A stylish woman in a conservative suit fingers the fabric of a bright red-and-white patterned dress in a boutique. She holds the outfit up to herself, glances in the mirror and turns to the shop owner with a question: "Can you lengthen the sleeves on this dress?"
Janice McCarty, the soft-spoken yet lively shop owner, ponders the question at her eponymous boutique, which she opened on a chic stretch of 3rd Street near the Beverly Center in 1987. The 46-year-old clothing designer, who also owns successful high-end shops in Santa Monica and Pasadena and boasts a celebrity clientele that has included Daryl Hannah, Susan Sarandon and Melanie Griffith, has become something of a rage for a previously overlooked niche customer: the fashionable Orthodox Jewish woman.
"It must have been window displays, or word of mouth," McCarty says of how her customers found her 3rd Street shop. It's certainly within walking distance of several synagogues in the Fairfax district, one of L.A.'s larger Orthodox neighborhoods, where women observe a code of modesty that dictates keeping knees, elbows and collarbones covered. (As with kosher diets, there are variations in how strictly some follow the rules.) It is McCarty's naturally modest style and her willingness to give women exactly what they want--imagine a restaurant where the chef welcomes substitutions--that fosters a following so loyal that regulars include Orthodox women from New York who hit the store whenever they are in town.
Just because the traditional black mini-dress is ruled out doesn't mean that high style must go with it. "I have clothes that are figure-flattering, but they're not overt, tight clothes. There's movement in the fabric," the designer says. "It's not like they're coming in for something baggy. They want something with some shape that's flattering, but works for the religion."
"To find modest clothing is difficult," says customer Esther Braun, who recently brought her mother in to shop. "She will alter the clothes, make it the way you want, maybe add sleeves. They're fun to wear."
In the back of her shop, McCarty, with a staff of eight, sews the flowing skirts, dresses, blouses and feminine jackets adorned with antique buttons. She's more than willing to lengthen a sleeve or hemline--she's even resurrected the dickey to help keep collars covered. Reaching for a jacket, McCarty demonstrates how she incorporates customers' needs into her designs. "This came from a customer who's very religious. She's completely covered, but she looks really good," she says. "This was something she wanted made for her. It was so great, I started making it for the stores."
McCarty and her managers keep extensive files of what customers buy so that they can help them avoid the dreaded danger of crossing paths at temple or out for a Sabbath stroll--in the same dress.