A Positive Spin for a Good Shabbos, The East Williamsburg Atelier of a Rabbi Trained on Savile Row

 

Pretty Fly for a Rabbi

 

The atelier of Rabbi Yosel Tiefenbrun is tucked away on a deadend street in a treeless, industrial corner of East Williamsburg. Foul smelling runoff from hosed down garbage trucks fills gigantic potholes. Delivery trucks roar by belching smoke, and an occasional Uber creeps along the block, apparently lost. Nothing about the area suggests the home of a highly sought after bespoke tailor. But that is part of the charm of the Tiefenbrun experience: through a red metal door of 188 Scott Avenue, I walked up a set of metal stairs and entered a strange second floor sanctuary, greeted by Tiefenbrun himself, a 30-year-old man wearing a three-piece navy pinstripe suit with gold rimmed glasses and a shapely red beard. With the help of his assistants and interns, Tiefenbrun will measure, draft, cut, and sew a garment for a customer from scratch, fitting it exactly to his client’s body and tastes. Bespoke tailors are rare in this part of Brooklyn, or really anywhere in New York these days. Rarer still are bespoke tailors who also happen to be ordained rabbis—which is exactly what Yosel Tiefenbrun is.

On first blush, the interior only suggests that this is the workplace of a tailor well-versed in the codes of masculinity: burgundy walls, leather tufted club chairs, a fitting area with an ornate three-way mirror, and a generously stocked bar and coffee area for visitors. WBGO, the Newark-based jazz station, burbled in the background. Racks of suits in progress or waiting to be picked up divide the workspace in the back, where Tiefenbrun’s assistants can be seen sewing, steaming, and pressing. Mannequins show off whatever the tailor has been working on lately: a stone colored double-breasted linen jacket, a light brown cotton overshirt with cigar pockets, a charcoal flannel suit with peak lapels covered in basting threads.

A framed oil portrait hanging above Tiefenbrun’s desk catches my eye—nothing weird about that—until I realize it’s of the founder of Chabad, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Known simply as “the Rebbe,” Schneerson is revered as a messianic figure, responsible for the Hassidic community’s turn outward to the modern world. After the holocaust, he helped establish a massive network of synagogues, youth groups, and community centers whose mission is to bring secular Jews back to god and to convert non-believers; those young guys dressed in black standing on the corner offering Hannukah candles to passersby are likely Chabad boys, as Tiefenbrun once was. “My grandfather painted that; he was a portrait artist,” he said of the painting, in an accent somewhere between Kennsingston and Shtetl. “He was a great influence on me. I would speak to him every week I was in London. He would be up to date: ‘Oh, how are your buttonholes?’”

Three years ago, Tiefenbrun opened his shop with his wife, Chaya, who manages the books and social media. “I run everything by her, including an Instagram post.” Many of his clients find Tiefenbrun on Instagram, where he is known as @rabbitailor, with about 15,000 followers. So far, he hasn’t gotten much flak for his ostentatious style. “People are actually very positive,” he told me. Some clients are orthodox Jews, like himself, but plenty come from “outside the community” as he put it—jazz musicians, bankers, anybody who appreciates the fine art of tailoring. An average full bespoke two-piece suit from Tiefenbrun will run you $4,500 and requires 80 hours of labor, so clients need to have a deep appreciation.

Tiefenbrun cultivated his own love of tailoring in secret while he studied Torah: first as a boy growing up in London, at Yeshiva in Israel, and finally volunteering with synagogues and Jewish groups in France and Singapore. It is an education vastly different from what you’d get in New York public schools, with little emphasis on subjects like science, math, American history—or even English. A group of former yeshiva students is currently suing the city of New York for failing to ensure they received a quality education. As the oldest of 10 children, Tiefenbrun was expected to become the family’s first rabbi. “In Chabad, we all become rabbis. It’s something good to know.” Usually, the intention of all this religious schooling is that you stay a rabbi; however, some in the Chabad community (which is more modern than the Satmar or ultra-orthodox sects) also hold “respectable,” secular jobs.

But young Tiefenbrun always wanted to be a designer. He fantasized about making women’s haute couture and doodled ideas in the margins of his notebooks. His Yeshiva roommate, filmmaker and social media influencer, Meir Kalmanson, remembers the rabbi’s obsession. “I walked in and I saw he had a sketch book,” said Kalmanson. “It was some dresses, almost like gowns … I was taken by surprise by how good it was.”

However, the strict rules of orthodox Jewish life made it impossible to pursue a career that would require Tiefenbrun to be around strange, half-dressed women. So, while finishing his ordination in Singapore, he found another way into the fashion industry: “I met the editor of Harper’s Bazar at a bat mitzvah,” he laughed. This lead to an internship at the Singapore branch of the magazine, and eventually the decision to return to London to take a new course of study, this time on Savile Row. As a young rabbi with growing clout, “I had about 180 people for Friday dinners,” said Tiefenbrun. “I had to decide: fulltime rabbi (there’s no such thing as part-time rabbi) or tailoring, and I always had the dream to start my clothing brand.”

 

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