Simi & Chaya: From Australia to Crown Heights

Simi & Chaya: From Australia to Crown Heights
September 1, 2016 Daniela K.

Simi and Chaya are the founders of The Frock, the Brooklyn-based label that incorporates a high-end, effortless aesthetic to modest fashion. As Orthodox Jews, originally hailing from the sunny beaches of Sydney, Australia, they always stood out from the crowd. Today, their distinctive style and individuality has contributed to the meteoric rise of their unique label that blends high fashion and faith.

Tell us about your background.

Simi: We’re sisters. We’re from Sydney, Australia and grew up in a place called Coogee Beach. Our dad and mom were the rabbi and rebbetzin of the congregation in that community. We were also the only Orthodox Jews within a five mile radius.

What was it like growing up as the only Orthodox Jews in your area?

Simi: Everyone was secular, just like what you would you see walking around Manhattan. We grew up knowing we were very different, we stuck out.

My dad looked very typically hasidic. Every shabbos, we’d walk down the road singing. Picture it: everyone is wearing bikinis, short shorts, and not much else. In Australia, you can go to the cafe wearing a bikini, and it’s totally acceptable. My dad has a black beard, yamika, tzitzit, white shirt, and black pants. At that age, you want to fit in, you don’t want to be different.

What brought you to New York City?

Chaya: I moved here with friends that I had met through studying at yeshiva in Israel. We found a place to live together in Crown Heights, and they told me about a job that I got in the city.

Simi: I also studied in yeshiva in Israel for a year and a half, then I went back to Sydney to study at fashion school. When I was 21 I had “come of age”, which meant that it was the time that my parents started to suggest suitable bachelors for me.

You came to New York City to find love?

Chaya: I came to New York to find my husband. Technically, I came to live with friends but I knew that this was the Jewish social scene.

Simi: I met my husband when I went on a family vacation to Israel. My mom said “everyone go to bed early, we’re going on a big trip in the morning”. So of course, Chaya and I snuck out and she took me to all the bars. As soon as we got to the bar there was a big table of rowdy young guys. There was this one guy who was not fighting for our attention. He was very sweet and nice and I liked him right away. At the end of that night I said to Chaya, “I’m going to marry that guy.” I’m crazy decisive.

When moving to New York City, which was so far from home, did being Jewish and being a member of the Jewish community help ease your transition?

Chaya: I couldn’t imagine moving to the city and looking for an apartment on my own, New York City is huge, where would I start? I had friends here. I had a community, a support system. It was so easy.

Now that you’re involved in the fashion world, tell us about how this also affected your transition to New York.

Chaya: When we first came to New York we didn’t know anyone. One of the best parts of being in this field is that we’ve met so many people along the way. We got out there, starting doing things, talked to people and we met this whole new New York. It makes you realize that New York City is so big, there are so many people and there is so much opportunity.

Were you always into fashion?

Simi: I was always into fashion. It sounds so cliche but it didn’t come from my parents. From the age of five, I was telling my mom you can’t wear this, do not wear that. It was just in my veins.

If I had seen you two just walking down the street, I would think you were very fashionable. I would never think for an instant that you were Orthodox. Tell us about how you pull off the modest look so effortlessly.

Simi: That is our mission; it’s to show that! As a kid, I hated feeling that I was different in a bad way. The feeling of not wanting to stick out really influenced the way we dressed. It made us think, how am I going to look cool and not compromise on my lifestyle, traditions, and how my parents wanted me to dress? We became really good at intertwining our modest guidelines with what was fashionable at the time.

In Australia, were there are a lot of modest fashion options? What was it like trying to maintain your orthodox traditions in that environment?

People are very laid back and it’s so hot there. We always loved vintage stores and eventually we became really good at mixing and matching, and layering. We used sarongs, draping, cutting, and adding to make our wardrobe work.

When you moved from Sydney to Crown Heights Brooklyn, did you finally feel like you blended in?

Chaya: When we came to New York, we automatically came into a community. We stood out. They said we looked different because we were so Australian.

Simi: By being here for a few years, we started gaining a reputation in the community for being style savvy.

How did your style differ?

Chaya: The orthodox fashion style when I moved to Crown Heights was very cookie-cutter. There were just a few modest fashion stores and everyone wore the same lycra jersey t-shirts that you can’t breathe in.

Simi: We layer to look like we’re not trying to be modest. We want someone to look us and think, “she looks great” and then realize, she’s modest or she’s covered. People don’t think you can look good if you’re covered.

The modesty movement is rapidly growing in fashion, and the style has trickled into what is fashionable and on-trend today. How has dressing modest evolved since the trends began to fall in your favor?

Chaya: Ten years ago if you went into a store like Zara or H&M there was nothing modest to buy. Mini skirts and tank tops were everything. But now oversized t-shirts, long dresses, and maxis are in style.

Let’s talk The Frock. Tell us about how the journey began to start your own consignment shop and fashion label.

Simi: I was working as a personal stylist at the time. We loved fashion; Vogue was our bible. I would envision myself being Grace Coddington myself. We also spent a lot of time shopping at designer consignment stores and figured out which stores had the best pieces.

Chaya: Every time Simi would visit New York, our first stop were the consignment shops.

What are some of your favorites here in New York?

Simi: INA. On Madison Avenue, between 70th and 85th street, there are also four great consignment stores like Michael’s, and Second Time Around. We only shopped sale or consignment. We would never go to Barney’s and buy a shirt.

What was the first step you took to starting your own consignment shop exclusively for modest fashion.

Simi: We had a bunch of friends that had really good style. Chaya had a lot more friends here. So we said, “let’s call them and collect their clothes to do a sale.” Over the summer we called our friends, and got all the clothes. It was only from our Jewish friends in the community.

We curated the entire collection and made sure it was good. We thought it would be a fun hobby but the first sale was so good that we started freaking out. We’d never been into business in our lives! My dad’s a rabbi, he’s not into business!

As entrepreneurs, how did the Jewish community support you?

Chaya: It was a huge help; most of the business came from the neighborhood Crown Heights. Those were our first customers. We composed a cute email — we had our name already. We wrote to everyone that we were starting “The Frock Swap”, and we had a cute byline.

How did you come up with the name?

Chaya: We were inspired by a store in Sydney that was near our house. The name had the word “exchange” in it. So we used the word “swap”, but also wanted something to rhyme with it. That’s how we chose “Frock Swap”. Frock means dress and it’s an old English/Australian word.

Simi: Our Australian style has infused what we do, how we dress, and the fact that we stand out We’re different and we look different.

Chaya: When I first started calling friends and telling them about it, they kept saying, what’s a frock — a frog? I had to keep telling them “frock” and take the time for them to hear the name of our business.

Did you parents support you to pursue business rather than become traditional Jewish stay-at-home moms.

Simi: They were very encouraging. Growing up, they would always support us. One of the gifts our parents gave us was that they thought we were the best at everything. They gave us positive encouragement and self esteem – sometimes maybe overly healthy.

What are some of the challenges you faced with starting the consignment business?

Chaya: No one had ever done this before in this community. We were two women who were starting a business that no one else was doing in Crown Heights. When we put up posters in the neighborhood, (we cut out a woman from Vogue and pasted together our poster) people said, “how could you do that? How could you even put up a poster of a woman?” From the beginning, what we were doing was very different but people were curious and they wanted to see what it was.

What happened next?

Chaya: Then it was the hard work, we had to figure out how to run this business. We had no business infrastructure. I was also pregnant with my second child, and I gave birth ten days after the first sale. The night before the first sale we stayed up all night because we weren’t ready. The next year we did about eight pop-ups. It was all run out of a bedroom in my apartment.

Simi: Now it’s a lot easier for us with Instagram. We get to share our new looks immediately to our customers. This September it will be six years since we opened our consignment shop, and two years since we started designing.

How did you transition into designing?

Chaya: There are a lot of basics missing in a woman’s wardrobe. At our pop-ups we would sell an amazing designer skirt and tell our customer to go buy a great little slip or t-shirt dress. But they wouldn’t know what we meant or where to get it.

Simi: The options weren’t necessarily modest. Zara would have a great slip dress, but it was mini. Then H&M would have one that is sleeveless. Or you would find one by The Row at Barney’s but it cost $2,000 for just a slip dress. So we decided to start making our own pieces.

Where do you make your collection?

Chaya: Manhattan. It’s all made in The Garment District.

Simi: When we started, we didn’t know where to start. We went knocking, door to door.

What was it like starting the Frock with your sister?

Chaya: It was amazing, I would have never been able to do it alone. I needed a partner. And we both have different strengths.

Simi: To start the collection, we had to physically walk around The Garment District and knock on doors. Then we were asked, “where’s your tech pack, where are your samples?” We had to figure everything out slowly. It took us six months to manufacture our first dress, and it was our biggest hit. It sold out in a week.

Can you discuss some of the benefits and challenges of producing clothing that is made in America, and specifically Manhattan?.

Chaya: We like making our clothes in New York because we can oversee it, and it’s good quality.

Simi: Also when you manufacture overseas, you don’t know what the conditions are of the factory. We know our factory, and the conditions and it makes a big difference.

Now that you’ve both established your lives and careers here in New York, are you planning on staying?

Simi: That’s the million dollar question.

What are the pros of staying in New York City, especially as a Jewish family?

Simi: It’s very easy. I would love to live in Australia. It would be a dream because our family is there. It’s so hard to raise kids without the help of our mom. We’re sometimes not able to meet all of our deadlines for work because we both have kids.

But I love New York. You can decide at ten o’clock at night to go into the city and get dinner. There are a lot of kosher and vegan restaurants. Some of my favorites are Le Marais (an established kosher steakhouse), Pardes on Atlantic Avenue, and By Chloe.

But you wouldn’t have this business if you weren’t living in New York?

Chaya: No, we wouldn’t. We are building a base and establishing The Frock more online. Technically with the internet we can go anywhere.

How do your husbands feel about your business and you two becoming entrepreneurs?

Simi: They are so proud. My husband says that he always knew that I would do something big. Sometimes they’re more excited than we are.

What was one of the most surprising things that happened since starting the Frock?

Chaya: For it to happen overnight. It was so successful right away.

Where do you see yourself in the future, let’s say 5 years?

Simi: I would love to build up this business in a bigger-than-us kind of way. Right now it’s just us. I want it to be more than us.

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