A year ago, tragedy transformed The Frock forever.
On November 9, 2017, Chaya Chanin and Simi Polonsky, the sisters behind the modest clothing brand, were devastated by the unexpected death of Simi’s husband Shua after a three week battle with complications from a stomach virus.
The sisters have since given the brand’s 41,000 Instagram followers a raw and painful look inside the ups and downs of the grieving process:
“While there is a gaping hole in my heart so deep that will be there forever, Shua has left me with a light so strong that sometimes I feel like he has stepped inside my body, giving me breath, so I can breathe,” Simi wrote alongside a wedding photo, posted two weeks after Shua’s death.
Thousands around the globe quickly raised over $1 million to support Simi, then pregnant with her third child, and her family, but the two sisters weren’t sure that the brand they’d built up over the past 8 years was going to survive:
“The day after I heard the news of Shua’s situation, I was stuck between desperate hope and panic mode,” Simi posted on Instagram a week before her husband’s death. “I told Chaya that The Frock had to be shut down. The mere thought of having to manage both made me feel like I was drowning.”
But manage both they have. The Frock has grown; the sisters have moved their business out of Simi’s living room and into a storefront. They’ve quadrupled production this year. And since, Simi has had her third child.
Along the way, The Frock has developed its own set of rules for the modern modest woman. Chaya and Simi have blurred the lines between fashion and function, between public and private, and between product and purpose. They have pressed against the social rules of modesty. But more than anything else, they have forced us to reconsider the power of a woman’s voice.
The Frock’s clothing offerings are simple: fluid dresses in breathable fabrics, custom oversized Hanes T-shirts in whimsical cuts, belts fashioned to look like seatbelts, silky slip skirts in pastel colors. Most of the pieces leave their final shape to your imagination; they’re designed to be layered and refashioned with every wear.
The brand is working on making their offerings more size inclusive. While the Frock’s client base is predominantly Jewish women who live in New York, less than half of them identify as Orthodox, and they ship internationally to a growing modest-fashion consumer market.
“Our customers and our followers have become just women who love our story and who are intrigued by religion or intrigued by sisters,” says Chaya.
They’ll soon be adding a cozy knit sweater dress, a two-toned shift dress and new accessories to their product mix. On Friday November 29, they launched an online marketplace dubbed “The Shuk” as well, where the sisters will feature products made by outside artisans, including handmade bags from Haiti.
And soon, much to the chagrin of many on the Orthodox right, they will also be selling pants.
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After many months of patiently waiting on the back burner, our new marketplace on TheFrockNYC.com, will be launching this week with a few of our favorite things. Named in memory of Shua, who loved to travel, explore, connect with people from all walks of life, get to the top of the highest mountain both physically and inward we have named our marketplace, The Shuk. We hope to shine forth the vibrancy and lust for life within Shua, in our Shuk. For now, we have gathered a couple of our favorite little nicks nacks just in time for Chanuka and the holiday season. So watch this space, watch our hands on stories, bc they’ll be holding and adorning some of our upcoming pics that’ll be on the Shuk for your eyes to feast on. The bag I’m wearing is one of the limited edition, hand made needle point bags that will be available, come Thursday. Some items will be one of a kind, some will only be available one time only or for a short time. But all will have the spirit we invite you to share and explore with us. I wearing the #FrockBasic dress and #FrockEZpants in khaki. Dress is online now, pants coming Soon and to the #Popupshop next week Tuesday!
On Instagram, the sisters often share photos of their frocks fashioned modestly, but in ways that might make more conservative Orthodox Jews bristle, including photos of women wearing pants under their flowing dresses.
While the strict letter of the laws of modesty stipulate that women must cover their collarbones, elbows, and knees (with a skirt), most Orthodox circles also frown upon (or outright forbid) women from wearing pants, even under modest hemlines. In recent years however, many modern Orthodox women, including Simi and Chaya, have begun doing so, a choice that brought them a lot of flack — before Shua’s death.
“Since Shua died, we’ve had a lot less pushback,” Simi told me. “When you put things into perspective, it’s like, so her skirts have dropped shorter, or a bit longer, what is all of this really about? Life-altering things put things in a whole different perspective.”
But while Simi and Chaya’s fashion choices are intentional, they aren’t necessarily designed to cause controversy. Rather, the sisters hope to show that dressing modestly doesn’t have to be oppressive or mean one thing.
“If I want my kids to dress modest[ly] as well, I don’t want to give them what I got or what so many other girls are getting that makes them not want to be modest,” Simi told me. “We don’t dress this way to ruffle people’s feathers. We dress this way because this is how we can combine being frum and fashionable. That’s the bottom line.”
The Frock’s fashionable-while-frum look isn’t cheap: Frock dresses will cost you at least $100, and a slip skirt runs nearly that amount. But of course, the sisters are betting on the fact that they aren’t just selling clothing: they’re selling empowerment.
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“The Awakening” Raul Tovar, 2018 Print on metallic paper Everything comes full circle when our base is recognizable wherever our path leads us. We have learned to use what we have to its fullest capacity and that has helped us soar. We are brave enough to feel fear, we are proud enough to embrace our flaws. Because we have come to understand and appreciate, that all of this, is me. This is when we find the courage to be more than what we were told we are. The blank canvas we thought we knew is now full of color, depth and layers and we are proud to show it. Vanessa is wearing five combined Frock Asymmetrical dresses. We played with buttons and proper placement of the dress to recreate this gown. No sewing was used. Photographer: @raultovar Model: @mashaderevianko @vanessa.gav Vanessa Photography Assistant: @russoao Makeup & Hair: @mayelavzz Styling: @thepolos_ @Chayagest Clothing: @thefrocknyc
On a recent October evening, The Frock’s new store was easy to find on the night of their opening party: Just follow the well-heeled men and women with long flowing wigs and designer duds. Brilliant yet tasteful torches illuminated the quiet Crown Heights street; the smell of damp leaves and perfume intermingled in the chilly air.
Though we’d only met online, Simi greeted me with a hug, wearing a dozen Frock dresses refashioned into a single dreamy garment. Chaya’s husband and the sisters’ parents were in attendance. Shua’s mother had flown in from Cleveland.
The store itself is tiny, but a long row of mirrored closets makes it feel infinitely expansive. In black and white portraits shot by fashion photographer Raul Tovar, svelte women (including one with an expertly-disguised, very pregnant belly) wearing Frock dresses stared down from the walls as wine and canapes flowed freely.
The guests at the opening party were overwhelmingly Orthodox, and few could be described as frumpy. Though their heads were mostly bewigged, kippah-ed or scarved, they dressed in the blasé style of Brooklyn’s nouveau riche: Otherwise casual silhouettes were interrupted by designer logos the size of your fist draped across many a waist, one woman wore a dress patterned in overlocking Fendi “F”s, and of course, there was a lot of black.
As the night progressed, Simi and Chaya shared their new vision for The Frock: A place for celebrating every woman’s unique truth and the strength in using your voice.
Both sisters gave teary but triumphant speeches about how hard the last year had been and how proud they are that The Frock lives, thanks to the support of their customers and fans. Emotions flowed freely.
“Although we started this company because we wanted to make physical clothing, we wanted to make dresses, for ourselves, and for women like us, we’re realizing now how much our clothes are an expression of really who we are and the voice we want to share,” Simi told me later. “Our clothing and our company have become a conduit for us to express our voice. If we’re sharing our voice, we want to encourage other people to share their voice, and the sky’s the limit; it’s not just confined to this physical space.”
No longer running a business out of Simi’s house, the sisters are building a studio that is more than a place to work: They feel it’s becoming the beating heart of the community they hope to create.
They’re hoping to host pop-up shops once or twice a month and make the most of their small space for the next year or two.
The goal is not to shift the bulk of their business offline, but rather to provide a space for people to use clothing as a conduit into an accepting and open community.
“The Frock has become a community of people who accept you for who you are,” Simi tells me. “Clothing should not be, ‘oh, this is just a dress, this is just a t-shirt.’ Everything we do in our lives should enhance our experience as a human in this world.”
While The Frock has found a home in Crown Heights, the sisters are far from Brooklyn natives. They grew up Chabad-Lubavitch in Australia, surrounded by a secular environment and raised by a rabbi father who freely shared Zionist sentiments over the Shabbos table. And yet, they’ve become a symbol of pride for a certain kind of Crown Heights woman who is traditional but not moored in rigid social norms – the kind of Orthodox woman who balances a career, keeping a kosher home and growing her family; the kind of woman who is proudly religious and proudly wears designer jeans under her dresses.
“We do represent a voice of Crown Heights women who are our contemporaries,” Chaya told me. “Not the women who are twenty years older than us, or even five or ten years before us. It’s a new phase, and we are the beginning of this sort of culture. But we’re not representing every sort of Crown Heights woman.”
They emphasize the importance of sharing your own truth, whatever that may be.
And for the last year, that truth has often been painful. The deadly shooting that left 11 Jews dead in Pittsburgh was on the same day as Simi’s husband’s yahrtzeit, the one-year anniversary of his death.
On that day, Simi was too broken to share anything publicly at all.
“I have nothing else to share besides my own experience,” she told me. “That’s my truth right now.”
Simi and Chaya want others to share their truths, too. They’re starting a project called “The Frock Lives,” which will highlight the triumphs and tragedies of women around the world. They also plan to do more public speaking gigs, and perhaps to take their portrait series on the road.
Leading up to their grand opening, for a chance to score a ticket to the party, the sisters asked their Instagram followers a simple question: “Finish this sentence: ‘I feel powerful when…’”
The rawness of the responses shocked them. Women shared happy stories, but also of abusive relationships, of battling breast cancer.
“I feel powerful when I leave my third 12 hour night shift in a row from our oncology ward, where the only bits of makeup left have been cried or sweat off, just my scrubs, and I look down to my dry, cracked hands- which have been washed 4,900 just tonight,” one wrote. “I have never felt more powerful.”
“I feel powerful in the moments that enable me to say ‘how lucky am I’ to have parents with special needs,” another wrote.
“When I think about my four c-sections.” “When I speak openly about my experience with postpartum depression.” “I feel the most powerful when I don’t take myself too seriously and allow myself to laugh and really indulge in the beauty of this world.”
“Since we’ve started being our truth, hundreds and hundreds of people [have reached out] wanting to share their own truths, their hardships, their challenges,” Simi told me.
A lot of thirty-somethings flounder to find a path in life — yet Chaya and Simi have clearly found theirs, and they want to encourage other Orthodox women to do the same. “I do feel like we’re on our path. We have certain steps and goals that we want to reach and achieve for business, for clothing production and where we’re going, but I feel like we’re definitely going to be surprised on this path where it may take us. Because it’s not just about clothing.”
Laura E. Adkins is the Forward’s Deputy Opinion Editor and runs Scribe, the Forward’s Contributor Network. She holds a B.A. in Economics from NYU and grew up in Southwest Missouri. She writes about data, orthodoxy, kosher wine and builds interactive maps — though usually not all at the same time. Contact Laura at firstname.lastname@example.org, like her page on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter.