NEW YORK – If their dream comes true, Brooklyn-based Hasidic fashion designers Mimi Hecht and Mushky Notik will one day dress Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé, the Olsen twins – and Jewish actor Mayim Bialik. While all are stylish and successful women, these choices could come as a surprise considering that Hecht and Notik specialize in the emerging “modest fashion” niche.
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Modesty, as they stressed throughout an interview last week in their Crown Heights studio, is trendy, empowering and even sexy. Or as Hecht says, smiling, “I’m not a huge fan of Kim Kardashian, but she would look amazing in our skirt leggings.”
Beyoncé and her ilk probably never heard of Mimu Maxi, Hecht and Notik’s successful fashion brand. But tens of thousands of Jewish, Muslim and secular women have bought their “skirt leggings,” long-sleeved oversized dresses and clean, flattering tops that mostly come in natural colors like black, white, gray or blue.
With over 30,000 Instagram followers, the Hasidic clothing line is leading the “modest fashion” trend within the Jewish community in New York and beyond, joining brands and websites like the recently launched The Modist (which is being marketed as “the first global online retail destination for modest fashion”).
“I first met Mushky six years ago, when she got engaged to my brother,” Hecht recalls. “We were hanging out a lot and trying to find affordable modest clothes that we like. We used to shop in all the regular shops and just look for the modest offerings in chains like Zara or H&M. We would never shop in the Jewish stores on Kingston Avenue in Brooklyn because they are expensive and not very trendy. Nice maxi skirts were hard to find, so we were thinking, ‘Why won’t we just start making skirts by ourselves and see if we can sell them?’”
Growing up in a Chabad community in Ottawa, Canada, Notik, 28, is “the sixth of 11 siblings.” Hecht, 31, comes from a relatively “small,” Seattle-based family of seven siblings (five boys, two girls). “I went to seminary school in Israel and spent a year in Safed,” she says. “I wanted to get married and didn’t want to go back to Seattle. So I decided to move to Crown Heights, where there is a big Chabad community. It is a very up-and-coming community. It is very religious, but it is also very ‘out there’ in the world. We invented the ‘hipster Hasid,’ and we have some amazing shuls, restaurants and cultural centers.”
The sisters-in-law quickly discovered a shared love for fashion, religion and style, but they had no experience, training or connections in New York’s bubbling fashion industry. But this did not stop them. In 2012, they launched their website and started to sell Mimu Maxi’s very first item: a simple-looking yet comfortable and fitted maxi skirt (their website hails the design as “the perfect antidote to the frumpy and unflattering skirt of yesteryear”).
“We started very-very small, making one skirt,” Notik explains. “In the beginning we realized we could launch a very simple website, just to get our fit off the ground. When we saw people were buying our clothes, we started having pop-up shops around New York.”
“We really love the idea that if you do it online, you can ship everywhere,” Hecht adds. “We have friends and family in Israel and around the world, and it is great to ship outside your immediate surrounding. The first week we launched the website, we had a Muslim customer from Malaysia. Immediately we saw there are a lot of people interested in buying modest clothing. It is trendy and more affordable.”
When asked if they were inspired by a specific designer or brand, Hecht notes that “what we do is really original – and it was even more so when we started five years ago. The only brand we liked back then was the Olsen twins’ The Row,” referring to the brand established by Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen in 2006. “It is obviously very different – and not so modest – but we liked the idea of things being big and having a dramatic look, while still being minimalistic and with no prints. But generally, we’re both busy moms on the go, and so we sit down and ask each other, ‘What do we want to wear and can’t find anywhere?’”
“Sometime we’ll see something which isn’t modest at all and have the feeling we want to wear a more modest version of the same item,” adds Notik. “For example, one of our first items was skirt leggings, which is a skirt that is very tight and very stretchy. It accomplishes what people who wear leggings can have. The skirt takes up so much space, and this is something that is slim and you can easily wear it with an oversized dress or top.”
Judging by the photos on your website, it is very tight and doesn’t look very modest
Hecht: “Do you know that only secular or non-Jewish people say that to us, because they wrongly assume being modest means hiding your body.”
Indeed, the designers’ definition of the word modesty might surprise some people. “For Jewish women, it means covering your elbows, knees and collarbone,” explains Notik. “Each religious community has it own interpretation of modesty laws. The spirit of modesty means not being too flashy or too exposed. So if you’re wearing a supertight Lycra leopard-print dress covering your knees, elbows and collarbone, then technically you’re modest. But in fact it draws attention to every single part of your body, which goes against the idea of modesty. But wearing fitted clothing is definitely allowed in our community. There is so much freedom to express yourself within those guidelines.”
Both designers reject feminist notions that modesty has historically been used by men as a means to suppress women and control their behavior and desires. “Modesty is about protecting women and celebrating them,” argues Notik. “We believe in that, and live by that. So there is always a way to interpret laws in a negative way if you really want to, and some feminists tend to do that. There are definitely things that can, and should, change – like equal pay, for example. But sometime it seems that feminism is trying to find a problem in everything – and we resist that narrative. There are dress codes everywhere. You can’t go to a business meeting wearing a tank top. We always dress in a respectful way. We walk into the world as if every interaction, every moment, we might run into the Queen of England. Would you want to be in your ‘Free the nipple’ garment when walking down the street? Is this how you want to be presented to the world? I mean, even men are not allowed to do that.”
“I think it is very simplistic to look at it as a patriarchal means of control or as a way to suppress the ‘male gaze,’” adds Hecht. “On a much deeper level, it is about our sexuality and our control over our bodies. Not only that modesty is not oppressive to us – it is empowering. Essentially, at the core of modesty is the belief that ‘My body is mine.’ We don’t look down on people who don’t dress modestly, but we find the biblical laws to be very protective of us when it comes to relationship, to strangers in the street, to self-respect.”
Alongside their commitment to modesty, Hecht and Notik often collaborate with non-Jewish designers and bloggers. In the summer of 2014, at the height of the Gaza war between Israel and the Palestinians, they posted a photo of a Muslim fashion blogger known as “Hipster Hijabis” (real name Summer Albarcha) modeling one of their modest designs. Reactions were mixed, with many Jewish customers accusing them of being “insensitive” and “offensive.”
The designers have no regrets for their actions. According to Hecht, “To us, it was very natural that we can connect with women from different backgrounds. We sent Summer some items and she posted her photo to Instagram. We re-posted it during a tense time in Israel, and a lot of our Jewish customers had a very strong visceral reaction to seeing a hijab-wearing Muslim woman on our Instagram feed. Summer happens to be an American woman who is part of a Jewish-Muslim unity group, and I’m sure she sympathizes with the Palestinians as much as we sympathize with our Israeli friends and family. But at the end of the day, we saw this as something completely nonpolitical and entirely fashion-related.”
Notik says they did consider posting an apology. “We consulted a respectful rabbi we trust and asked him whether we should apologize, but he reassured us we did nothing wrong. In fact, when we saw the reactions, we realized it was an opportunity to restate our values and let our customers know where we stand on this matter – which is simply that our brand isn’t just about our nucleus Jewish community. We’re shipping all over the world and have tons of non-Jewish customers.”
In the cultural climate of identity politics, it is no wonder that “modesty” or “Judaism” have been recast as popular hashtags. As a March CNN.com piece on “the rise of modest fashion” declared, “So far, over half a million people have hashtagged the term ‘#modestfashion’ below their photos, and multiple spin-offs (modest dressing, modesty movement, modest style) are widely in use. The market potential within the modest fashion sector is vast, and projected to reach a value of $484 billion by 2019, according to The Modist’s own research.”
Watching their business grow, Hecht and Notik say they “want to be the top brand in modest fashion, especially in the Jewish world. So our goal is to continually realizing collections with beautiful designs and high-quality fabrics, and getting more and more people to wear them, whether they are religious or not. We might open some flagship stores, but we have no desire to become the next H&M or Gap. We want to be a boutique, not a mass-production chain.”