A new take on Jewish fashion
Published: Tuesday, February 3, 2004
Updated: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 22:05
When you think Jewish fashion, do you think yarmulkes and prayer shawls? Perhaps Star of David necklaces sporting the Star of David or clothing by Jewish designers like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren?Think again.
With the myriad of young, Jewish-themed apparel lines that have appeared over the past 18 months, the term "Jewish fashion" is taking on a new meaning. Entrepreneurs have popped up across the country, producing Jewish-themed T-shirts and other apparel and selling them to college students, grandparents and celebrities alike.
"Why not Yiddish?" Daniella Zax, co-founder of the Rabbi's Daughters fashion line, said. The line, which got its start last spring, produces T-shirts with popular Yiddish words and phrases on them. At the Rabbi's Daughters Web site, www.rabbisdaughters.com, shoppers can choose T-shirts with phrases such as "oy vey" (woe is me), "shayna punim" (pretty face) and "meshuggenah" (crazy) all while being told to "wear it in good health."
The fashion line was created by three sisters, who in fact are the daughters of a Los Angeles rabbi. "We've always wanted to work together, the three of us," Zax said. "We thought it would be a great idea to collaborate and do something true to us and our background. We've all grown up with the words, so we have a fondness for them," she said.
The line attracted media attention when celebrities including Kelly Osborne, Madonna and Christina Aguilera began donning the "shiksa" (non-Jewish girl) T-shirt. "We hit kind of the young, hip, trendy crowd, who wear our little tees and tanks with their Seven jeans, but we also sell to the moms and the grandmas-we cover a lot of different ages," Zax said.
With sales going strong since a People magazine write-up in November, the line is now sold in almost 120 stores nationwide. A complete listing is available on the Web site.
The Bar Mitzvah Disco apparel line, co-founded by Nick Kroll, Roger Bennett and Jules Shell, produces Bar Mitzvah themed T-shirts with slogans such as "I got to second base at Jonah's Bar Mitzvah" and "Brace yourself for Daniella's Bar Mitzvah."The apparel line stemmed from a Web site of Bar Mitzvah pictures started by the company's co-founders.
"It sort of snowballed," Kroll said. "We were looking through my [Bar Mitzvah] album, my partners' album, and it's so funny. We decided to put up a Web site. We began getting thousands and thousands of hits, and that's when we realized there was something more here than just a Web site."
The founders decided to create humorous T-shirts like the ones often handed out at Bar Mitzvah parties: "A nostalgic look back at a very innocent time with a modern sensibility," Kroll said. "We just thought it was fun because the Bar Mitzvah is a snapshot into American pop culture."
The shirts are selling well, according to Kroll, who said that some high-end stores have approached the company with an interest in marketing the Bar Mitzvah Disco line. Currently, T-shirts can be purchased online at www.barmitzvahdisco.com.
These Bar Mitzvah T-shirts have proved popular among Web browsers of all ages, though according to Kroll, about 30 percent of patrons are college students and 50 percent are in their late 20s or early 30s. He added that artists and musicians, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have purchased the shirts.
"We didn't have some grand scheme,"Kroll said. He added that in his opinion, sales across religious boundaries reinforce the idea that Jewish culture is a part of American culture and vice versa.
"Not in the sense that Jews are so assimilated or Jews are infiltrating American culture-but in a sort of innocent way. A lot of non-Jews went to school with Jewish kids," Kroll said. "If you grew up in a suburb, or with some Jewish kids, you went to couple of Bar Mitzvahs and have a few T-shirts ... there is a universal quality to the Bar Mitzvah experience."
The founders are currently compiling a book devoted to the Bar Mitzvah, as well as Bar Mitzvah videos. "We're really focused on the book and videos...this [the T-shirts] is just part of a larger project for us that has had a surprisingly cool response from people,"Kroll said.
Jenny Wiener, one of four founders of Jewcy, a clothing line that sells T-shirts, baseball hats, thong underwear and stickers, said that the company began when she and her husband, a co-founder, decided to run a cultural evening called Jewcy at the Art Nova Theatre in New York City, which they own. "For fun, we made a logo and put them on t-shirts. People went crazy for them," Wiener said. "We realized quickly that we were on to something."
Sales from the Jewcy Web site have been huge, according to Wiener. "We get hundreds of e-mails from people who write in and tell us what they think about the site, and what they think about being Jewish. In some ways the logo has really touched people," she added.
Jewcy's biggest seller at the moment is the "Shalom Motherfucker" T-shirt worn by Madonna. "We were hesitant to put it on the Web site,"Wiener said. "What ended up happening was so many people told us we had to put them on the site. It really is a controversial shirt, but it has gotten a great response."
When told about this T-shirt, Ivana Rosenberg '05 said, "I would never wear it. There's a far cry between 'Jewcy,' which is sort of cute, to 'Shalom Motherfucker,' which is distasteful."
"I think that [the T-shirt] is an awful idea," Jackie Cooperman '06 said. 'The fact that it has the word 'motherfucker' in it is inappropriate, but the fact that it's paired with 'Shalom' really places a bad connotation on the Hebrew language and some of the ideas that Judaism is based on."
The Jewcy thong is another popular item. "Guys write in and say they are buying [thongs] for their girlfriends and ask for help in sizing; those sell really well," Wiener said.
"I actually think it's just kind of funny ... makes you smile," Cooperman said in response to the thongs.
"It's fine, it's just like wearing a thong that says 'sexy' on it,"Bailey Orshan '06 said.
The founders of Jewcy believe that the company has the potential to last longer than the average trend. "There is a revitalization of the Jewish cultural movement, and it is exciting to see how much that stays around in terms of a T-shirt," Wiener said. "We see ourselves more as cultural than religious Jews."
Jewcy is available online at www.jewcy.com, and its founders are looking to expand the line and the Web site to include more resources for cool, hip things that are Jewish. "We are concerned with Jewish pride," Wiener said.
Like many of these clothing lines, Off the Desk T-Shirts began as a novel idea, a joke never intended for mass production. The founder, Steve Bender, unknowingly started the company when he wore a shirt lettered with the phrase "Who needs the Hamptons?" to an Independence Day celebration, in response to an online R.S.V.P. from someone missing the fete to spend the weekend in the Hamptons.
"It's just a fun thing," Bender said. "It's funny when you hear something at dinner and see it on a shirt the next day."
Although according to Bender, his company was not intended to be a Jewish clothing line, though some of the shirts have Jewish themes, such as the popular "Hebrew School Dropout" and "Didn't I see you on J-date?"tees.
The shirts, first created last summer, have become increasingly popular.
"Originally, it was just me and my friends, now we're selling within the 18 to 30-year old category," Bender said. Off the Desk T-shirt owners include Kate Hudson and David Schwimmer (whose shirt says "Rachel, I'm not your friend"). The tees are available online at www.offthedesk.com.
Bender hopes to expand the company, which now has four full-time employees and three interns working at its Lower Manhattan office. "We're looking for it to grow into an advertising company; T-shirts were the medium, it clicked," Bender said. He noted that Off the Desk is currently working on a magazine entitled Out of Touch, a combination of The Onion and US Weekly.
Jewish Jeans, an Ohio-based Jewish-themed line, has a more somber genesis than its relatives. Its original founder, Steve Verona, became frustrated with the growing anti-Semitism he saw in America after Sept. 11.
"For the first time, it started affecting me, so I decided to do something about it on a small scale," Verona said. His tees include phrases such as "Nice Jewish Boy," "Nice Jewish Girl," "Naughty Jewish Boy" and "Naughty Jewish Girl." After I started wearing them, everyone wanted one," he said.
The "naughty"and "nice" shirts elicited a more benign response from Brandeis students than the controversial Jewcy T-shirt.
"I think it's amusing when it's in the right context ... you're always supposed to bring home that nice Jewish boy or girl, so in the right context, it would be very funny," Orshan said. "But it depends on your audience. If my grandmother saw it, she might be offended."
Verona said he became convinced that his tees could make a difference and help spread positive Jewish imagery after he "got through to"a belligerent guy at a bar by explaining the T-shirt he was wearing, bearing the words, "Fight anti-Semitism." Next, co-founder Dan Wolf "put money and time in to turn the concept into a business," Verona said.
Jewish Jeans has been approached by the media, appearing on NBC's The Today Show. Despite its success, the company has decided to donate its money, rather than spend it on marketing. The company's proceeds go to Jewish causes, including the Jewish Federation's Emergency Fund, which helps victims of terrorism in Israel.
"It will be a long time before we'll be able to re-coup our investment, let alone make a profit, but that was never our intent,"Verona, an inventor, said. He has had many years of experience starting new companies. "The difference [with Jewish Jeans] is that it was about getting as much distribution as possible, not turning a profit," he said.
According to Verona, sales have been growing consistently since the company's inception in January of 2003. While the company's Web site is currently not functioning, Verona said the company is implementing a new payment system. Jewishjeans.com is expected to be up and running in about one week after the upgrade is complete.
According to Verona, customers range from kids to grandparents and include both Jews and non-Jews. According to Verona, HBO's Sex and the City will feature a Jewish Jeans tee in an upcoming episode, and MTV's Blind Date has also requested merchandise.
According to Verona, one of the goals of his venture is to raise money for Jewish charities and to help raise money to find and train someone to serve as a media spokesperson for all Jews nationwide. This spokesperson, Verona said, would address the media with the Jewish stance on terrorism, Israel, and other issues regarding the Jewish community.
"I could honestly care less about how much merchandise we sell, as long as we can keep this effort moving forward," he said.
Although the Jewish-themed fashion has received much media attention, not all of it has been particularly good. Urban Outfitters created a tee printed with the phrase "Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl," surrounded by dollar signs. The tee is part of a series of shirts; others in the group include, "Everyone Loves an Italian Girl" surrounded by pizza slices and "Everyone Loves a German Girl" surrounded by beer steins.
According to J, a Jewish news weekly in Northern California, Urban Outfitters sold out of its initial run of 1,200 "Jewish girl" T-shirts quickly, but the tee did not receive a warm response from the Jewish community. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) wrote to Urban Outfitters, claiming that the shirt perpetuated an offensive stereotype. Last week, Kevin Lyons and Jenn Cote of Urban Outfitters' public relations department responded to the ADL's letter stating that "as a result of growing concerns voiced both internally and externally and with all due respect to the sensitivity of the Jewish community at large, Urban Outfitters has decided to discontinue production of the 'Everyone loves a Jewish girl' T-shirt in its present state." Urban Outfitters, Inc. stated that future production of the shirt will contain no dollar signs or other graphic elements.
In response to the Urban Outfitters shirt, Rachel Gershman '06 said, "There are always lines that can't be crossed. T-shirts are a really fun way to express a part of culture that everyone knows and appreciates, but they shouldn't be offensive.