Online Shuk Peddles Sassy, Slinky & Kitschy

By Elana Berkowitz

Published March 19, 2004, issue of March 19, 2004.
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There’s been a lot of chatter of late about the Jewish fashion revival and its attendant swarm of micro-labels like Jewcy, Jewlo, Jewish Fashion Conspiracy and Rabbi’s Daughters. Now, instead of having to navigate the newly wide world of Jewish fashion and kitsch yourself, Chosen Couture, an about-to-be-launched online Jewish retailer, will do the work for you.

Geared toward 20-somethings raised on a steady diet of irony and secular pop culture, the site’s must-haves include rhinestone-encrusted Star of David cell-phone charms ($24), an ’80s-style neon-spray-painted totebag that reads “the girl’s got chutzpah” ($55) and even a yarmulke-and-tallis set for dogs ($21). Asked about the appeal of such a niche product, Sara Schwimmer, the site’s founder, said, “I think Adam Sandler really pioneered this trend when he had his bulldog Meatball wear a yarmulke to his wedding.”

Schwimmer, 27, is a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology and former marketing associate at girlshop.com, a high-end online fashion retailer. A lifelong fashionista and Conservative Jew, she got her start as a saleswoman at Loehmann’s. (“Can you get much more Jewish than that?” she asked.) She said she saw “the new emerging Jewish fashion trend” as an opportunity, and plans to launch the site at the end of March. She hopes it will be “the premier source for stylish and innovative designs inspired by Judaism for those who want to dress cool in shul.” (Those interested in site updates can sign up at Chosencouture.com.)

Schwimmer has selected 15 to 20 companies whose wares she will showcase on the site, offering everything from a gold kabbala bracelet ($100) to T-shirts shouting “Yo Semite” ($29) to plush bagel-shaped chewtoys for dogs ($8) and an “Oy Vey” line of bath and body products ($21). (The site advertises the line saying, “Oy vey, what to pack for your weekend stay at Kutchers?… everything you could possibly need to feel like butta.”)

Though the site strives to be hip and sassy, Schwimmer doesn’t want it to be too outrageous — she’d like to reach beyond the unshockable 20-something set. Using her mom as her gauge, the site will not carry items like the “Shalom Motherf–ker” tees made so popular by “The Hebrew Hammer” or yarmulke bras (yes, they exist: www.yarmulkebra.com).

Not all of the vendors on the site traffic exclusively in Jewish merchandise. Noir, an Israeli-owned company that makes the cell-phone charms, sells sparkly, secular jewelry, which Schwimmer points out is worn by Paris Hilton, among others. Sophomore, a label that offers a T-shirt printed with “Challah Back” ($40), is known for making tees popular with celebrities, like the “Page Six Six Six” worn by Britney Spears and the “Models Suck” sported by clothes-hangers including Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell.

So far, Modern Orthodox Jews, secular Jews and non-Jews have all signed on to the Chosen Couture e-mail list. Though Schwimmer wants to appeal to all of them, she won’t be offering the popular slinky “shiksa” tee from the Rabbi’s Daughters line sported by Madonna and Christina Aguilera, though she will offer their T-shirts reading “yenta,” “meshuggenah,” “oy vey” and “mamaleh” (Mother’s Day is right around the corner).

To market the site, Schwimmer has enlisted Jewish hip-hop performer 50 Shekel for her ad campaign and says she would love to feature Dr. Ruth Westheimer, musician Perry Farrell, director Darren Aronofsky and comedian Adam Sandler as models.

Schwimmer describes Chosen Couture as the first Judaica clearinghouse site to target “the younger, hipper, more secular crowd.” To them, she says: “At the very least you can get a good chuckle, but you might be inspired to delve into your roots.”

But isn’t that asking a bit much from kosher dog bones ($8) and matzo-patterned yarmulkes ($8)? The site seems like the latest example of a pop-culture, consumer-driven take on Judaism. With Demi Moore and Courtney Love sporting kabbala bracelets, the aesthetic trappings of Judaism have become cool. A unique moment perhaps, and probably a uniquely secular one, full of fashion and kitsch and humor, but this isn’t a site for snapping up Seder plates, mezuzot or T-shirts that read “Rashi Rocks!”

Though “mamaleh” baby-tees may lack gravitas, Schwimmer thinks the site can have a positive impact. “When I was in high school, all the kids who were Jewish tried to deny it somehow, saying things like, ‘But I am only Jewish because my parents are,’ or, ‘But I haven’t gone to synagogue since my bar mitzvah.’ I want people to just say, ‘Hey, I am Jewish, period.’ And they can do that with fashion. We don’t have to deny who we are to survive now.”

Elana Berkowitz is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Nation and Salon.com, among others.






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