From schmutter sellers to stylists, how Jews made their mark on British fashion

Fashion may not have had a strong presence in the JC for most of its first century, but Jews have left an indelible imprint across British clothing


From Marks & Spencer to Browns, from Whistles to Warehouse, from Nicole Farhi to Bellville-Sassoon, Jews have left an indelible imprint across British fashion. And across world fashion, too, from Gottex to Alber Elbaz, from the Wertheimers at Chanel to Ralph Lauren and DVF.

But fashion was not a strong presence in the JC for most of its first century when pogroms, politics and Palestine filled its pages.

Later, when a “Woman’s Page” arrived, the JC’s fashion veered towards the practical, reporting “velvet turbans” and “warm top coats” in the Harrods sale or suggesting a “frock that does for everything from a first night at a film to an official luncheon appointment.”

In the post-war years, many of the most iconic British brands such as Cojana, Frank Usher, Gor-Ray, Mansfield, Polly Peck and Windsmoor were founded by Jews. These brands, along with independent retailers (or “indies”, often Jewish-owned) dominated British fashion. But the 1960s “youthquake” sparked a retail revolution that led to the decline of “indies” and ultimately to the demise of those brands, too.

Jewish men and women who had a lasting impact on UK fashion included Lee Bender with her Bus Stop boutique; Jeffrey Wallis with Wallis Shops; the Lewis family’s Lewis Separates which in 1965 joined the boutique revolution as Chelsea Girl; Maurice and Michael Bennett, founders of Warehouse, Oasis and Coast; Stephen Marks with his French Connection collections designed by his then-wife, the French-born Nicole Farhi, who later had her own designer label; Lucille Lewin, who founded Whistles, and Malcolm McLaren (born Malcolm Corré) who opened a string of impossibly cool King’s Road boutiques and launched Vivienne Westwood.

Successful on an even bigger scale was the French-Jewish entrepreneur Joseph Ettedgui. In 1979, he opened a painfully minimalist store in Sloane Street, and grew it into the Joseph stores and an international fashion line.

Meanwhile, the Browns fashion empire founded by Joan and Sidney Burstein was flourishing in South Molton Street. They transformed this once insignificant thoroughfare into a style-hub to rival Milan’s Via Montenapoleone or Paris’s Rue St Honoré.

A few decades later, the acquisition of the Arcadia Group — including the directional Topshop — by Philip Green propelled him into a key role in British fashion.

As millions of baby boomers entered the workplace in the 70s, the JC responded to the zeitgeist by increasing its fashion coverage and hiring fashionista Jackie Modlinger as its Woman’s Page editor.

She was distinctly less interested in Food or Family (the other “Fs” of women’s pages), so her pages were awash with fashion, featuring rising stars such as milliner David Shilling and the Emanuels (one half of whom, Elizabeth, was Jewish).

By the time Modlinger left for a national daily, a golden age of Jewish participation in high fashion had begun. Israel had international stars such as leatherwear label Beged Or and swimwear brands Gottex and Gideon Oberson. In the US, super-hot Jewish designers were in the ascendancy, including Ralph Lauren (né Lifshitz), Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrahi, Zac Posen and Marc Jacobs.

Fashion in the 1980s and 90s was dominated by the Princess of Wales, whose clique of favourite designers included many who were Jewish, such as Bellville-Sassoon’s David Sassoon, Jacques Azagury, Roland Klein, Victor Edelstein, Murray Arbeid and one half of the Emanuels, the duo responsible for the most iconic wedding dress of the 20th century.

In 1998, Alber Elbaz — who sadly died this year — became creative director at Yves Saint Laurent. This charming, modest, prodigiously-talented Moroccan-born Israeli Jew, who trained at Tel Aviv’s Shenkar College, was suddenly the most talked-about person on Planet Fashion. After Gucci’s takeover of YSL, his move to Lanvin proved spectacularly successful. He revived Lanvin’s fortunes and ensured his place in the pantheon of fashion legends.

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