'I wanted to embrace being visibly Jewish'

An artist is celebrating her Judaism with a line of luxurious headscarves for women

Released just ahead of NY Fashion Week, Elke Reva Sudin’s new ‘Crown Collection’ weaves fashion, tradition and Jewish mysticism, while each individual design holds its own message

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Elke Reva Sudin adjusts a tichel, or headcovering, on a model before a photo shoot highlighting her newly launched 'Crown Collection.' (Saul Sudin)
Elke Reva Sudin adjusts a tichel, or headcovering, on a model before a photo shoot highlighting her newly launched 'Crown Collection.' (Saul Sudin)

NEW YORK — There was nothing about Elke Reva Sudin’s childhood that suggested her future lay in art. She didn’t dabble in paints or take drawing lessons. Neither parent was artistically inclined, and the family rarely went to museums.

“I thought I’d be an electrician. My father is an old-fashioned fastener salesman, he literally calls people up and brings them nuts and bolts. My mother is a high school chemistry teacher,” Sudin said.

And yet here she sits at 36, an accomplished visual artist and founder of the Drawing Booth, a digital art company whose past clients include Disney and L’Oréal. She has also just launched the “Crown Collection,” a series of luxurious limited edition tichels, or the head coverings traditionally worn by some Orthodox women. Aside from it being her first foray into fashion, the collection celebrates Sudin’s own journey within Orthodox Judaism.

“I wanted to embrace being visibly Jewish; it’s part of owning my Jewish identity. The scarf designs are a way for me to channel the idea that God works with our consciousness,” she said.

Sudin recently launched the collection on Etsy, just weeks before models and designers alike descend on New York City for Fall Fashion Week. Though she won’t be participating in the early September show, she will be taking notes from the sidelines. That’s because next February, models wearing her tichels — as well as a collection of modest travel apparel that she’s designing — will walk down Runway 7 in Sony Hall.

Born in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, Sudin grew up in a Conservadox home. She attended a Chabad school from kindergarten through the eighth grade, after which she went to a Modern Orthodox day school where she experimented with punk and goth fashion.

“I once got inti trouble for wearing black lipstick,” she said.

The only inkling that art lay in Sudin’s future happened during a family trip to Washington, DC, when she was about 8 or 9. While there, they visited the National Gallery of Art.

“We walked through the galleries and my mother was interpreting what the painting was about. I was more interested in talking about how the painting was made. That’s when my mother started thinking that maybe there was an artist inside me waiting to get out,” Sudin said, sipping a blueberry Juice Generation smoothie.

Even so, it wasn’t until high school that Sudin realized she could become a professional artist. One of her friends encouraged her to draw; another friend talked about how she planned to become an illustrator.

Behind the scenes of a photo shoot. Elke Reva Sudin affixes one of the head coverings in her new collection. (Saul Sudin)

Her parents, however, were slightly mystified. Although Sudin’s paternal grandmother had gone to art school in Boston in the 1930s, neither of her parents had considered art as a possible career choice.

“They didn’t really understand what I was talking about when I said I wanted to go to art school. But they were supportive. My family has always been kind of a ‘you do you,’” she said, her tiny nose piercing glittering in the late morning sun.

And so Sudin matriculated from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. It was the beginning of what she described as a “pivotal period of enlightenment.”

She was studying foundation drawing with William Sayler, whom John Malkovich portrayed in the 2006 comedy-drama “Art School Confidential.” She’d also begun studying the Tanya, an early work of Hasidic philosophy, at the Chabad House in Midtown Manhattan. She began feeling as if her artistic side was merging with her spiritual side.

By the time her sophomore year had ended, Sudin, who had experimented with different aesthetics including wearing dreadlocks (something she now recognizes as cultural appropriation), began covering her hair.

Elke Reva Sudin’s ‘Worlds’ tichel takes a classic illustrated map and layers it over a deconstructed segment of the Tree of Life. (Felipe Monegro)

That same year she also married her art-school sweetheart, Saul Sudin.

The two met at a Jewish group on campus led by Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, the author of the 2008 “Up Up and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero.”

They shared music and enjoyed long conversations after late-night Shabbat dinners. They also realized their families had similar stories of becoming closer to traditional Judaism.

“As our love grew I wanted to ground my spirituality because I observed that if it’s just this casual fling it can just float away and there’s no real commitment to it being a lifestyle. So I began to take on certain practices of observance, including modesty,” Sudin said.

After traveling through India, the couple ultimately settled in Brooklyn. Married 16 years, they have two children, ages 4 and 2.

While in Dharamsala, India, Sudin studied reiki healing, a practice that she has incorporated into some of her work. Indeed, some of her headscarf designs, such as the black-and-ivory “Crown,” align with pressure points on the wearer’s head.

“The ones I’m developing now have an origami effect so you see different artwork depending on how you fold it. It’s like Mad Magazine illustrations for scarf art,” she said, unrolling several scarves and laying them out on the table. The fabric, which she sourced in India, feels like cashmere.

Sarah Clunis, an art historian and curator of African collections at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology, described Sudin’s collection as “deeply esoteric and ethereal.”

“Covering the head is a tradition that we see in a variety of cultures. With Elke’s scarves we see the translation of mystical kabbalistic concepts into innovative and functional design,” Clunis said.

Elke Reva Sudin’s ‘Crown’ tichel, or head-covering, is designed to give the illusion that the wearer has a crown on their head. (Saul Sudin)

Upon close inspection, the wavy espresso lines of “Wings” reveal themselves to be angel wings, designed to give the wearer the courage to rise up and meet their full potential.

The sage green lines of the “Worlds” scarf takes a classic illustrated map and layers it over a deconstructed segment of the Tree of Life. That’s Sudin’s way of honoring women’s different life experiences.

Before turning toward tichel design, Sudin had gained recognition for her series “Hipsters and Hassids.” The 22 oil paintings portray the parallel lives of Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s two overlapping communities. Her 2013 “We Are Patriarchs,” a series of 12 oil paintings, reimagined biblical figures as contemporary Jews living in Brooklyn.

Aside from drawing inspiration from her own relationship with Judaism, Sudin said she designed the collection for more practical reasons. In short, she was tired of humdrum patterns and staid solids that defined so many head coverings.

“I wanted to design something that I wanted to wear. The scarves are like a canvas for me but it’s also really important for me that function and fashion are in balance,” she said.

And while the silk scarves are a departure for the long-time visual artist, Sudin said she sees her new collection as filling a need not just for Jewish women, but for women of other cultures and religions.

“Wrapping is something we share with other cultures and the more representation it has, the more it will get accepted,” Sudin said.

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