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When Rochel Leah Katz, a consultant at iconic New York bridal boutique Kleinfeld, was hired for her job nearly 16 years ago, she assumed the position would be temporary.Katz had no formal education in fashion, much less bridal fashion. But in her tight-knit, Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, she’d always been known by family and friends as "that person" to take along to fabric shops and dressmaker appointments.
In 1999, Kleinfeld’s current owners, Mara Urshel and Ronnie Rothstein, bought the then-struggling store and an investor and mutual friend suggested they bring on Katz to work with religious brides. Not only did she have a knack for bridal style, she also understood how to incorporate the rules of modesty into wedding looks.
A decade and a half later, Katz is still up to her elbows in modest bride consultations. She works with hundreds of brides every year to find designer wedding gowns and then guide them through the process of altering the dresses so they adhere to religious guidelines.
Katz is kind and soft-spoken, and spending an afternoon rummaging through gowns with her at Kleinfeld feels like visiting your favorite aunt. But Katz’s quiet demeanor belies her expertise: she knows more than nearly anyone else when it comes to bustles, lace bridal trends, and headpieces.
"Only certain designers will consider making the dress with the modifications that modest brides need. Most designers like to mass-produce," Katz explains, sitting in her office, its walls covered with wedding photos and thank you cards. "Jewish engagements are also shorter than a lot of other clients', so some designers will not even consider doing the rush job."
Katz only works with brands that allow drastic alterations, like Edgardo Bonilla, Judd Waddell, Augusta Jones, Tony Ward, and Rivini. She says it took her a while to get these names on board—after all, what designer wants to significantly modify their work, and within a short timeframe?—but she managed to work out a system where sample gowns with added sleeves are stocked in the store. Brides can then make additional changes to their dresses in fitting sessions.
Once a bride purchases a gown—the brands she works with offer dresses in the $4,000 to $7,000 range—Katz facilitates a muslin fitting, where a Kleinfeld fitter mocks up the modifications before it's sent off to the designer for production. Once the dress is made and sent back to Kleinfeld, Katz oversees another fitting where the Kleinfeld team does some more tweaking.
During her two decades at Kleinfeld, Katz has worked with women from a wide array of backgrounds. She's learned the different set of modesty rules that come along with each one, but Katz says most of her clients are Orthodox Jewish. This is, of course, familiar territory for her. She can converse with brides in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish, and understands the guidelines of tzniut, or modesty according to Jewish customs, which translates to women covering their elbows, knees, and collar bones and not wearing anything too form-fitting in some traditions.
"The custom changes we’re doing are long sleeves, high necklines, and full-lining," Katz says. "But we also do short sleeves, semi-sheer, and everything else."
She works extensively with New York’s Hasidic population, women from Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood and towns like Monroe. While these brides adhere to extremely strict modesty laws, Katz says her clients are "fashion-savvy" and look for "chic, couture" styles. Some Hasidic customs require brides to wear special veils that completely hide the face, and other traditions require brides to have custom hats cover their hair after the religious ceremony. Katz works as a consultant in these areas too: Kleinfeld creates special, thick veils under her auspices, and Katz works directly with a Brooklyn-based hat maker to make sure full bridal looks are complete.
When the 49-year-old mother of six is not consulting brides at Kleinfeld, she teaches Jewish philosophy at a local Orthodox high school. Katz says she often discusses the same themes in both jobs, talking to both her students and her clients about "self-esteem, relationships, self-awareness, and other topics that touch on what it means to be a healthy adult."
Katz also occasionally works with Mormon brides, most of whom fly in from Salt Lake City. These women come with a different set of rules Katz had to learn.
"Mormons have a special undergarment that they wear," she says. "It’s like a T-shirt or undershirt and can cover the body, depending on the level of the bride’s religion. Sometimes it’s a boatneck full shirt, sometimes it’s a cap-sleeve, and sometimes it’s quarter-sleeve. That garment must always be covered, so brides come here because they need a dress that will allow modifications to cover that garment."
She adds that Mormon congregations can also be strict about color. "Some temples insist on white," she continues. "Some don’t allow any silver, so that means no ivory and no beading. Other times, brides will buy a dress for the temple and then will get a separate dress they really love from Kleinfeld for the reception."
Because each dress is custom-made, modest brides can’t see exactly how a gown will turn out until its already purchased and produced. This system is, as Katz puts it, "very stressful."
"Nine out of ten times, they are really thrilled! Like, the dress hasn’t even come out of the bag and they are thrilled," she says. "We do have customers who are asking for changes once they see the gown, but Kleinfeld can do miracles."
These miracles happen in Kleinfeld's basement workshop, where dozens of seamstresses do additional bead and lacework on the dresses. Many of Katz’s clients' dresses make a stop here for last-minute fixes.
At any given time, she may be working with several brides from the same community, and because she’s limited to the designers that actually make modifications, Katz must inform clients who is buying which gown.
"Sometimes they don’t care and sometimes they will go somewhere else," she says. "I’d rather lose a sale than not be honest with clients about who in their community is going to be wearing the same dress. I might end up with a client who says, ‘I’m not spending $7,000 dollars on a dress that someone’s wearing a month before me,’ and then you have people who say, ‘I love this dress, how can we change it so that it’ll be unique for me?’ You have to honest when you’re working with a close community."
It’s surprising that a store like Kleinfeld—which boasts that it "carries the largest selection of couture wedding dresses, designer exclusives, plus-size wedding gowns, headpieces, and accessories"—has such limited options for modest brides. But Katz explains that despite the recent embrace of modest fashion, the bridal community is not yet ready to let go of skin.
"People like skin showing. They like sexy, and that’s it," she shrugs. "When Kate Middleton got married and had sleeves on her dress, every designer thought this was going to be the new thing. They all made designs with similar sheer sleeves, thinking it would be a hit. Well, most of them had to go back because the dresses could not sell. Now there are still designers who are trying to do sheer sleeves, but that doesn’t mean that they’re willing to modify a dress."
Katz admits that, as you can imagine, working with brides isn't always easy. However, she does believe it's worth it: "I think there are different ways to give, and when I can give a Kleinfeld experience—there’s nothing like it—I feel like it’s my way of contributing. I know it sounds cliché, but that’s the truth."
Editor: Julia Rubin