While the concept of modest fashion originated among Muslim consumers, its appeal has grown exponentially to embrace all Abrahamic faiths and extend a stylistic welcome beyond communities of faith. The thriving $227 billion-dollar market has cemented its place in the American retail landscape with the inaugural Miami Modest Fashion Week in 2019. Fast forward to 2021. You know a fashion trend has arrived when it is being promoted by the United States diplomatic mission in Italy! The Emmy-certified success of Unorthodox, a Netflix drama series, brought public attention to the vibrant cultural discourse within the global Jewish diaspora. With Gal Gadot, Natalie Portman, and other contemporary fashion icons continuing their red carpet reign, the industry is witnessing “the growing allure” of Jewish and Israeli fashion worldwide.
One of the most anticipated and lauded literary debuts in fashion media this fall is a provocative and insightful memoir “The House of Faith and Fashion: What My Wardrobe Taught Me About G-d” by Tobi Rubinstein. Her career in the industry spans over four decades and includes a number of impressive pioneering endeavors such as designing childrenswear for Nicole Miller, developing exclusive activewear for Crunch Gym, and launching an urban menswear label for K-Mart. I had the joy and the privilege to connect with the author to discuss her new book, the role of faith in business, and what does authenticity mean in the age of “thank-you-next”.
You reference G-d as “the first and foremost couturier”. How do you mean that?
Once I opened my eyes to the presence of G-d in all creatives processes, I could see it everywhere: from Matisse to Manolo Blahnik. I marvel at the patterns of G-d’s creatures such as tigers and cheetahs as much as I love my leopard-printed Valentino dresses. It is not surprising that most visited exhibition at the Met Museum to date is “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” However, I was amused at the fact that the curators used only Catholic holy vestments as the gateway to couture fashion when everything is already in the Bible and Torah. I wrote in “The Haute and Holy” essay in my book about references to Exodus and the spectacular details of the High Priest ritual garments which surpass any meticulously designed outfits today. Plus, shouldn’t we give G-d due credit for having created Adam and Eve and the entire world. Is there a grander creation than that?
At one point, you referred to fashion as “a seemingly soulless industry”. How did your spiritual perception of the industry evolve?
Being introduced into the world of Victoria’s Secret early in my career gave me an impression of very shallow, surface-oriented business. Yet some of the people I met have been clearly blessed with a creative gift. It made me curious about their journeys. They could produce the finest garments, but surely, they were so much more than number of racks in a department store or ad campaign budgets or show reviews. The book began with interviews exploring designers’ souls to dig deeper into their passion, their purpose, and greater forces within their personal belief systems. The reactions were so meaningful. They were grateful to be appreciated for their inner worth and G-d given abilities.
In your experience, what is the most common misconception about Jewish fashion (or modest fashion, at large) and how does your life’s work engage with it?
Ah, modest fashion. It is such an interesting catch phrase. When I saw the Dior exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, it struck me as quite modest and demure compared to today’s fashions. Yet it was stunningly chic and sexy. Whether it be in Judaism, Islam or even some Christian sects, contemporary religious connotations can easily be adhered to with so many fashion choices driven by the emerging force of modest influencers such as The Reflective. I spoke to designer Kobi Halpern who is the creative director at Ungaro as well as his own brand Kobi Halpern. He believes that covering up “the hidden” is much more alluring stylistically as opposed to being overly exposed. That said, modesty also must be internal. In the book I write about an encounter with a “letter of the law” woman who publicly embarrassed me in a synagogue because she thought my modest look wasn’t up to par. I titled that chapter “Modesty Schmodesty”. It taught me that how you look, what you say and how you treat other people has to be aligned to your higher values otherwise “dressing modestly” is rather worthless.
“Authenticity” is often posed as a marker of a quality relationship with a brand. How do you define authenticity in the faith-based fashion business?
The idea of authenticity is very cultural and evolves with time. The great Diana Vreeland said: “You have to keep up with the times. You have to be interested in what’s happening, in what is contemporary, in order to keep life meaningful and exciting. Living in the past is the quickest way to age.” There is no exact formula to follow for authenticity. Judaism teaches us to do all that is humanly possible to achieve a goal and then to rest in our faith in G-d for things to work out favorably. An authentic brand needs to keep the faith. However, when faith is turned into a business it has no authenticity at all.
What has been the most surprising and rewarding outcome of publishing this book?
Oh so many! My style icon Iris Apfel loved the book and reading about her influence on me. I’m looking forward to working with her again at the Bijoux Contemporary Show produced by Donna Schneier at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in March 2022. The amount of people willing to cooperate with me, from fashion legends to top Jewish thought leaders, was the most rewarding, humbling, and surprising experience. After the demise of my first marriage my ex-mother-in-law said I’d be nothing without her son. That declaration was the best unintentional motivational speech I needed. Crashing glass ceilings has been my favorite sport ever since. This book taught me not to be afraid to break the rules. I am already working on the sequel in collaboration with Paris Fashion Week!
You wrote this book, in part, while going through chemotherapy… What has been the most valuable lesson that experience taught you about fashion and style?
Uterine cancer assaults you on all fronts: not only inside your body but also outside. Being hyperconscious of my appearance, the treatments left me reexamining social definitions of beauty. Losing your hair, eyebrows, lashes, everything… forces one to go deeper to come to terms with the beauty within. It was the hardest yet most valuable lesson. Finding my new beauty was a true spiritual awakening.
What is the most pressing question on your mind right now?
Do you think my book will sell in the metaverse?