Guest post by Chaya Schwartz
On almost every corner in New York there’s bound to be a coffee shop. And considering the city is well known for its cultural diversity, somewhere on that block - or maybe the next one - there should be a synagogue, a mosque, a church, or other house of prayer. And while there may be a range in practices and observance levels between these religious assembly places, there is a common modest dress code. This dress code makes shopping at stores across the city squeezed between the coffee shops, places of prayer, and skyscrapers quite challenging. Even more difficult than filling the everyday closet though would be finding a modest couture gown fit for a bride.
Skim through any of the popular go-to magazines for bridal inspiration, be it Condé Nast’s BRIDES, Martha Stewart Weddings, or The Knot by XO Group. Only a select few pages collectively will advertise or display dresses that appropriately fit the basic customs of a religious woman’s dress code, compiled of traditions as varied as the actual women adhering to it, yet similarly assembled as a reminder that there is more to a woman than just her physical features. These guidelines, more so than day to day, are greatly visible at weddings since they generally consist of guests and friends within, or respecting of, the community traditions. For some Muslim weddings, for example, there is a part of the reception where the men and women are separated, thus allowing the bride to remove her bolero and headscarf. With plans to celebrate sans sleeves, such brides are to choose from a large variety of on-trend dresses. However, like traditional Jewish weddings, some Muslim brides do not have separate rooms for men and women and are therefore required to dress modestly throughout the wedding. Members of the Mormon Church are also required to dress modestly, and wear a two-piece white t-shirt like undergarment, better known as a temple garment – the top for women consisting of a sweet heart or scoop neckline and a cap sleeve – at all times aside from bathing and swimming. Because of this restriction, the Mormon bride must be fitted for her dress with the temple garment on. In addition, a Mormon bride’s temple dress must be completely white and long sleeved with the absence of a train. With all these limitations, many Mormon brides choose to rent their temple dress from their church and purchase a more lenient one, perhaps with short sleeves and sheer details, for the reception.
When Kate Middleton married Prince William back in 2011, numerous designers jumped on the modest bandwagon and sent over their own versions of her famous dress by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen to Kleinfeld’s. However, in the next six months it was made apparent to the Kleinfeld staff that the delicate sheath dress worn by Kate’s sister Pipa, also created by Sarah Burton for McQueen, was the look which current brides were interested in imitating. And as Rochel Leah Katz- a modest bridal consultant for Kleinfeld Bridal, the longest standing bridal boutique in New York came to witness- it was a confirmation that modesty just doesn’t sell as much as sleeveless and plunging necklines. Especially since only one in eighteen of Kleinfeld’s brides are looking to be styled in the traditional modest gown.
Rochel Leah Katz has been a valued member of the Kleinfeld Bridal team for over 15 years now, working as a coordinator between a bride and a very limited list of designers willing to work with her clients, their restrictions – which often require changes to the dress - and her specifications of ordering a muslin copy for confirmation of fit to try on before creating the final garment. Despite her customers paying an average of $5,500 to customize their dress, considering what John Galliano so brilliantly stated, that “what sets couture apart from ready-to-wear is the ateliers, the workmanship, and the amazing attention to detail,” Rochel Leah patiently understands the difficulty designers might have in choosing to alter their patterns for her clients. This is especially so since once a dress pattern is made it is difficult to adjust the sketch so gravely as to meet the religious standards. And because this list of designers the Kleinfeld team is able to work with to assist in modifying their already detailed and seasonal dresses has unfortunately decreased over the past decade, with Monique Lhullier opening her own boutique, Anne Barge moving her factory, and Judd Waddell going out of business, Rochel Leah acknowledges that choosing a dress of couture value with the modesty guidelines still has a long way to go.
So how does Rochel Leah do it? What keeps her going after all these years?
Having walked around the glamorous boutique with Rochel Leah and seeing the many styles and happy faces only a place such as Kleinfeld could yield, it likely is the underrated traditional great service which Rochel Leah gives to each bride that makes her so sought after, even in London from where she procured three appointments a short while ago. In addition, a popular sentiment that Rochel Leah shares with the modest and fast growing fashion-forward community on social media is that of no layering. Despite the challenges of finding designers who are interested and able to make changes to their designs to include the modest sleeve length, lining, and neckline – the conservative levels varying per bride and her customs – Rochel Leah maintains close contact with a few of Kleinfeld designers such as Edgardo Bonilla and Tony Ward, known for their feminine and timeless couture dresses, with ornate embroidery and fine lace details to ensure that each dress her customers order is constructed from scratch to include these added details vs adding the additional fabric to the original pattern as is all too commonly seen. And when the dress does arrive, Rochel Leah is known to inspect each jewel and detail on it with a keen eye, thus again building on to the unparalleled service Kleinfeld is famously recognized for in real life, as well as on the store’s own TV show, Say Yes to The Dress.
For stylists such as Rochel Leah one could go on for days speaking of the service she provides to her clients, who are mostly from Chassidic communities as they have the most changes to be mindful of. A lot can be learned from her and the Kleinfeld team as they work together to cater to women not just of all sizes and personalities, but of various cultures and religious beliefs as well, even going so far as to designing a hat with Edgardo Bonilla to match a client’s dress. Another example took place following hurricane Sandy. Since access to Manhattan via Brooklyn was limited to cars only and gas was extremely sparse, Rochel Leah took her own car with a client’s dress to the Williamsburg Bridge and had someone meet her there to deliver the dress to her bride. It may be her job to “do what needs to be done,” but Rochel Leah also considers it a great opportunity to help fulfill the obligation of making a bride and groom happy.
There are of course difficult and uncomfortable moments as the only modest bridal stylist at Kleinfeld, such as when a bride’s modesty preference differs from her future mother-in law. Or when a customer wants to try on a strapless dress even though she knows her beliefs would prevent her from walking down the aisle wearing it. It’s moments like these that Rochel Leah stresses how imperative it is that brides have a talk with her mother and future mother-in-law about how conservative the dress should be.
One only need to glance at the number of followers Heba & Farah Jay of thejaysisters.com, Adi Heyman of Fabologist, Emily Jackson of The Ivory Lane, the founders of The Modest Bride, and even this blog, Mode-sty.com – the list can continue – holds for reference of the interest in modest fashion. And while applying the rules of modesty to couture fashion which already is time consuming to create considering the amount of jewels, lace details and handiwork that are put in to create a couture garment, contrasting the commonly short engagements of a traditional Jewish couple, Rochel Leah, being the angel that she is, for almost two decades has been working closely and confidently to help each bride through these challenges – and sometimes the mother of the bride as well – to create a look that brings out that “bridal glow.” As a result of this dedication Rochel Leah has seen how far modest fashion, specifically in the couture sector, has come in the 15 plus years she has been at Kleinfeld. Israeli bridal couture designer, Chana Marelus, recently opened a shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Alta Moda Bridal Boutique specializing in modest bridal wear is currently finishing up its 10th successful year. Brides from Salt Lake City, London and all over NY have been reaching out to Rochel Leah. And though such styles are still a rarity to come by, considering the special team of fitters, seamstresses and back of house people at Kleinfeld that Rochel Leah has assisting her in conjunction with talented designers such as Tony Ward and Edgardo Bonilla, it’s no surprise she is working with the third member of some families on their bridal adornments. Because while “traditional” are “modest” are not the most fashion forward words, there’s a reason Jackeline Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn are still style icons in 2016.
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