The atelier of Rabbi Yosel Tiefenbrun is tucked away on a deadend street in a treeless, industrial corner of East Williamsburg. Foul smelling runoff from hosed down garbage trucks fills gigantic potholes. Delivery trucks roar by belching smoke, and an occasional Uber creeps along the block, apparently lost. Nothing about the area suggests the home of a highly sought after bespoke tailor. But that is part of the charm of the Tiefenbrun experience: through a red metal door of 188 Scott Avenue, I walked up a set of metal stairs and entered a strange second floor sanctuary, greeted by Tiefenbrun himself, a 30-year-old man wearing a three-piece navy pinstripe suit with gold rimmed glasses and a shapely red beard. With the help of his assistants and interns, Tiefenbrun will measure, draft, cut, and sew a garment for a customer from scratch, fitting it exactly to his client’s body and tastes. Bespoke tailors are rare in this part of Brooklyn, or really anywhere in New York these days. Rarer still are bespoke tailors who also happen to be ordained rabbis—which is exactly what Yosel Tiefenbrun is.
On first blush, the interior only suggests that this is the workplace of a tailor well-versed in the codes of masculinity: burgundy walls, leather tufted club chairs, a fitting area with an ornate three-way mirror, and a generously stocked bar and coffee area for visitors. WBGO, the Newark-based jazz station, burbled in the background. Racks of suits in progress or waiting to be picked up divide the workspace in the back, where Tiefenbrun’s assistants can be seen sewing, steaming, and pressing. Mannequins show off whatever the tailor has been working on lately: a stone colored double-breasted linen jacket, a light brown cotton overshirt with cigar pockets, a charcoal flannel suit with peak lapels covered in basting threads.
A framed oil portrait hanging above Tiefenbrun’s desk catches my eye—nothing weird about that—until I realize it’s of the founder of Chabad, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Known simply as “the Rebbe,” Schneerson is revered as a messianic figure, responsible for the Hassidic community’s turn outward to the modern world. After the holocaust, he helped establish a massive network of synagogues, youth groups, and community centers whose mission is to bring secular Jews back to god and to convert non-believers; those young guys dressed in black standing on the corner offering Hannukah candles to passersby are likely Chabad boys, as Tiefenbrun once was. “My grandfather painted that; he was a portrait artist,” he said of the painting, in an accent somewhere between Kennsingston and Shtetl. “He was a great influence on me. I would speak to him every week I was in London. He would be up to date: ‘Oh, how are your buttonholes?’”
Three years ago, Tiefenbrun opened his shop with his wife, Chaya, who manages the books and social media. “I run everything by her, including an Instagram post.” Many of his clients find Tiefenbrun on Instagram, where he is known as @rabbitailor, with about 15,000 followers. So far, he hasn’t gotten much flak for his ostentatious style. “People are actually very positive,” he told me. Some clients are orthodox Jews, like himself, but plenty come from “outside the community” as he put it—jazz musicians, bankers, anybody who appreciates the fine art of tailoring. An average full bespoke two-piece suit from Tiefenbrun will run you $4,500 and requires 80 hours of labor, so clients need to have a deep appreciation.
Tiefenbrun cultivated his own love of tailoring in secret while he studied Torah: first as a boy growing up in London, at Yeshiva in Israel, and finally volunteering with synagogues and Jewish groups in France and Singapore. It is an education vastly different from what you’d get in New York public schools, with little emphasis on subjects like science, math, American history—or even English. A group of former yeshiva students is currently suing the city of New York for failing to ensure they received a quality education. As the oldest of 10 children, Tiefenbrun was expected to become the family’s first rabbi. “In Chabad, we all become rabbis. It’s something good to know.” Usually, the intention of all this religious schooling is that you stay a rabbi; however, some in the Chabad community (which is more modern than the Satmar or ultra-orthodox sects) also hold “respectable,” secular jobs.
But young Tiefenbrun always wanted to be a designer. He fantasized about making women’s haute couture and doodled ideas in the margins of his notebooks. His Yeshiva roommate, filmmaker and social media influencer, Meir Kalmanson, remembers the rabbi’s obsession. “I walked in and I saw he had a sketch book,” said Kalmanson. “It was some dresses, almost like gowns ... I was taken by surprise by how good it was.”
However, the strict rules of orthodox Jewish life made it impossible to pursue a career that would require Tiefenbrun to be around strange, half-dressed women. So, while finishing his ordination in Singapore, he found another way into the fashion industry: “I met the editor of Harper’s Bazar at a bat mitzvah,” he laughed. This lead to an internship at the Singapore branch of the magazine, and eventually the decision to return to London to take a new course of study, this time on Savile Row. As a young rabbi with growing clout, “I had about 180 people for Friday dinners,” said Tiefenbrun. “I had to decide: fulltime rabbi (there’s no such thing as part-time rabbi) or tailoring, and I always had the dream to start my clothing brand.”
Tiefenbrun landed at Maurice Sedwell, one of the newer and bigger shops on largely old-school Savile Row. For two years, he split his time three ways: working in the front of Maurice Sedwell with clients, taking classes at the Savile Row tailoring academy, and moonlighting as a substitute rabbi on weekends. At Sedwell, Tiefenbrun was chosen as an apprentice by Master tailor and head cutter Andrew Ramroop, who, as a native of Trinidad, had his own difficulties breaking into the trade. “There were many parallels with Yosel and myself,” he told me by phone. “Being Black, being West Indian, with a funny accent and funny hair, and really aspiring to greatness in an environment that I sometimes describe as like navigating through walls of barbed wire—it meant that we were similar in our differences”. In Tiefenbrun, he saw promise and evidence that the young man could dedicate himself fully to the craft. “He had the mindset to become very good at what he does,” said Ramroop. “Handcraft tailoring to the highest standards attainable… We do more handwork than any other tailor on Savile Row.”
Aside from the difficulties of mastering the skills he needed, Tiefenbrun realized that traditional tailoring presents special obstacles to an observant Jew. Most notably, Leviticus 19:19 prohibits the mixing of linen and wool. “Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.” This means no wool-linen blends—the most popular material for spring and summer suiting because of its cool touch and moisture-wicking properties. “It’s like half a book, a whole book, I can’t even enjoy,” Tiefenbrun sighed, pointing to a pile of fabric swatch books.
But the restriction was even more complicated. Fabric blends were off-limits, but so were pieces that simply used multiple fabrics. “A wool jacket with a linen canvas, that’s what they call Shatnez,” he said. The problem is that most suits, no matter what they’re made of, have canvas padding in the shoulders and chests, which gives the garment shape. And linen is even used in the pockets and waistbands of some pants.
So he’d have to find a workaround. “Here, I can show you I have two different types—would you like to see?” Tiefenbrun gestured to a workstation behind a row of mannequins. On the cutting table was a massive pair of fabric scissors with the word “DADDY” affixed to the side. He picked up a roll of canvas padding in each hand. “I have kosher, and non-kosher.”
“So this is the linen,” he said, holding the second. “It’s fantastic, it’s bouncy and you’re able to work with this. Here you can see, this is beautifully rolled, padded linen, non-kosher collar.” Tiefenbrun ran his hands over the moldable, but strong collar of a jacket he was in the middle of sewing. “You know a good canvas collar when it stands up like that,” he said, holding up a strip like a rolled up newspaper, which stayed erect even as he waved his hand. “But this guy, he tries to stand up...” The second collar began to flop to one side. “So this is what we have to live with. “It used to be a struggle to find, but now we have a pretty good cotton replacement.”
Despite the challenges, the Shatnez rules may have actually made Tiefenbrun a better tailor. As an apprentice, Tiefenbrun couldn’t afford bespoke for himself, so he mostly shopped in London’s extensive vintage market—but almost everything he wanted to wear had linen somewhere. “So there was one time I had to do a surgery,” he recalled of a longed-for pair of pants.
“Taking off the whole canvas. Everything is hanging off this waistband. But it’s also good to see how other people make things. You open up Brioni ready-to-wear, and you get to see how they do it.” In the end, the pants were probably more work than they were worth, but Tiefenbrun learned how they were made. And for his clients, he is allowed to break the rules and apply what he’s learned from hours of deconstruction. “When I was on Savile Row, I asked one of the rabbis there, so there’s nothing wrong with making it for someone who doesn’t have the laws.”
A man in his late 30s named Issac arrived for a basted fitting. Though he lives in New York, he used to travel to London annually for a new suit, until he discovered Tiefenbrun. The gray flannel jacket and matching pants on the mannequin would become his third commission. Issac emerged from the dressing room, and Tiefenbrun began to examine the fit. I asked Issac why he had schlepped all the way to East Williamsburg for a suit.
“I’m English; I’m not from New Jersey,” he began. “The quality of British tailoring to American ... No disrespect, of course.” Coming to Tiefenbrun, even if he was all the way out in East Williamsburg, was an obvious necessity.
Issac appraised his reflection in the mirror while the tailor tugged at the right sleeve of the jacket. Issac liked the cut, but felt the armhole was a touch high. Tiefenbrun agreed, and in a dramatic flourish, tore off the arm, which was attached with basting thread. “But I would say that Yosel is a bit more fashion forward than some of the traditional houses,” Isaac added. “He has quite an edge.”
Though Tiefenbrun claims Ralph Lauren as his style icon, most of his inspiration doesn’t come from other fashion brands, magazines, or movies, but from the dressed up orthodox rabbis he grew up admiring, especially in old photographs. Many outsiders think of the orthodox community’s fashion as unique but not exactly stylish. To do so is to ignore a long history of rabbinical drip, including the famed Rebbe on Tiefenbrun’s wall—who, as a young man in Paris, used to wear his custom suits with a beret.
With that in mind, you could argue that Tiefenbrun’s shop is a return to tradition rather than an aberration. “The way some of the older rabbis used to dress in London and around the world--whether it was their glasses … the fur coats, or the double-breasted coats with the fur around the collars--and the fur hats!” he mused. A faraway look came over Tiefenbrun’s face. “There was definitely a lot of style back then.”
Originally Appeared on GQ