clothes that the American people were previously wearing. By the late 1800s, many Americans were buying their clothes in dry-goods convenience stores, which a lot of Jews owned.[i] Putting the two together, the Jewish local businessperson was became the supplier and designer of popular clothing. This was how young Levi Strauss’s company became famous for a highly desired denim product—Levi’s.[ii]
Similarly, another wave of Jewish clothiers arose from identifying a demand in consumption from baby boomers after World War II.[iii] During the 1960s and 1970s, these designers allowed themselves to create cornerstones in fashion, with cuts, color, big buttons, hats, flare jeans, and so on. These are examples of styles that distinctly identify a decade in history, and that are still repeating in today’s fashion trends.
Why are there so many Jewish fashion founders? Is there causation? Unclear. Is there correlation? Sure looks like it! Throughout various locales and situations, Jews were business owners—shoe sellers and tailors alike. Perhaps this knack for design and business prowess stems from making ends meet whilst being under inauspicious circumstances. It could also stem from Jewish garb, both traditional and ritual, that has trained the eye to look for texture and design. Perhaps it’s simply that the trends outside of the United States were cutting edge enough that refugees from the Spanish Inquisition and WWII were able to blossom.
You may have a future student who wishes to study clothing design. Or, maybe you’ve woven your own kippah. Whether or not you choose to have clothes that are high-fashion or casual, rest easy knowing that you could be wearing kosher couture.
[i] Check out our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities to find out if your town had some Jewish peddlers!