Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at email@example.com
Aja Cohen (right) and Noa Smalley model samples from Transcendent Active's line of modest clothing. (Courtesy of Carol Berlin)
When Aja Cohen attended a yoga teacher training course for observant Jewish women several years back, she was the only one to arrive and leave in leggings.
“All the other women arrived in full gear — skirts, sheitels [wigs], long-sleeves,” said Cohen, describing the layered attire typical of an Orthodox Jewish woman. She watched as her fellow yoga students stripped down to the minimalist attire required for the occasion — leggings and a t-shirt — before suiting back up again prior to leaving the class.
“It occurred to me then how much time it would save to have modest clothing that you could also move in,” said Cohen, a former Brooklynite who now lives in Teaneck, New Jersey with her family.
Aja Cohen’s products are made in the United States from recycled polyester and deadstock fabric. (Courtesy of Carol Berlin)
Enter Transcendent Active, Cohen’s new modest activewear line that launched last month, just in time for the Jewish High Holidays. The company’s first item — the all-day-active-skirt — sold out in days. All products are made in the United States from recycled polyester and deadstock fabric.
“I realized we needed a fashion line that serves the unique needs of our community,” said Cohen 37, who has worked in the fashion industry since 2005 and holds a degree in fashion design from Pratt Institute.
Cohen’s line joins a growing trend of activewear brands that cater to consumers who for religious or other reasons eschew tight-fighting or revealing clothes but still care about fashion. Nike introduced its Pro Hijab line for Muslim female athletes in 2017. Other major brands — including the US sports brand Under Armour — followed suit. Two Orthodox Jewish women launched HydroChic, a modest swimwear company that caters to women of all faiths. Today, the retail category of modest fashion is valued at $368 billion, according to Forbes.
Two Orthodox Jewish women launched HydroChic, a modest swimwear company that caters to women of all faiths. (hydrochic.com)
Cohen also hopes to market her brand to women across faiths — Muslim and Christian women have been among her first customers, she said. Cohen chose to focus initially on a skirt, because of the article’s cultural significance to many Orthodox women and the unique challenges the item poses to leading an active lifestyle. (I myself have tried to bicycle in a skirt and can attest it’s not easy).
Aja Cohen (right) and Noa Smalley (left). (Courtesy of Carol Berlin)
“For many, the choice to wear a skirt is defining,” said Cohen, who has been on her own “modesty journey” since converting to Judaism in her twenties. The 37-year-old mother of three grew up Italian Catholic; when she first converted to Judaism, modesty meant “taking out the nose ring and wearing a long skirt.”
But after years of trying to fit into the community’s prototype of modesty — or tznius, as it is colloquially termed — she realized she is “not a box person.”
“I need a way to live my Judaism in a wardrobe that feels authentic to who I am,” said Cohen, who continues to teach yoga, run and kick-box. “I wanted the quality of brands like Lululemon and FILA in a tznius way.”