Hip NY rabbi stitches together Hasidic lifestyle with bespoke tailoring business

After training on London’s famed Savile Row, Chabad Rabbi Yosel Tiefenbrun has set up shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he fits clients for their $4,500 suits

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Yosel Tiefenbrun works at his bespoke tailoring house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Courtesy of Tiefenbrun)
Yosel Tiefenbrun works at his bespoke tailoring house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Courtesy of Tiefenbrun)

Yosel Tiefenbrun is a Hasidic rabbi. He is also a bespoke tailor who trained on London’s famed Savile Row. It’s a highly unusual combination that makes Tiefenbrun a unique figure in the fashion world.

Save for his kippa, it is hard to differentiate Tiefenbrun from the hipsters who populate Williamsburg, Brooklyn, home to Tiefenbrun’s smartly appointed atelier. On the day The Times of Israel interviewed him by phone, Tiefenbrun, who sports a long, well-groomed beard and round glasses, reported he was wearing purple trousers, mustard yellow socks, and a green jacket. Not for him the standard black-and-white uniform of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.

Growing up the eldest of 10 children in a family in the Chabad community in London, Tiefenbrun fulfilled expectations and became a rabbi. He left home at 16 to study at yeshivas in New York, France, and Israel. He went on to receive rabbinical ordination while working as a shaliach (religious emissary) in Singapore.

All the while, Tiefenbrun, 30, harbored a serious interest in design and fashion. While in Singapore, he studied design for a year and interned at Harper’s Bazaar magazine. At 21, he moved to London to study cutting and tailoring at the Savile Row Academy. He apprenticed under master tailor Andrew Ramroop of Maurice Sedwell, where he dealt with many high profile clients.

Yosel Tiefenbrun in his days as an apprentice tailor at Maurice Sedwell in London. (David Nyanzi/JTA)

Following his London training, Tiefenbrun married his wife Chaya, who works with him. The couple, who now have two young children, decided to return to Singapore for two years, where Tiefenbrun juggled rabbinic duties with tailoring. Three years ago, the family settled in the Chabad community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Tiefenbrun fulfilled his long-held dream of opening his own bespoke tailoring house.

Thanks to his Instagram account (@rabbitailor), Tiefenbrun had developed a following as far back as his years training on Savile Row. It didn’t take long for him to build up a clientele willing to pay at least $4,500 for a bespoke suit. Made of the finest fabrics from England and Italy, a suit takes three to four months to complete (he also offers semi-bespoke suits beginning at $2,200).

Yosel Tiefenbrun working on a suit at his tailoring house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Courtesy of Tiefenbrun)

Moshe Shor, a real estate developer from North Miami Beach, said the expense is worth it. Shor, 32, is so pleased with the craftsmanship, that his wardrobe is now comprised solely of bespoke suits by Tiefenbrun, who also made him a kapota , or long silk coat for Shabbat.

“Yosel is meticulous in his craft. It’s not just the construction and fit, it’s a very personalized and detailed service,” Shor said.

The Times of Israel asked Tiefenbrun about his initial dreams of working in women’s couture, how he handles a biblical law that affects his bespoke tailoring, and the significance of a painting that hangs in his atelier.

When did you first develop an interest in fashion?

I was very young, pre-bar mitzvah for sure. As a religious young boy we would get new clothes for the yom toyvim [Jewish holidays]. I would be more careful with my clothing and be more picky about it, even at that age. I started having an opinion about what I wore, when I wore it, and how it looked. I enjoyed getting dressed, and I enjoyed clothing. I took care of it. I hung it back in the closet properly. I would come home from shul [synagogue], put shoe trees in my shoes and put them back in the box.  That has stayed with me until today. I have clothing and hats that are years old that are in perfect condition.

Where did you get your inspiration for your fashion sense?

When I went shopping to central London with my mother, I would see how men were dressed. People would dress well and I would see this and take note. My fashion sense developed over time.

A bespoke suit jacket made by Yosel Tiefenbrun. (Courtesy of Tiefenbrun)

I understand that you originally wanted to design women’s evening couture — a problematic profession for an Orthodox Jewish man.

In my early teens I drew women’s dresses, but I didn’t understand what it would take to run a fashion house. I wanted to design beautiful gowns and dresses. But it was understood that I could not be drawing women and that it would not be a smooth ride for me with women’s couture.

I thought that when it came to fashion that the creativity was with women’s couture, but I was wrong. Over time I realized that men’s fashion is also creative.

When I decided to pursue tailoring, I did it like Alexander McQueen. He also started off on Savile Row as an apprentice for a tailor to learn how to make a more constructed women’s garment. When I started on Savile Row, I still held out the possibility that it could lead to women’s fashion, but once I started learning tailoring and having an appreciation for fine cloths and fabrics, and I learned to cut trousers, jackets and waistcoats, my appreciation for men’s tailoring increased and I set out to do that.

How did your family and community receive your decision to go into fashion?

Once I settled on men’s tailoring, it made it easier for everyone to accept it. My family was supportive all along. Yet again, I think being the oldest, I did have to be an example for my siblings. I had to take that into account. I did go through all the years of yeshiva and I became a rabbi. The struggle was more for me — how to be a rabbi and also work in the world of design and fashion.

The label on a bespoke suit made by Savile Row-trained Yosel Tiefenbrun. (Courtesy of Tiefenbrun)

Who are your clients?

It’s a unique, diverse clientele. They are Jews and non-Jews. The majority of them are in their 30s and 40s, but they are of all ages. They are in a mix of fields. Usually they are people who can afford a $4,500 suit and appreciate this kind of luxury. They are at the top of their fields — CEOs, lawyers, and people who just appreciate a fine-crafted suit. They could also be a very young lawyer who has saved up for a bespoke suit.

My suits are not just for millionaires. I also have some Israeli hi-tech clients. My clients want to know who made their suit, and to have a relationship with that person.

What differentiates a bespoke suit from an off-the-rack one that is altered to fit?

Bespoke literally means handmade. A suit takes 80-plus hours of work. The whole inside is uniquely constructed, where the person can’t see it once they are wearing it, but he knows it’s there. It’s not about going wild in the patterns. It’s about the garment having been carved and moulded for the person. No one sees all the handwork that goes into it. You can just see it is a really well-made suit. It flows in harmony with the body.

The body is very three- dimensional… Imagine a flat piece of suit that has to go around all these shapes. A machine-made factory suit is very flat, two-dimensional. It doesn’t have the life that a true bespoke suit has. A bespoke suit even has life as it hangs on a hanger.

Yosel Tiefenbrun cuts fabric at his bespoke tailoring house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Courtesy of Tiefenbrun)

Jewish law prohibits shatnez, the wearing of a wool and linen together. How do you handle this in your business?

I will make a shatnez suit for a non-Jewish man, but not for a Jewish man. There are plenty of fabrics that we can go to without going to the one or two [fabric sample] books that are mixed wool-silk and linen.

That is a beautiful and popular mix, don’t get me wrong. But there are so many other great options. I am wearing right now a jacket which is a wool and silk mix — it’s stunning. There are linen-cotton mixes…

The options are unbelievable without having to go to the one or two books that are forbidden to a Jew.

Generally my body canvas is non-shatnez. It’s the best option out there and it’s all kosher. The only potential issue that could come up would be in the collar canvas. I use linen for non-Jewish clients, and then I have a cotton replacement — the best you can possibly get — for the collar canvas for Jewish clients.

Have you detected an increase in interest in fashion and style among Orthodox Jewish men?

I notice an increase in interest among men in general, regardless of the community they come from.  Men are definitely paying more attention to what they wear and how they wear it. It’s more than a trend. It’s something happening overall, whether it’s food, cigars, or whiskey. It’s a good time for luxury and art, because people are really paying attention and interested in more of an experience of where things are made. It’s something that has an effect on everybody.

Yosel Tiefenbrun takes a break at his atelier in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Courtesy of Tiefenbrun)

Even on the ultra-conservative Hasidim? Their black-and-white clothing style hasn’t changed in centuries.

Even they have always worried about their fashion. They are always getting new kapota and shtreimels [tall, round fur hats]. They have always been into their clothing and getting things custom made if they want something better. Everybody wants to feel and look better. They want to be comfortable and look sharp — especially in New York, where Hasidim are working in all industries.

I happen to love color. That’s my personal style. But when it comes to bespoke, it’s not necessarily about standing out. It’s the client wearing the suit and feeling good and confident and empowered. It’s not about being flashy.

Tell me about the painting of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson that hangs over your desk at your atelier. The Rebbe was known as a dapper dresser in his youth.

The painting is by my paternal grandfather Elazar Kalman Tiefenbrun, who was an artist and a tremendous inspiration to me. I look to the Rebbe, not because he was well dressed as a young man, but because of everything else — what he has done and brought to the world.

The Rebbe was someone who wanted to connect with as many people as possible and bring them closer [to their Jewish roots], and that’s what I look up to him about. And there’s obviously everything else about his level as a rabbi. The fact that as a young man he dressed well is an added detail that’s really not significant to me. I don’t look at the Rebbe as a fashion icon.

A bespoke tuxedo jacket made by Yosel Tiefenbrun (Courtesy of Tiefenbrun)

Where do you see yourself professionally in the future?

I have goals and ideas, but I am letting things grow organically. I have ideas of doing ready-to-wear later on and expanding my brand in a global way. My idea is to bring style and taste to all over the world.

For now I am a bespoke tailor, and I will always be a bespoke tailor because that is my passion and those are the roots of the brand. It’s about craft and craftsmanship and attention to detail. It’s about a certain taste and style and elegance. It could be expanded to all sorts of fashions, and also potentially to interiors, too.

Do you ever just wear jeans and a t-shirt?

Yes I do. Obviously you have to look good and feel good, but you have to be comfortable. That could mean wearing a nice t-shirt or polo with a pair of jeans on a Sunday.  Even the jeans you wear can be custom-made. You can get really nice t-shirts. You should be comfortable, but look good.

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