By a Thread
Designer Levi Okunov straddles two worlds: the religious and the fabulous
On a blustery evening not long ago, Levi Okunov arrived at a Lower East Side basement apartment that could best be described as a Hasidic crash pad. A young man in wrinkled pants and a lopsided yarmulke was passed out on a dark couch. Another young man stared at a laptop computer, the speakers blaring an Israeli techno version of a song devoted to Rebbe Nachman. Okunov’s younger brother, Aaron, puttered around the apartment looking dazed. Okunov, who is twenty-two, grew up in a Chabad Lubavitch family in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the second of thirteen children. Now he is a fashion designer. Settling in, he threw off his lime green neck scarf and fur coat, under which he wore an oversized basketball jersey and tight jeans that made his legs look like twigs. He put a teakettle to boil on the stove and went to work.
The apartment, rented by a wealthy uptown patron of Okunov’s who lets him use it as a studio, was stocked with spools of thread, heaps of fabric, sheaves of pattern-making paper and a hulking Singer foot pedal sewing machine. Garments that Okunov had designed hung on the walls, among them a jester-like turquoise coat, a futuristic silver dress, and a tennis skirt made from a tallis. Work on his current project would continue late into the night: Okunov had been invited to participate in a show this month at the Jewish Museum called Off the Wall: Artists at Work, a two-week slate of events featuring over a dozen young artists, musicians, poets, and one fashion designer—Okunov—all considered evidence of the wacky, polyglot new Jewish identity that sociologists and trend-sniffing reporters are fond of writing about. For his studio residency and March 27th runway show at the museum, Okunov had gone to the Satmar Hasidic center of south Williamsburg to retrieve scraps of parchment, the dried calfskin that mezuzahs, ketubahs and other holy texts are written on, intending to mold the material into sexy fitted bodices. “Once it’s wet, it becomes a rubbery leather and you can sew it, stretch it, play with it,” he explained, soaking pieces of parchment in a bowl of water. “It stays wet half an hour to forty-five minutes. In those forty-five minutes, I pin it to the dress form. Then it dries. We’re going to write beautiful love poems on it. We’re going to recreate a woman like a Torah, wearing parchment and a crown and adorned in velvet.” Okunov gazed at the parchment as if there were nothing strange about his use of it. Pulling and kneading it in the water, he started singing a wordless, hypnotic Hasidic tune. “Ya dee dah, ya dee dah, ya dee dah dee dah dee dah.” His brother joined in, as did the two others. Soon, they were belting it at the top of their lungs. They linked hands in the middle of the room and danced in a circle, stomping and jumping in ecstasy.
Okunov is small, lithe, and muscular, with a sharp angular jaw and squinty eyes. He wears his curly hair in a kind of modified mullet, short and mussed on top and long in the back. He has the manner of a graceful jackal and is prone to gushing speech and effusive air kisses. A friend once compared him to a Martian who, upon landing on Earth, had met a stereotypically flamboyant fashion designer and began to mimic him, having no other reference for how a human should behave. The truth is not so far from that, inasmuch as Hasidic Crown Heights is another planet. Okunov doesn’t come from the side of Lubavitch well known today, the glossy international outreach network that operates systematically to bring irreligious Jews back into the fold. Okunov’s Lubavitch lineage extends, rather, to the Hasidic sect’s late-eighteenth-century roots in a small Russian town. His father was born into a Lubavitch family in Russia and managed, despite harsh oppression, to remain devout throughout the war. In the late 1960s, he immigrated to Brooklyn where he married and ran a yeshiva for Russian boys. Okunov was raised primarily speaking Yiddish, studying Torah and Talmud, and regularly seeing the Lubavitcher rebbe, who—though he died in 1994—is still believed by some of his followers to be the messiah. “My father is an old-school, heavy-duty Hasid,” Okunov told me. “My mother is the most extreme of Lubavitch. She believes the rebbe is still alive.” Never an especially gifted scholar, Okunov started running with an eccentric Crown Heights crowd as a teenager. In 2001, another young Lubavitcher friend who was defecting toward the fashion world dressed Okunov, then sixteen, in a burgundy fedora and plaid velvet pants for Purim. Having lived his life until then in a black hat and plain white shirt, his experience parading around in the wild costume was profound. He felt drawn to fashion and costume by its transformative power, its creative richness, and, he readily admits, his lust for girls. “I entered this thinking I would be around beautiful models,” he said. “I was breaking out of this world where sitting in a room with a woman is forbidden, to say nothing of draping fabric over her.” Things unfolded quickly in Okunov’s late adolescence. Aware that he was smoking marijuana, his alarmed, cloistered parents sent him to drug rehabilitation. “They didn’t know the difference between marijuana and heroin,” Okunov shrugged. While there, someone gave him a sewing machine to play around with and he got an internship at a garment manufacturing company in Long Island City, Queens, where he learned about bias, cutting fabric, and operating an industrial sewing machine. For awhile, he moved back to his parents’ house, but soon found his own apartment in Crown Heights. Drifting away from religious life, he burrowed his way into the downtown culture scene. He landed a job as a stocker in the Marc Jacobs SoHo store and worked on developing his own fashion line. He also became a fixture on the fashionable nightclub circuit, partying at Bungalow 8 with celebrities he had never even heard of, having grown up in a media vacuum. He recalls once chatting with David Bowie and Iman, his supermodel wife. “So what to do you do?” Okunov cheerily asked Bowie. Iman looked at him incredulously and responded, “He’s a rock star.”
He amassed a motley assortment of new friends, among them Bert Padell, an accountant who has represented scores of celebrities including Irv Gotti and Foxy Brown, and Dov Charney, the American Apparel founder known for marketing simple cotton clothing with soft-core porn. For a spell, Okunov dated Oksana Baiul, the Ukrainian figure skater who beat Nancy Kerrigan in the 1994 Winter Olympics; last year, she helped Okunov stage a fashion show on ice. All of his networking and air kissing has not amounted to much in terms of measurable fashion world success. His limited mentions in the press have included his a mention on Women’s Wear Daily’s list of the “New Wave of Designers” in 2005 and praise in Variety for his “to-die-for” costumes in a production of A Night in the Old Marketplace in Philadelphia last fall; a smattering of other publications regard him as a curiosity rather than a serious fashion contender. Most of his press attention has come from Jewish publications, which focus more on his personal background than his work. His design talent was held up to wide scrutiny last year when the actress Sally Kirkland commissioned him to dress her for the Academy Awards, but the dress he designed was panned by red carpet bloggers as “disturbing,” “offensive,” and “a multi-colored winged disaster.” Still, other fringe and former Hasids who float between Orthodox and secular lives regard him as a role model, however modest his success has been in real-world terms. “The great hope of former Hasids is to go beyond their stories,” he explained. “Some are brilliant writers, some are brilliant musicians, some are just brilliant. They’re so used to rushing to be on time for shacharis and mincha and maariv. It’s hard to break that pattern.” Okunov is seen as a model not just for having transcended his story, but for having incorporated it into a larger story without abandoning it completely. The standard narrative of lapsed religious Jews (or any Jews, for that matter) is that they are forever suspended in inner turmoil and guilt. This is the narrative popularized by the Nathan Englanders and Shalom Auslanders of the world, and especially beloved by secular Jews for confirming a smug fantasy that religion is oppressive and unhealthy. But Okunov does not seem fraught with existential angst, perhaps because he has a loving relationship with his family. Although his parents were distressed when he first left the fold, they now have a close relationship with him, speaking with Okunov on the phone regularly and always welcoming him home. His mother believes that he is somehow saving souls through his work and has said she would eagerly attend one of his fashion shows if there were a divider separating men and women. Okunov seems to find nothing contradictory about being a fashion designer and bon vivant who spontaneously breaks into Yiddish song and still considers himself a Hasid, if not in practice then certainly in spirit. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about him is that in his mind, everything is OK. It might seem incongruous from the outside, but to Okunov, juggling the pieces of his seemingly disparate identities feels perfectly fine.
Last September, timing it to coincide with Fashion Week, Okunov unveiled his spring 2008 collection in a runway show before a packed audience at Cafe DeVille, a French bistro in the East Village. Skinny, surly models loped down the catwalk toward popping camera flashes. The crowd was filled with dewy-skinned young people in ethereal outfits, unusual shoes, and aggressively angular haircuts. Alongside them were Orthodox Jews in yarmulkes and dark coats, looking on with interest. In the past, some of Okunov’s shows have included elements of Jewish culture, including female models sporting curly, shellacked payes. In this show, the models wore small hats meant to evoke the furry round shtreimels of some Hasidic men. It seemed a little shticky. But Isaac Schonfeld, a Hasid and a friend, explained that to whatever small degree the Jewish strain was seen in his work, it resonates louder and clearer in his life. “I think that whereby he has to some degree jettisoned observance, he has not jettisoned the worth of Hasidism,” said Schonfeld. “Not only that, but it’s a part of him more than most Hasidic people.” At the end of the show, Okunov was escorted to the stage amid whooping applause. Afterwards, the Hasids and fashionistas mingled. It would not be long until they would migrate to an after-party at a bar on the Lower East Side, where Okunov would have everyone leaping on tables and belting Hasidic tunes until the wee hours of the night. One friend, a former Satmar Hasid from Williamsburg, jokingly referred to the group as adherents not of Orthodox Judaism but of Paradox Judaism. Okunov added that despite all the seeming contradictions, he thought they were the spiritual progeny of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism who taught that everyone, even the least pious, has a direct link to the divine. “The Baal Shem Tov fell in love with people like us, people who were a little crazy,” he said. “The tailors, water carriers, woodchoppers, shepherds. Their little niggunim, their little psalms were the holiest. I’m a simple tailor. Singing a niggun at the tops of my lungs is a miracle. It’s the Garden of Eden. If the Baal Shem Tov was around now, we would be the highest of the high.”