Amid the frenzy, a new generation of Jewish designers is making a splash. Marc Jacobs was fired by Perry Ellis in 1993 for designing a grunge look. He is now creative director for Louis Vuitton. In his own line, Jacobs has managed to make grunge both feminine and profitable. Zac Posen, who as a child stole yarmulkes from his grandparents’ synagogue to make dresses for dolls, is dressing stars, winning praise from clients Natalie Portman, Rihanna, Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé for his feminine aesthetic.
The global hunger for assimilation, still strong, no longer rules. Ethnicity is in, and from its depths has emerged what Slate recently dubbed “schmatte chic.” Levi Okunov, the 24-year-old son of a Lubavitcher rabbi, has crafted gowns dotted with poetry by 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi, translated into English, Yiddish and Arabic. He recently did a show in which models wore clothing made from the blue velvet used for Torah coverings. Jewish-Brazilian Alexandre Herchcovitch emphasizes that powerful and poignant symbol, the Star of David. “Engaging with Jewish symbols and materials has become something of a trend, not an enormous one, but a trend,” says Alana Newhouse.
Jewish designers are not the only ones to go Jewish ethnic. In fact, French icon Jean Paul Gaultier is perhaps the best known designer to do so. Japan’s Yohji Yamamoto and Korea’s Gunhyo Kim are also exploring the crevasses of time with Hasidic-inspired hats and coats and any image that evokes Jewishness.
Their experimentation with ethnic themes is part of the expanding Asian influence in the design business. A new wave of immigrants—like Jason Wu who designed First Lady Michelle Obama’s inaugural gown—is now breaking through. As did Jews who poured into the garment industry more than a century ago, they see in the clothing business an opportunity for success and acceptance. “In a way it’s fitting,” says FIT’s Valerie Steele. “Modern American fashion is a reaction formation against being an immigrant. It’s a very competitive field, hard to break into. Now, with our factories moving to China or Vietnam, an uncle in China might help,” just as family ties once aided Jewish immigrants. Their success, she says, is “a function of their immigrant story.”
The tight-knit Jewish family business that once characterized the rag trade has frayed. Career options outside the business have thinned the ranks, and globalization has done the rest, with large conglomerates swallowing the earlier proud markers of Jewish achievement. But the pull of history and the allure of design is still a draw to young American Jews, as it is to immigrants from the former Soviet Union and South America, and to the burgeoning fashion talents of Tel Aviv.
What ever the future, waspy or schmatte chic, haute couture or global cheap, there’s no denying that Jews have had a major impact on the world’s wardrobe. Says schmatte chic designer Levi Okunov: “We were slaves, a bunch of peasants coming off boats, people were starving and trying to do general factory work…and then it became a little more glamorous.”
Johanna Neuman specializes in writing about people against the sweep of history. Her book Lights, Camera, War: Is Media Technology Driving International Politics? chronicled media inventions from the printing press to the Internet. She has covered the federal government for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, and now writes for the Los Angeles Times’ political blog, Top of the Ticket. She is at work on a book about the history of Jewish designers in the fashion business.