Sisters Simi Polonsky, 32, and Chaya Chanin, 33, are definitely not your average hip New York clothing designers (although, they are hip and live in Brooklyn). They design a popular line called The Frock catering to modest dressers; it is available on their very own site and in their pop-ups in Crown Heights. We met at By Chloe on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, which I suggested because it’s A. delicious B. pretty cool, and C. completely kosher. I knew they were Orthodox Jews, daughters of a rabbi, no less.
Simi has long blond hair with a real surfy look, and was wearing a giant cut-up Hanes tee over some easy pants and dripping in cool gold jewelry. Chaya has beachy, wavy brown hair, funky cat eye glasses and a tiny stud nose ring, and was in a dress over slashed jeans. They were bubbly and warm with Australian accents. I felt compelled to ask why they weren’t wearing Sheitels, the wigs that married Orthodox women wear, because I didn’t spot a tell-tale “seam” part. “Oh yes we are!” they laughed. Their secret? They simply pull the front back a pinch so you can see their natural hairlines.
They immediately told me their personal stories. Simi’s beloved husband and the father of her three children, had tragically died suddenly at 31 of a rare heart ailment called Myocarditis, when Simi was pregnant with their third child, about seven months ago. I was blown away by her strength and humor as she recounted the story. Chaya’s husband had recently become sober after an alcohol and marijuana addiction. They had been through so much, yet both sisters were as joyous and talkative as anyone could be.
They then started to explain their childhood – Simi and Chaya are daughters of a Chabad rabbi who was based in a beach town in Sydney. They were pretty much the only Jews in town (I had a similar upbringing, non-orthodox, but one of only a few Jewish families at the time, in New Jersey). “Our lifestyle is very much directed by our religion in what we eat, where we go on Saturdays [Shabbos] and where we vacation,” explains Simi. “Growing up Orthodox is pretty unbelievable because there’s a great sense of community. You automatically have friends who are like family because there are so many holidays and dates and social events where everyone comes together. For example every Friday night and Saturday we knew there would always be guests over. And it’s not a boring meal. It’s a fun meal with good food and good people.”
The Frock’s cool clothes are meant for modest dressers, and I wanted almost everything during our shoot in their ‘hood with their adorable and chic little sister, Tirzah, 25.
I asked the sisters a few questions about their upbringing and what makes them tick.
How did you like growing up in Coogee Beach?
Simi: It gave us a colorful and diverse upbringing. We were exposed to many different things beyond the Orthodox community in which we were raised. My father wore a giant hat and we stuck out like sore thumbs, which we hated. I loved our family and what we did, but we hated being so different. I just have these memories after shul, we would have lunch at home and my dad and mom were the local rabbi and rebbitzen (rabbi’s wife) and my dad looks very Orthodox–he wears black pants, a white shirt, and has a beard and he wears a kippah. My mom dresses modestly. She wears longer skirts, she’s always covering her elbows… so just in Sydney in the summertime if you’re wearing more than a tank top and a pair of short shorts you are already completely overdressed. My mum would buy us these big frilly frou frou dresses for services and then we’d go home and have lunch and go for a walk as a family, and I was so uncomfortable. I loved my family and I loved the holidays but I hated looking and being different. It became a point of contention in our family because my mum wanted us to dress a certain way and all I wanted to do was blend in with everyone else who was having coffee by the beach! We never ate in any of the restaurants because none of them were kosher.
We were allowed to go to the beach and to the cafes and markets and read Vogue and other magazines. Even though our mom wasn’t into it, we were still allowed. We went to the movies and read books, so we were up to date with popular culture. There was a fine balance of being exposed and being respectful at the same time.
What made you move to New York?
Chaya: I moved to gain experience in the Big Apple and to meet my match – (which she did a couple years later.)
Simi: I came already with my eyes on my American beau, to pursue love.
How did you start your business?
Simi: To date, we are completely self-funded. When we began our business, we had $1000 of our own money combined and we used it to create our first run of 54 dresses. They sold out almost overnight, and with the profits, we began our next run and did that again and again. Slow and steady we continued growing, learning and since then, we are still completely self-funded.
We sell our line on two main platforms. The first place we sell our collections is from our website and the second is at our Pop Up events. Pop Up events are when we bring our collections out into the open. We currently have Pop Up events throughout the greater New York area, approximately 6 to 8 times a year. They are always exciting, non-stop and a space which has really allowed us to get to know our Frock ‘family’! We take part in Pop Up events that include hundreds of other vendors, many of which are businesses created by and run by women like ourselves. And our other Pop Up events are exclusive for our Frock collections. Pop Up sales provide our customers with the chance to see what they are wearing before they make a purchase, to speak to us first hand, tell us what they want, what is missing and needed in their closets.”
Discuss your dressing philosophy and how it pertains to your religious upbringing.
Simi: Our dressing philosophy is founded on the idea that nothing is impossible. Most often when people think about modest dressing it is associated with rules and restrictions. While this holds true, the creative process integral to design eliminates the feelings of being limited. We are definitely not what your average Orthodox woman looks like when you think of modesty. You can find us at fashion week just like everyone else.
In the simple sense, modest dressing is literally a type of dressing where you cover your knees, collarbone, no pants. It’s not just about the way you dress, but about having a sensitivity about where you are, what you’re doing and who you’re with, and using your initiative about how you want to express yourself while being true to yourself and not necessarily thinking that showing more skin is the best version of yourself. You can cover yourself and show the best version of yourself and be really comfortable in your own skin, despite the fact that we’re not showing much skin. We try to integrate the idea of being empowered, owning yourself and being comfortable and happy with your lifestyle choices through modest dressing.
What to you is the epitome of chic? Who are your style icons of all time?
Simi: When someone can pull off any outfit while looking 100% effortless. It doesn’t matter whether that person is dressed for the MET Gala or a mum wearing a T-shirt and jeans at school pick-up, chic oozes comfort and the effortless air of ‘I woke up like this!’ Chic is being confident in you.
What do each of you bring to the table in your business?
Chaya: Simi has the explosive pops of ideas that she wants to bring to life, while I am grounded in my ideas and passions for what I want to build and achieve. We partner just right, in that Simi comes with the bigger picture and I bring it to reality, breaking down the steps to reach our creative goals.
Three things that elate you:
Simi: New pair of shoes, my kids. Talking about my late husband
Chaya: Fulfilling a creative dream, my baby, and the ocean.
Three things that disgust you:
Simi: Injustice, slimy bugs/creepy crawlies, sour cottage cheese
Chaya: When someone blocks my driveway, cottage cheese and the smell of pee in public places!