Sydney sisters build empire with ‘man-repelling’ Orthodox Jewish fashion

Posted February 11, 2018 09:00:00

Growing up in the beachy Sydney suburb of Coogee, sisters Simi Polonsky and Chaya Chanin stuck out like a sore thumb.

“On Saturdays everyone is wearing bikinis, shorts, guys aren’t wearing shirts,” Ms Polonsky remembers.

“It’s really just a fun, chilled beach vibe… and as a kid you just want to fit in, except we had to go to Synagogue.”

Her sister chimes in: “And my mother would buy us these frilly, collared dresses and patent shoes with matching bows … and it’s a really hot summer Saturday in Coogee!”

As Orthodox Jews and daughters of the local rabbi, the sisters were expected to follow the Torah’s teachings of tznius: modesty.

The Dos and don’ts of Orthodox dressing

The most common interpretation of tznius requires women to cover their elbows, knees and collarbones.

“If you do want to wear pants, leggings, trackies, jeans, whatever it is, it’s with a skirt or a dress over it,” Ms Chanin explains.

“We don’t wear sleeveless [clothes] and no plunging necklines.”

Married Orthodox Jewish women are also expected to cover their hair, but unlike in the Muslim faith, this is generally done with a wig.

“Once a woman gets married she covers her hair, whether it be with a wig, a scarf, a hat… any sort of level you’re comfortable with, but it’s covering the hair,” Ms Chanin says.

“I think it’s also beautiful that we make our wigs look like our [real] hair, because it just proves the point that this is a holy, special thing and it’s not for anyone else.

“Nobody even needs to know that I’m covering my hair.”

Making modest fashionable

What some might view as a restriction, Ms Polonsky and Ms Chanin saw as an opportunity.

Throughout their teenage years the pair nipped and tucked their conservative clothes, added extra fabric to on-trend outfits and spent countless afternoons paging through Vogue.

So when both sisters found themselves living in the United States working in unfulfilling jobs, fashion that promised a pathway to brighter things.

Inspired by glossy magazines and a phonebook of well-dressed female friends who were happy to sell last season’s wears, the pair organised their first pop-up.

“Our husbands were schlepping and carrying garbage bags full of clothing to this florist that we rented,” Ms Polonsky recalls.

“[The shop] was the first of its kind in our community, first of its kind in the Orthodox Jewish world of women, fashion, clothing… it was exciting.”

Numbers-wise, the sale was a hit, attracting more than 600 customers on the first day.

But not everyone in the community was impressed with their approach, or style.

“We photocopied four different images from Vogue, cut them up, made a collage … then by hand plastered them all around the neighbourhood,” Ms Polonsky says.

“We got phone calls — people said, ‘The posters put up, was that by you guys? It’s not appropriate! The girl’s wearing blue nail polish’.”

Their business, The Frock NYC, grew, and so did their families. Babies were born, the label received write-ups from Vogue and Vanity Fair, and sales spiked internationally.

It wasn’t just Jewish women purchasing their clothes, either.

“Over the past few years we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of women emailing us, and they would say things like, ‘I’m Jewish or I’m Muslim or I’m Mormon or I’m Christian, and I never felt connected to my faith because I didn’t like the way they dressed and I couldn’t figure out how to combine the two, but when I see you guys I’m like, maybe I can’,” Ms Polonsky says.

“That’s our whole ethos, we’re respectful of all different levels of religiosity, and people that aren’t religious at all.”

When tragedy strikes

In October last year, the family was struck with a tragic blow.

Ms Polonsky’s husband Yeshua — fondly known as Shua — contracted a rare and rapidly debilitating virus.

“My husband was the healthiest, fit, young guy and three months ago he had the flu,” she recalls.

“We rushed him to hospital because he was so dehydrated and it turns out it wasn’t the flu, it was a really bad virus that attacked his heart.”

For three weeks the family stayed by his bedside.

“I believed with every ounce on of my soul and mind and heart that he was going to make it,” she says, her voice beginning to break.

Mr Polonsky passed away on November 9. Prayers couldn’t keep him alive, but an online fundraising campaign to support the family has amassed more than $1 million from 9,000 donations.

Ms Polonsky, who’s expecting her third child, is still struggling with the loss.

“When I told my daughter… I came home and I had to tell her the news of what happened to her daddy,” she says, tearing up.

“She cried and then she said to me, ‘I’m so mad at HaShem — God — but I still love him’.

“I realised that I’m right now in a black hole with no light, stripped bare, and I’m here alone, but God’s with me.”

To get through the darkness, Simi has dived back into The Frock NYC with her sister.

They both see the business as a testament to Mr Polonsky, who loved fashion and even appreciated their label’s “man-repelling” styles.

“My husband didn’t mind that I wasn’t wearing some sexy number, he was excited about the fashion and the out-of-the-box thinking that we shared with thousands of other women,” Ms Polonsky smiles.

“He just loved all people — Jewish, not-Jewish, black, white — and his outlook on life, and on people, translates so much into our business and the way we look at women of [all] faiths.”

Topics: judaism, women, religion-and-beliefs, fashion, family-and-children, death, spirituality, coogee-2034, united-states, australia

Sew your own pockets and make your clothing more practical

Posted January 24, 2018 08:00:00

If you’re a lover of women’s fashion, you may have a particular pet peeve which prompts the question: Where are the pockets?

There are a few reasons why women’s skirts and dresses, even pants and jackets, often lack the most useful of additions — from historical trends to those who claim pockets ruin the line of certain garments.

Nikola Colls runs Orenda Studios in Hobart where she teaches sewing in an effort to promote more sustainable fashion.

She said often pockets were left out just to keep the clothing cheaper.

“Some brands that want to keep their garments at a certain price point for their customers may not have that extra allowance to put in official pockets,” she said.

Ms Colls holds classes to teach people how to make pockets, both to be put in clothing they are sewing from scratch or to add to clothes they already have.

“People will find it’s not as big a process as they think,” she said.

“The pocket is just a front bit of fabric and a back bit of fabric and making sure it’s put in the right way for your hand or anything you want to pop in there.”

Ms Colls is passionate about helping people make the most of their clothing, for both themselves and for the environment.

“We really want to embed sustainability and ethical manufacturing processes in what we’re teaching,” she said.

“[Fashion] is one of the largest waste-producing industries in the world and people are finally starting to recognise that.

“With the influx of media stories about sustainability … people [are] thinking about what they have, how they use it and what they do when they’re finished with it.”

Learning how to adjust your clothes to make them fit better, or be more practical with the addition of pockets, is just one way to reduce the amount of rubbish that ends up in landfill.

“After it’s gone from our lives, who is it impacting, because it still exists somewhere?” Ms Colls said.

“Like plastic bags … it’s very similar with fashion, if we’ve got something with polyester in it and a lot of those synthetic fibres, they’re going to be sitting around for 200 years as well.”

Ms Colls said she taught people how to put internal pockets into the seams of clothing as well as how to add external pockets.

Watch the video for a guide on how to make an external pocket yourself.

Topics: craft, lifestyle, human-interest, sustainable-living, environmental-impact, recycling-and-waste-management, fashion, hobart-7000

Oroton’s post-Christmas sale saves handbag retailer

Posted December 27, 2017 11:53:51

Embattled retailer Oroton has been thrown a post-Christmas lifeline after one of its major shareholders offered to take over the company.

OrotonGroup’s administrator Deloitte has accepted a purchase proposal from fund manager Will Vicars, who owns 18 per cent of Oroton’s ASX-listed shares.

In addition, Deloitte has entered into a binding implementation deed with a company controlled by Mr Vicars.

This deal should see Oroton avoid a break-up of its business and allow its 50 stores across Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia to continue trading.

However, the administrator has not revealed the value of the deal or how much creditors can expect to receive.

“Despite interest, there was no other offer that would have resulted in a superior outcome for the business or employees,” said administrator Vaughan Strawbridge from Deloitte.

“Our objective has been to avoid a break-up or closure of Oroton, preserve employment and as much of the Oroton business as is viable, whilst achieving a value maximising result for stakeholders.”

Mr Strawbridge also said entering into this agreement is “an important first step” in Oroton’s recapitalisation.

Oroton entered into voluntary administration in late November.

This was after the luxury fashion accessories company issued a series of earnings downgrades earlier this year, and reported a loss of $14.2 million for the last financial year.

It was also the latest bricks-and-mortar retailer to be plagued with financial difficulties — following the collapse of Payless Shoes, Marcs, David Lawrence, Herringbone and Rhodes & Beckett over the past 18 months.

The deal also marks the end of an era for the Lane family, who founded the business in 1938 and have been its owners since then.

Oroton shares are currently suspended from trading on the ASX.

They last traded at 43.5 cents per share, which is more than an 80 per cent plunge from its price this time last year ($2.23).

Topics: business-economics-and-finance, retail, fashion, australia

Pharmacist finds perfect fit in clothing alteration business

Posted December 14, 2017 12:32:44

Clare Sheng was determined to stay out of her family’s clothing alteration business.

She can still recall every detail about the chores she endured inside the busy Rose Arcade workshop throughout her school years.

On a good day she would get to help her mum deliver mended clothes to some of Brisbane’s finest retailers.

On other days she’d find herself elbow deep in dirty dish water, scrubbing tea, coffee and noodles off mugs and bowls piled high in the shop’s only sink.

Almost 20 years later — and after vowing to never find work there — the young pharmacist is taking her mother’s alteration business to new heights.

Ms Sheng is the director of The Fitting Room, Queensland’s largest independent clothing alteration business.

Since joining her mother’s business in 2011, she has doubled its revenue, changed its name, relocated the workshop, and attracted an impressive list of high-end clients.

This year she also took home awards recognising her business acumen, multiculturalism and contribution to the fashion industry.

“Every garment that you’re fixing is like a problem you’re solving for someone, and every solution is different,” she told ABC Radio Brisbane.

“When people leave in their perfectly fitting garments they feel really good about themselves and they’re very grateful to you.”

Ms Cheng looks at ease inside the latest incarnation of the shop, darting between the front-of-house styling rooms and a white-walled workshop in the back; a cordless phone is glued to one ear.

But this isn’t where she envisioned she would be after finishing her studies at the University of Queensland.

“As a Chinese girl everyone says, ‘Go do pharmacy. It’s a good job, it’s stable, you can go have a baby and come back, you’ll always have a job’.

“But when I started working I found I didn’t actually enjoy it.

“You were either a pharmacist or a pharmacy owner and that’s it — there’s nowhere else to go.”

Despite promising to never return, she found herself back at the family business after putting her pharmacy career on hold to start a family.

“As soon as I left pharmacy I knew I was never going back,” Ms Sheng said.

“There was a eureka moment when I thought, ‘Actually, I really like this and I can turn this business into something quite big’, and that’s when I started to take on the business role fully.”

‘They would close the door in my mum’s face’

Ms Sheng said the clothing alteration industry had a better reputation now than it did when her mother arrived in Australia in 1999.

Wei Ping Yu grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution and migrated to Australia with her 11-year-old daughter in search of a better life.

Despite having limited English and struggling to make ends meet as a single mother, Ms Yu made a name for herself in the clothing alteration industry and started Brisbane City Clothing Alterations in 2008.

“Back then not everyone was used to having non-English speakers around,” Ms Sheng said.

“There were a lot of difficult situations at school, in public and especially for my mum at work … especially being in the clothing alterations trade which is quite low on the social ladder.”

While Ms Sheng said she struggled with bullying at school, her mother faced it in the workplace.

“I have seen with my own eyes people treating her really badly,” she said.

“We worked with a lot of high-end retailers and they would close the door in my mum’s face while opening the door for a rich customer.”

When Ms Sheng took a more active role in the business she realised her mother’s attention to detail and relationships with clients were the qualities destined to turn its image around.

“She was the best at what she does but she devalued herself because clients have always treated her badly.

“She would only tell people, ‘I can do this cheaper, I can do this faster’, which is putting herself down when she can provide the best service and the best quality work.”

Now she is committed to giving other marginalised workers an opportunity to join the industry.

“A lot of the staff we hire are from overseas; we have refugees and women who are coming back after staying at home for a number of years.

“There is no class system and there is no need to think someone is better than someone else.”

New business model caters to fashion-savvy men

Ms Sheng will release a book in 2018 advising men how to wear, style and care for suits.

She also launched a men’s styling service this month to show clients how to improve their clothing and business etiquette.

Creating these new ventures was a matter of necessity.

Ms Sheng said she was forced to look for other income streams when fashion retail sales started to suffer three years ago.

“A lot of our clients were closing down, they were selling a lot less clothing, and that directly affected our business,” she said.

“That’s when I started to take more proactive action to try and get more clients by teaching them the value of dressing well.”

The business’s founder, Ms Yu, has stepped back from day-to-day alteration work and is now a part-time consultant who, conveniently, lives around the corner from her daughter.

And, bucking the trend of second-generation succession etiquette, Ms Sheng said her advice was always welcome.

“If I’m ever scared of trying something new she would say, ‘Well I started the business with no money, no English and no education. If I can do it, you can do it’.”

Topics: small-business, retail, fashion, family, careers, people, brisbane-4000

A short history of the high heel

Posted November 13, 2017 09:00:00

It’s a dilemma many women face when they go out — do they want to elongate their legs by wearing high heeled shoes for an event, or still be able to feel their feet at the end of the night?

After events like the Spring Racing Carnival, it is common to see many women abandon their shoes and limp home barefoot.

And while men are perceived to be well turned out at any event in flat shoes, the high heel trend, believe it or not, began with them.

“The origins of the heel relates to horse riding and warriors and the ability to hold tight to the saddle,” podiatrist and shoe historian Cameron Kippen told ABC Radio Perth

“Subsequently you had these macho men swaggering about in boots with heels, but they very quickly became fashionable for rich courtiers and kings in particular.”

The first recorded instance of a high heeled shoe being worn by a woman was by Catherine de Medici in the 16th century.

She was about 150 centimetres tall and it is said she wanted to appear taller at her wedding.

Up until that time, women had been wearing platform shoes, some as high as 60 centimetres, in 16th century Europe.

“Platforms predate heeled shoes, but because many women would fall over their platforms, and pregnant women would miscarry, they had to be legislated against,” Mr Kippen said.

“Shoemakers realised they could give women height but they needed to make them safer, so they carved out the front of the platform and created a high heel which was biomechanically more sound than platforms.”

During the reign of King Louis XIV of France, some 200 years later, wearing heels really began to take off — but again, among men.

“After de Medici died, that was the end of heeled shoes for women in terms of fashion,” Mr Kippen said.

“Women started to wear lower heels, but men liked this idea of towering above everyone else — and no one more than Louis XIV, who of course gave his name to an actual heel itself.

“He would parade around with very tight fitting high heeled shoes, very highly decorated.

“His critical badge of honour was a red heel, and he wouldn’t allow anybody else in the French court to wear them.”

Heels in the French court at Versailles were an important status symbol and restricted to the nobility.

“Wearing heels without permission — you would lose your head, literally,” Mr Kippen said.

“In those days there were fewer people wanting to be fashionable.

“Ordinary people would go about their business with no trouble at all, whereas it was the courtiers and those that had privilege and money that would want to outdo each other.

“Therefore, trying to emulate the royal family in whatever country you were in was something that was governed against.”

The right to wear heels eventually extended to the general population, but they remained chunky until after the end of World War II.

“We had to fight two world wars to have the technology to be able to make a stiletto heel,” Mr Kippen said.

“The secret of the stiletto heel was a small piece of metal which joined the inside of the shoes sufficiently that the heel and foot of the shoe could operate separately. It could actually bend and twist.

“It’s known as a shank.

“Once a shoe designer managed to work that out, then heels became more like what we see today.

“In the past heels were more like arch supports. They sat much closer to the middle of the foot, whereas now they can sit right at the end of the shoe.”

Initially, the creation of the stiletto heel was a cause of great consternation.

“In all the ballrooms at the time, the owners were very much concerned,” Mr Kippen said.

“These new stiletto heels could actually bore a hole in the floor.

“There was much warning and health foreboding about the things that would happen if you wore stiletto heels.”

Blisters aside, Mr Kippen said there was little evidence that high heeled shoes caused long-term health problems for wearers.

“We have lived half a century past that time and there is no evidence to show that people who wear these for a prolonged period would have foot or back problems at all,” he said.

Topics: fashion, history, women, perth-6000

Oxfam urges Australian fashion brands to end worker exploitation

Posted October 29, 2017 06:02:40

The Bangladeshi factory worker who may well have made your t-shirt could be earning as little as 39 cents an hour.

That is the sobering message coming from non-for-profit organisation Oxfam Australia’s “What She Makes” report released today.

Deloitte Access Economics was engaged by Oxfam to analyse Australia’s garment supply chain and work out the proportion of the cost of a garment ends up in the pocket of the person who made it.

It found in the average Australian supply chain, just 4 per cent of the price of a clothing item is paid to overseas workers.

That is just 40 cents from a $10 t-shirt.

In Bangladesh, where wages are much lower, as little as 2 per cent of the clothing price goes to the workers who made it, the Deloitte research found.

Australian companies like Target Australia, Cotton On, Kmart, Big W, H&M, Pacific Brands and the Just Group all use overseas factories as suppliers, including factories in Bangladesh.

China is the main sourcing destination for Australia, followed by Bangladesh which provides about 9 per cent of the garments sold here.

Twenty-year-old Bangladeshi Fatima earns 43 cents an hour working in a factory making clothes for Big W, H&M and other global brands.

Oxfam’s report said she will often go without food and sleeps on a concrete floor in an apartment with 10 other people.

Oxfam Australia’s Chief Executive Helen Szoke said while the cost of living in certain countries is lower, the salaries paid in the garment industry still do not allow a worker to cover basic living costs, like food and housing.

“It’s predominantly women who work in Bangladesh, Vietnam and Indonesia that can’t afford the basics like food and safe homes but are working long hours, often six days a week, producing the garments Australians wear on their back,” Ms Szoke said.

She said Australia’s biggest retailers should ensure overseas workers have enough to live off.

“Deloitte estimates that if big companies passed the entire cost of living wages to workers, it would only increase the price of clothing sold in Australia by 1 per cent,” Ms Szoke said.

She said that should be absorbed by the companies and not passed onto the buyer.

Australia’s fashion industry turned over $27 billion last year.

“Brands have the power to ensure workers are paid enough to live with basic dignity,” Ms Szoke said.

The minimum wage in Vietnam is the equivalent of 64 cents an hour. In China it’s 93 cents and in Bangladesh it is as low as 39 cents an hour.

However, a recent International Labour Organisation report found a large proportion of workers in the garment, footwear and textiles sector in counties exporting to Australia were paid below minimum wage.

Target, Kmart, Woolworths Group, Cotton On and the Just Group all list the locations of their factories on their websites.

Topics: fashion, design, arts-and-entertainment, charities, charities-and-community-organisations, community-and-society, australia, bangladesh, china

From fashion to farming: On-farm businesses taking the world by storm

Posted October 21, 2017 06:24:40

Former fashion model Vanessa Bell is riding a new wave of potential for on-farm businesses in Australia taking value-added products direct to the world online.

She has started a company from a farm at Goulburn in New South Wales, producing hand-knitted baby blankets from super fine merino wool.

“Being online is really good, it gives us an opportunity obviously to be on a world-wide platform, so we have blankets now in London and Switzerland,” she said.

“It gives us opportunity to be able to sell beyond Australia.”

Ms Bell started marketing her range this year under the brand Sara Jane Bond, named after her late great grandmother who produced a hand knitted blanket in 1940, which had become a family heirloom.

She said the birth of her son Charlie in early 2014 to her farmer husband Philip Bell was the genesis of the business idea.

“Being a newborn baby in this climate I kept struggling to find something warm for him,” Ms Bell said.

“My mother suggested I try my great grandmother’s blanket and then also standing on the deck and looking out, Philip was driving 1,000 head of sheep up the paddock and I thought I really need to do something with sheep, it makes sense to do something in the wool business.”

A near decade-long career as a fashion model on the catwalks of London, Tokyo and Sydney helped her focus on the luxury market, she said.

“I was incredibly fortunate to work with clients such as Giorgio Armani and Comme des Garcon and Christian Dior,” she said.

“For me, it helped me actually define the gap in the market to look for something that was about quality, so being surrounded by wonderful fabrics and construction and how those fabrics came together on the runway, that absolutely gave me an insight into what I wanted to be able to create.”

Crucial to the business model has been a team of dedicated local knitters who have helped design and produce the blankets.

“It’s beyond creating a beautiful product, it’s about really talented women coming together who have a vested interest in the wool business,” Ms Bell said.

“All of us are either married to farmers or have been farmers, it’s looking at creating something and bringing women together in the bush, which is a really important thing.”

Gostwyck also joins the online marketplace

One of the oldest wool growing enterprises in Australia has also been quick to embrace the new world of online opportunities

Gostwyck farm at Uralla in NSW was established in 1832, and sells its wool to high fashion knitwear brands such as Esprit and the suppliers of top end men’s suiting labels such as Saville Row.

Now the family-run enterprise is also selling a range of baby wear online.

“It’s been great, the stuff we’ve sold in Australia and also in Europe, the reactions have been very good,” said Philip Attard, who runs the farm that has been owned by his wife Alison’s family for five generations.

The baby wear is trading on the Dangar family history and is named after the first owners of the property, Henry and Grace.

Mr Attard said it was important to have a story in the online market, but face to face contact was still required.

“You have to be prepared to jump on a plane and go to the places where you need to show your product and explain what it is you’re doing,” Mr Attard said.

“People don’t know and unless you tell them they’ll remain ignorant about the improvements we’ve made here with the Australian merino.”

‘We want to bring jobs into the region’

Mr Attard is running the business from the 2,600 hectare farm, but patchy internet connectivity was a challenge, he said.

“It’s improved a little bit since the Sky Muster, but the speed and the amount of data that you need needs to improve,” he said.

“We’re hoping the amount of data will improve again but we need to able to get through into 100mb lines here in order to do those things comfortably and efficiently, otherwise you have to have an office in town and I want to avoid that.

“The other thing is we want to stay regional, we want to bring the jobs into the region not go down to the cities because that’s where the skills are.

“Those skills are really important for any business but we need to develop them here and keep them here and show them there is a better way of life in regional Australia.”

The head of the business school at the University of New England, Alison Sheridan, said Australian farmers were uniquely placed to capitalise on a global reputation for quality and sustainability.

Food and fibre producers could target niche markets with value added products and UNE was focused on producing graduates with the skills to help develop these online opportunities.

“As the agricultural producer you don’t have to have all that knowledge you bring that specialist expertise in and I think that’s what’s exciting for the employment opportunities of our graduates too is the increasing openness by our agricultural producers to draw in the expertise when they need it,” Ms Sheridan said.

“What I value about this is it’s opening up new opportunities for our regional economy so we tap into an international market and then along the value chain we connect with so many different dimensions of the economy.”

See the story on Landline, this Sunday at noon.

Topics: rural, agricultural-crops, wool, fashion, agribusiness, goulburn-2580, nsw