Iconic Jewish designer Ralph Lauren steps down as CEO

Luxury apparel retailer Ralph Lauren Corp said founder Ralph Lauren will step down as chief executive and it named Stefan Larsson, the global president of Gap Inc's Old Navy brand, as his replacement, effective November.

Larsson will report to Lauren, who will continue as the executive chairman and chief creative officer.

Designer embraces the bright, bold

“I like meaning,” Karen Frid-Madden declared as she walked through the downstairs of her one-of-a-kind Santa Monica home, which she designed in collaboration with family members. It’s a space that reflects lives deeply and thoughtfully experienced, and it’s a far cry from the detached minimalism that’s often splashed across the glossy pages of contemporary design magazines. 

It’s also a space that perfectly represents this designer, who has come to include so many different cultures in her work through Bikasa Designs — a business she created after starting her own line of shirts featuring pre-Columbian symbols. 

A collection of hamsas are mixed in with select items of children’s art inside a pale aqua niche by the front door. Opposite the home’s main entrance, a bronze-painted, Moorish-inspired pointed arch frames the de facto living room, which Frid-Madden, 46, more specifically calls “the music room,” in reference to an upright piano and jumble of instruments gathered on the floor atop assorted vintage kilim rugs. Ornately carved, stark-white wooden dining chairs upholstered in hot pink and turquoise fabrics surround a long dining table that’s ideal for large, festive gatherings.

Art on the multicolored and wallpapered walls includes pieces by her friends, such as renowned artist Patssi Valdez, who was a founding member of the groundbreaking Asco Chicano collective from East L.A. that made waves in the 1970s art world; and Larry Hirshowitz, whose black-and-white photographs of brooding Australian rock icon Nick Cave and Buena Vista Social Club singer Omara Portuondo are on display. The home’s open plan highlights the show-stopping kitchen in which Frid-Madden chose magenta countertops, lime green cabinets and tangerine-colored accent walls. 

“Architecture reflects who we are as a people and as a society,” said Frid-Madden, a native of Mexico City with a cascading thicket of long, curly, sandy-blond hair and hazel-green eyes. It’s a philosophy she’s learned through many channels during her eclectic career and rich family history. 

Frid-Madden is the daughter of Israel Frid, an architect in Mexico City; her brother, Alejandro Frid, is an architect in Tel Aviv. (The name “Frid” is the Spanish spelling of the surname more commonly known to Americans and Europeans as “Fried” or “Freed.”) Her grandparents were young children when they emigrated from Eastern Europe between the two world wars, during a period of what turned out to be major economic expansion in Mexico.

She grew up in a Spanish-Yiddish multilingual environment, with enough Hebrew to be admitted to Hebrew University. But her linguistic learning curve was steep when she arrived in Jerusalem as a college student. That said, she thrived learning Hebrew, as well as English and other languages. 

Living in Israel “was my experience translated to all these different cultures. What it is like to be an Italian Jew? To be a Honduran Jew?” She completed a degree in history and philosophy while traveling extensively, including spending time with Bedouin communities. This was essentially a continuation of her family life in Mexico, because her father, she said, “gave us the love of other cultures, and we traveled a lot.”

She returned to Mexico in 1994 to work with a government agency that protected indigenous people’s sacred sites. Encouraged by UCLA professor James W. Wilkie, whom she met in Mexico, she relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a doctorate in Latin American studies. She didn’t plan to stay in Los Angeles, but changed her mind when she met the man who would become her husband.

Frid-Madden didn’t complete the doctorate, but instead explored other avenues, such as joining the cultural affairs staff of the Consul General of Israel in L.A. and working at the Iturralde Gallery, which was an important dealer of Latin American art. She even dipped her toe into the fashion world, starting a line of shirts with bold color motifs and pre-Columbian symbols to tie into her ongoing cultural research into Latin American cultures. 

Broadly speaking, however, these professional experiences were all part of a wider search to “blend my artistic side with my academic side,”  she said. 

When her father encouraged his daughter and son-in-law in 2010 to replace their compact one-story Sunset Park-area bungalow with a larger home to better accommodate the couple and their two daughters, now 9 and 10 years old, and have room for guests, she agreed. It helped to have architects in the family; over the course of one weekend in Tel Aviv, Frid-Madden’s father and brother together designed what would become the framework of the new Santa Monica residence. 

Envisioning and logistically orchestrating the home’s interior design and exterior color scheme brought Frid-Madden to what felt like her calling. She thought about light and color, and, wanting to reflect her family’s heritages, shaped a home that recalls the brightly hued modernism of famed Mexican architects
Ricardo Legorreta and Luis Barragán, along with nuances of Jewish Diaspora and Israeli life.

Disappointed with the color choices in the U.S., Frid-Madden traveled to Tijuana to buy exterior paints that best matched the chromatic splash of Frida Kahlo’s famed La Casa Azul in Mexico City. After she finally found the traditional “Colonial blue” she was looking for, Frid-Madden then spent hours at the
Tijuana paint shop blending the right pink and marigold shades to bring back to California. 

Frid-Madden takes in the view from her Santa Monica home. 

Family members agree that Frid-Madden’s career path makes perfect sense for her: a woman who intensely engages with other cultures and individuals, whose skill set, sensibilities and curious eye dovetail perfectly in the field of interior design. “It’s a little bit of everything,” she observed. “You get to know people. You have to build for the client, because they’re going to live there. It’s a long process.”

Under the firm name Bikasa Designs (bikasadesigns.com), which she formed the same year she began planning the new house, Frid-Madden has created interiors for clients mostly on the Westside, as well as at properties in Echo Park and Highland Park. She also transformed her family’s weekend home in Pioneertown, an artistic desert enclave located near Joshua Tree. She makes a line of pillows and cushions using textiles from indigenous makers around the world, too. 

“You should live your life with integrity,” Frid-Madden said. From her standpoint, this means taking risks rather than prioritizing what someone else might like down the road to optimize resale value. 

“Be brave, and go for it. It’s scary.” She paused for a beat. “Well, for other people,” the designer said, as she stepped out onto her dazzlingly blue roof deck. 

Dressed for Success

Although the Los Angeles fashion industry is often associated with the most recent designer jean craze, pricey T-shirts and swimwear, stalwart brand Belldini is still going strong after several decades for a number of reasons. One of them is that even the trendiest L.A. career woman will be more likely to wear Belldini’s feminine-but-streamlined pieces to the office instead of Kitson-influenced denim or tank tops.

“Our family-owned company has been doing this for 30 years, so our overall commitment to timeless style has not really changed,” Joseph Esshaghian  said. “Belldini had branched into other fashion categories, such as women’s suits and angora knits for short periods during that time. However, wardrobe staple knits have always been our niche. It is not so much that we’re bringing this [approach to fashion] back into style. It just so happens that what we have done most successfully for three decades is coming back into fashion in a big way.”

What Esshaghian is referring to is a collection of knitwear that ranges from basic twin sets, to dramatic flowing tunics and sweater jackets, to dresses that frankly could stand in for couture Italian knitwear line Missoni, whose budget line caused near riots at Target stores across the United States last fall. However, one important thing that sets Belldini apart from other well-priced or budget clothing lines is an emphasis on quality that puts the wearer ahead of fashion’s transient nature or designer label hype. 

“I have noticed a trend in the fashion industry toward disposable clothing,” Esshaghian said. “Though many stores carry or specialize in clothing sold for ultra-cheap pricing, the reality is that once you wash something once or twice, it is history. Belldini, on the other hand, has focused on clothing that is designed with care, even though our price points are very competitive [$80 to $300]. While our pieces are investment dressing, you are not paying top dollar for something that will last you for several years.”

As Esshaghian explains it, Belldini is not just a family business, but also a personal labor of love. This is reinforced by the fact that his wife — whom he met through a rabbi in Israel around the time of their separately making aliyah in the months following the 9/11 terror attacks and his extended family are a key test market and ongoing source of feedback for individual garments, underscoring his personal commitment to keeping the brand relevant for women of all ages and walks of life. 

Though his father hoped Esshaghian would pursue a recession-proof career path in medicine, Esshaghian’s heart was in joining and retrofitting a company in the business of making different kinds of women feel good about themselves, whether they were dressing for work, weekends or High Holy Days services. Although the company and the L.A. fashion industry were in a time of transition when the younger Esshaghian decided against medical school, the father initially objected to his son stepping in. The son, in this case, knew best, and Belldini has gone into its fourth decade with flair. 

“The collections we are designing now are made up of individual separates that will stand out, even if they are wardrobe staples,” he said. “Though we are starting to incorporate more basic sweaters into the line — even in not-so-basic colors — we want to give women a variety of choices that will help them make their everyday ensembles more interesting, special and individualized. Our customers also appreciate the fact that, while the pieces are sexy, they are not too revealing.

“We also want to be sure everything we design is flattering on the body, from the proportions of individual sweaters to the type of knits. Since we have been doing this for so many decades, we have a sense of what body types work with different yarns and knits. Each style is tailored with this in mind, so if one sweater is not quite right for a certain body type, we will change up the rib or the yarn to ensure as many people will look good in a certain style as possible.”

As Esshaghian sees it, dressing for success, especially in tough economic times, encompasses the idea that you should put as much care into shopping for your everyday garments as his company does in manufacturing them.

Fashion & Beauty: Highlighting the hottest local Israeli designers

Some of the top names in fashion today are Jewish: Donna Karan, Anne Klein, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors. And that’s just the Ks on what is a long list of designers who have shaped the American fashion industry since its beginnings in the textile factories of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other urban centers. Jewish immigrants started out as tailors and factory workers and parlayed their skills into opportunities to climb the social ladder. “Jewish immigrants had another advantage — a talent for reinventing themselves and a sensitivity to image,” wrote Johanna Neuman in a brief history of Jews in fashion, “From Ghetto to Glamour.”

In this issue, we take a look at a new breed of Jewish immigrants — Israelis — who are making their mark on American fashion. From Gypsy05’s flowing, eco-conscious line of casual wear to Tal Sheyn’s high glamour evening gowns, and from YMI’s figure-hugging jeans for young women to Dina Bar-El’s luxurious dresses, these four SoCal designers are continuing the legacy of Jews who have translated their own personal aesthetics and passionate self-expression into fashion we can all appreciate and enjoy.

Designer John Galliano fired from his own label

Fashion designer John Galliano was fired from his own designer label over accusations of anti-Semitism and racism.

Galliano, who was fired on March 1 as chief designer at Christian Dior, was dumped from the label that bears his name but is 91 percent owned by Dior, Women’s Wear Daily reported April 15.

A video surfaced in February showing Galliano praising Hitler following accusations that he accosted a couple at a Paris bar, and a second complaint of anti-Semitism was filed against him regarding events that took place at the same bar last October.

Paris prosecutors announced that Galliano would be tried for “public injury toward individuals due to their origin, their religious affiliation,” according to a statement.

Galliano could face up to six months in prison and a $31,000 fine for hate and anti-Semitic speech after allegedly spewing racist invective against a Jewish and Asian couple at the La Perle bar in February.

Bachelorettes Just Wanna Have Fun

Your best friend is soon to wed. You’re in charge of the prenuptial ladies fete but your buddy is an iconoclast and so are you. If you’re looking for bachelorette parties that score points for originality, you might consider these unusual substitutes.

Surf’s Up

For an unforgettable bridal shower, head south to the world’s first all-women surf school. Surf Diva has been teaching wahines (Hawaiian for “women”) to become awesome “shredders” since 1996. Competitive surfer and local legend Isabelle “Izzy” and her twin sister Caroline “Coco” Tihanyi founded the company in picturesque La Jolla. They offer an unusual alternative to bar hopping or a Shabbos kallah, when friends of the betrothed visit the traditional bride on her last Shabbat afternoon as a single. Surf Diva’s all-women instructors include firefighters, paramedics, nurses, teachers, lawyers and snowboarders who suit up women with a wetsuit and board and teach them how to ride a wave with confidence. The school is such a success it now offers classes for guys, so ask the bride whether she wants the Y-chromosomes in her life to jump in.

Make sure your squad is comfortable swimming about 200 yards at sea. After an on-shore lesson, you’ll head out with your instructors into the water. When you finally get up on the wave, fellow surfers cheer you on as if you scored a touchdown. You’ll get a workout, too. All that paddling means an hour of surfing equals 200 pushups. Even if you can’t manage to stand up, you can still take home some fabulous souvenirs, complete with the company’s can’t-miss “empowerment” logo.

Surf Diva is located at 2160 Avenida de la Playa in La Jolla. Packages start at $65 an hour per person and typical bachelorette parties run two hours. You can opt to have a catered lunch and take-home T-shirts or hats. Weekend clinics are also available, $135 for four hours of lessons for groups of 10-25. For more information, call (858) 454-8273; or visit ” target=”_blank”>www.fashiondistrict.org for more info and SederOlam.com for an extensive directory of kosher restaurants.


From Jew to Jewcy

Last year was a big one for Jewish cool. Articles in The Forward; Time Out New York; conservative Candian newspaper, The National Post; and staid British dailies, The Times and The Observer all trumpeted the reinvention of Jewishness as hip and cool. Amalgamate the headlines of those articles and you get something like: “It’s Hip to Be Hebrew: Edgy Jewish Chic Gets a Jewcy Makeover.”

The articles hype the worldly, self-assured, secular Jew. This 30-something urbanite articulates newfound Jewish pride through unlikely vehicles: He’Brew, The Chosen Beer; tight T-shirts bearing slogans like “Jewcy” and “Shalom Motherf–er”; insolent magazines like Heeb; and tongue-in-cheek movies, such as blaxploitation parody “The Hebrew Hammer” and the mockumentary “Schmelvis: Searching for the King’s Jewish Roots.”

Many observers, particularly those not raised in North America, are perplexed and confused by the sudden arrival of Jewish cool. Others are downright offended that anti-Semitic slurs and irreverent irony, combined with sex and profanity, are being touted as the Diaspora’s answer to religion dogged by intermarriage, shrinking synagogue membership and the Chanukah bush.

But all of this begs the most important question: Do these trends mark the stirrings of a Jewish revival, or are they so much marketing detritus, the repackaging of Jewish culture as a fleeting lifestyle fad?

To understand this phenomenon, it’s important to understand the origins of those who embrace it. The people making and wearing Jewcy products are members of a generation that grew up immersed in the glow of the TV and computer monitor. They grew up in a world of two parents in the workplace, rising divorce rates, shrinking birthrates and mass influxes of consumer goods. Most importantly, they witnessed the arrival of an all-encompassing pop culture that would create, at once, a global lingua franca of on-screen moments and a world of fragmented niches encompassing every possible pop kink.

By the time we became teenagers, our relationship to tradition was tenuous. I use we here because I am not only profiling the Jewcy Jew, but also, in many ways, an entire generation of middle-class suburban Jews (such as myself) who spent far more time in the world of pop culture than we did in shul, Hebrew school, and listening to bubby talk about the old days combined. Jews of this generation were taught about the Holocaust at Jewish private school or Jewish Sunday school via filmstrips and frail guest speakers. Pop culture taught us that each of us is a special, unique individual with the capacity for success, reinvention and total freedom. Seize the day, just do it, you’re a superstar! Judaism taught us the importance of repetition — the Amidah, “Hatikvah” — and emphasized a tradition and history marked mostly by seeming failure and recurrent destruction. After school, personal computers, VCRs and cable watched over us while our parents worked late — pulled into a booming early ’80s Reaganomics that, a decade later, would founder into debt and recession.

In university, those who were to become the proprietors and consumers of Jewish cool studied psychology, literature, feminist studies — ignoring history, religion and any politics save those of the personal. They did drugs, drank heavily, applied for unpaid internships. Their 20s passed in a blur of constant reinvention — one minute they were gay activists, the next indie filmmakers, the next nascent entrepreneurs. Many of the new Jew cool creators attended liberal arts-style colleges situated in or near big cities. Their education prepared them to be a generation of cultural producers taking advantage of the profusion of newly minted professions in marketing, communications, public relations, production, design, editing and journalism, not to mention the vast array of precarious permanently part-time endeavors that gave parents no end of sleepless nights: the performance artists, painters, stand-up comics, actors, novelists, punk rockers they insisted they were meant to be. “You want me to be like you?” they sneered at their lawyer, doctor, businessperson parents.

Of course, many of the new Jewcy Jews did end up joining their more restrained counterparts (who went to Harvard and Cornell instead of Brown and Bard) in pursuing careers as lawyers, doctors, business types. Even those who stuck with careers in the arts and media gradually discovered that business always creeps in. Regardless of chosen career path, we — an entire generation of career-minded, pop saturated, nonpracticing Jews — all discovered around the same time that, despite being adorned with careers, roomy apartments, relationships, even kids of our own, something was missing. We were getting older, and Luke Skywalker’s admonition to use the force could not help us deal with the disappointments of modern life. Lacking a vital ongoing belief system and living in a society that looked down on religious conviction, we felt adrift, alone.

Which brings us back to the present. Outwardly self-confident, inwardly insecure and guilt-ridden, a new generation of Jews is realizing that meaning can’t be solely constructed through lists of favorite albums. Pop-savvy hipsters also need community, seek guidance, structure, continuity and a sense of deeper purpose — all those things that modern society seems unable to provide. And yet, we’ve grown up steeped in the profound uncoolness of Jewishness. Even once “hip” Jewish culture seems somehow emasculated: the nattering insecurity of Woody Allen; the sweaty-palmed mamma’s boy, Portnoy; the potty-mouthed ranting Lenny Bruce. Compared to the culture of pop and its myth of individuality, inscrutability, rebellion and cool, both Jewish culture and practice seem as boring and irrelevant as ever.

And so we began to search for other ways to connect to those things that religion provides. We want to have a shared sense of who we are and where we come from, but in a way that speaks of the world we know and understand intimately: the irreverent, self-referential, irony-steeped world of pop culture. Yearning for meaningful connection becomes a T-shirt and a B-movie parody. Since we’ve always identified with each other through our pop fetishes — he’s a goth, she’s a punk — creating a subculture of pop that hipster Jews can relate to and speak to each other through comes naturally.

This is a generation without community as many understand it. We are connected through networks, friendships and entertainment interests, not neighbors, family, nationality or religion. We pick and choose our relationships as part of the ongoing process of personal invention. In many ways, pop culture is our community, it’s what links us to our friends and — for the large numbers of Jews of this generation who work as cultural communicators — it is our source of income, what we do, as they used to say, for a living. Call it liberating or sad, but there’s no denying that the new Jewish-influenced pop culture is a way to communicate a sense of some communal yearning for deeper meaning and more intimate connection. This we do the only way we know how: by forming pop culture communities.

But, of course, pop culture community is not real community. It is transitory, does not impose any kind of substantive obligations on its members, and lacks a shared value system. As a result, trying to reconnect to Jewish community by forming pop culture communities seems paradoxical. Can we use the language of pop culture to transcend our world of ephemeral style symbols and form deeper and more meaningful Jewish communities?

One such attempt at a new kind of Jewish community is run by Mireille Silcoff in Toronto, a lively cosmopolitan city with a large Jewish population. Founded in 2003, Silcoff presides over a monthly salon that meets at her apartment. Much liquid courage is provided for the hesitant, and discussions of Israel and anti-Semitism are explicitly banned. Attendance has been steadily growing to the point where Silcoff is moving the gathering out of her apartment and into a just-opened trendy bar in a rapidly gentrifying downtown area. The attendees are primarily young secular Jews in early adulthood, many of whom are working in the fields of arts and communication. The goal of the salon, according to Silcoff, is to reconnect a living, breathing Jewish culture to the mainstream of these young lives.

“Judaism has become a kind of invalid culture,” Silcoff explained, “we don’t consider it real, we don’t feel like it has anything to do with our lives now.”

Silcoff is, in many ways, a prototypical new-cool Jew. She wrote two books about drugs and rave culture in her 20s. She changed her last name, concerned that an association with nerdy Jewishness would hamper her credibility to chronicle youth underground. Now she’s changed her name back and no longer feels like the “Jewish thing” is an impediment to her career.

“We’ve all grown up with a rich cultural background as Jews,” she said. “We’re lucky to have this Jewish thing — so many people are walking around like empty vessels, looking for something to belong to.”

So why can’t young Jews belong to synagogue or other traditional forms of Jewish social groups in the community? Why do they have to gather at a hipster party, as laid back and noncommittal as a cocktail?

“There are about four people who attend the salon who also go to synagogue,” she said. “We just aren’t coming from that turgid Jewish institution…. Not the JCC, not B’nai Brith, not attached to a synagogue. We’re coming from a new place…. More emphasis on the concrete over the spiritual, on culture over religion. Thirty Jews getting together in a room, that’s spiritual for me.”

The laissez-faire “hey, let’s just get together and talk” approach to Judaism — combined with the arrival of explicitly Jewish pop creations — began as a largely grass-roots, unconscious articulation of a sense of something lost. But it has since been deliberately encouraged.

Silcoff’s transition from disconnected and embarrassed to proactive and prideful was fostered by an organization called Reboot. Founded in 2002, Reboot is a nonprofit that describes itself as “aiming to bring about a cultural renaissance among young Jews, stimulating them to express their unfolding sense of Jewish identity, value and heritage.” Reboot recruited Silcoff after she began to make a name for herself as an insightful chronicler of youth culture. She was invited to their annual weekend gathering in Park City, Utah. Silcoff reluctantly attended, and describes what ensued as “life changing.” By immersing herself in a gathering of creative individuals who were all likewise “feeling Jewish, but also feeling disconnected,” Silcoff found that she was able to leave behind her “guilt about not belonging.”

The idea of Reboot is to gather these young, influential, culturally savvy Jews and then disperse them back into their communities. “It’s sort of a peer-to-peer marketing project,” explains Silcoff, who was encouraged to start her salon by the Reboot organization. “If you want to put it in a very cold, weird way.”

Reboot isn’t the only nonprofit organization deliberately trying to foster a new identity for Judaism. Indeed, as an organization funded by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, Reboot is just the best organized and most established of a burgeoning number of such groups. Another notable entity is the Joshua Venture, a San Francisco-based group that funds off-kilter young Jewish entrepreneurs. It has backed the magazine Heeb, as well as StorahTelling, a traveling theater group described as “a fusion of storytelling, Torah, and contemporary performance art.”

Unable to reach young Jewish adults through usual outreach, traditional Jewish groups concerned about the steady erosion of Judaism in America are picking up on what is already happening and giving it a helping hand. Many of the people who cringe when they see Heeb on the newsstand or a T-shirt like “Shalom Motherf–er” might have even contributed to these projects through their annual donation to an established Jewish organization. There has been little mainstream debate about this new way of wooing young Jews back to their religion. Few, if any, articles on this subject have wondered: If Judaism becomes a T-shirt and an attitude, what will be left of the religion for these young people to return to?

The articles in the newspapers and magazines are all ridiculously upbeat about “Jewish chic.” Naomi Wolf crows in London’s Sunday Times: “For young gentiles it’s cool to be mistaken for a Jew and to greet each other with the words shalom and mazel tov.” Wolf’s article and others emphasize that this new trend is about self-respect and community empowerment. But a closer examination of the culture from which it emerges suggests that this isn’t always the case. Jewsweek.com’s gossip on Jews in Hollywood and pictures of Gov. Arnie dancing the hora may attract younger viewers, but spending time there feels more like watching “Entertainment Tonight” than it does like “reconnecting.”

Pop culture rarely fosters real community or individuality. Pop promises such attributes, but delivers merely passive engagement — identity without individuality, community without commitment. It remains to be seen whether the new pop Jew trend can circumvent that trap. After all, we live in an age where pseudo-difference is celebrated, difference that comes from body piercings or appearances on “American Idol.” But real difference — like being committed to an ideology or religion — is ignored if not mocked. Style-infused depictions of Judaism cannot elude pop’s legacy of breaking down community and instilling a new kind of “everyone’s special for being who they are” attitude. As Douglas Rushkoff said about the new alterna-Jew experience, “This culture seems to promoting not values but the surface conventions of MTV and hip hop.”

But Rushkoff’s comments don’t apply across the board.

A monthly salon is different from a line of clothing. Clothing can only ever be surface; regular gatherings can lead to substantive changes of attitude, new friendships, an accepting of responsibilities — in other words, community. There is a big difference between, say, John Zorn’s Masada — new wave jazz reinterpreting the klezmer musical tradition — and any number of Jewish pop and rap bands that merely insert bagels and lox into their otherwise formulaic songs. Which is to say that a generation of culture-savvy ironic stylemeisters linked by Jewishness can contribute to the life and legacy of Judaism while fostering new communities that speak to the alienated.

But it is difficult to accept, as Wolf apparently does, that Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song” and “young gentiles” high-fiving each other in Yiddish will lead to anything more than further dissolution and confusion. If Jewishness becomes just another way to be cool, then Judaism will ultimately be replaced in North America by yet another clever marketing campaign. If, on the other hand, cool can be reclaimed for Judaism, then an entire demographic of wandering pop nomads may finally return to the tribe.

Kiss and Sell

Lead in by a uniformed maid, Michele Bohbot glides into the
marbled entrance hall of her Beverly Hills mansion with her long, dark hair
swaying and her tall, well-toned body suggesting a balletic athleticism. She
wears elegant casual clothes that she designed herself — loose green linen
pants and a laurel-colored ruffled tank top — and her French accent completes
this portrait of chic.

But Bohbot is far from a European dilettante. The
43-year-old mother of seven (ages 21 to 5) is the president and sole designer
of Bisou Bisou, a global fashion line she started herself in 1989 that now
takes in more than $80 million in annual sales, a figure expected to increase
following an exclusive distribution deal with JCPenney. She also teaches yoga at
her home, is writing her autobiography and bakes her own challah for Shabbat.

“Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, but when that happens, I try
to reorganize and to understand why I am feeling that way,” Bohbot told The
Journal in an interview punctuated by several visits from her young, redheaded
children. “But I am not the kind of person who thinks too much. I just do it
and say ‘next,’ so there is no waste of time. And I enjoy everything that I’m
doing, and when you have this philosophy, everything comes more easily.”

Bohbot was born in Morocco and moved to Paris as a teenager.
She studied philosophy and law at the Sorbonne University, and when she was 19,
she married her husband, Marc, who proposed to her four days after they met. It
was in Paris that Bohbot got her start in fashion. She and Marc owned three
retail stores, which Michele managed. “Each store had its own story,” she said.
“It was a lot of work, because I was not running a chain or something generic,
but I learned a lot of different aspects of the business.”

In 1987, the Bohbots moved to Los Angeles, where Marc had a
business selling French jeans. The business failed, the

Bohbots lost everything, and Marc wanted to move back to

“I didn’t want to go back,” said Bohbot, who left France
partly because of perceived anti-Semitism there. (Although Bohbot calls herself
“traditional,” Marc is religious and the family keeps Shabbat and kosher and
attends services at Baba Sale.) “I liked it here. I liked the blue sky –  it
reminded me of Morocco, and no way was I going to go back to France with less
than I had. I said [to Marc], ‘If you want to go back, go. I’m staying here.'”

Wanting to secure a place for herself in Los Angeles, and
very much wanting her husband to join her in a business, Bohbot decided that
she was going to start her own design collection. She knew something about
designing, but was ignorant of sewing and the construction of a garment. She
also didn’t know how to speak English very well. Undaunted, she collected
$6,000, teamed up with the main seamstress from her husband’s defunct jeans
business (who, in a fortuitous move, had negotiated to keep one of the sewing
machines), bought some fabric from a retail store, rented space in a small
studio and started making clothes. “I was in business without even knowing what
I was doing,” she said. “I had this woman working with me without even knowing
how I was going to pay her.”

After three weeks, Bohbot had her first Bisou Bisou (French
slang for “small kiss”) collection and though, by her own admission, she was a
very shy person, she summoned the courage to start hawking the garments to
boutiques on Melrose. The clothes sold out, but by that time she was pregnant
with her fourth child and was reluctant to continue designing because she knew how
much time it would take away from her family. It was a salesperson in a
boutique who convinced her to carry on, telling Bohbot how quickly her clothes
had sold, and how much the customers loved them.

The secret to her success was in the clothes. “My clothes
advantage the body of a woman,” Bohbot said. “They are sexy, young, playful and
elegant at the same time. Usually they are easy to travel with, and they don’t
require much maintenance or ironing, because I think it has to be comfortable.”

Bisou Bisou became a Bohbot family business. Marc is the
chairman/CEO, whereas Bohbot continues to do all of the designing. (“It is so
easy for me to design,” she said. “I can create 600 styles in a month. I love
it. I cannot stop.”) Recently, the couple signed a deal with to have Bisou
Bisou clothes sold exclusively at JCPenney stores, a move that is estimated to
boost Bisou Bisou coffers by some $500 million over five years (JCPenney is
manufacturing the clothes).

“I am very happy about this deal, because it gives me an
opportunity to dress more of the women at an affordable price,” Bohbot said.
“The consumer is smart enough to know that she doesn’t have to spend so much to
wear avant-garde, fashionable clothes.”  

Crowning Achievements

You’ve seen them on “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “Dharma & Greg,” “Melrose Place.” You’ve spotted them in films: “The Pelican Brief,” “Miami Rhapsody.” They’re not actors, but they share scenes with today’s hottest stars: Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, Brooke Shields. Yet do you know them by name?

If you don’t, you soon will. The jewelry Lily Rachel Kaufman creates has been turning up everywhere — not just on the person of Sarah Jessica Parker and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in popular entertainment fare, but in Nordstrom, Bloomingdales and Neiman-Marcus. And on Dec. 1, KOLOT — a division of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Women’s Campaign — will throw a special cocktail at the Lily Rachel Showroom in Beverly Hills.

While meeting Kaufman at her newly-opened showroom, the petite brunette seems smitten with the studio, which overlooks the lunchtime hustle and bustle of downtown Beverly Hills.

“It reminds me of New York,” says the shy 30-year-old designer, looking out the window past the fire escape.

Born Lily Rachel Moshe, Kaufman grew up in Long Island until age nine, when her family moved West. Of Iraqi-Jewish descent, the Moshes have been in the gem business for several generations, specializing in pearls. Today, Lily’s parents and siblings all participate in running their downtown-based family business, Alsol Gems.