I never got to have the bat mitzvah dress shopping moment I always wanted.
By the time I was 12 years old, I was between a size 8 and 10, wore a C cup and had no idea what to do with my quickly growing figure. After years of hating back-to-school shopping because of my size, I gave up even before I began. Despite desperately wanting to wear the trendy H&M dresses that my smaller Hebrew school classmates easily found at the mall, I eschewed that humiliating process entirely. My mom’s seamstress made me some gorgeous dresses for my bat mitzvah weekend. Of course, they were beautiful and well-made, but being measured for custom dresses because I couldn’t fit into anything that came off the rack wasn’t my middle school bat mitzvah dream. But such is the pain of a curvy Jewish tween.
Emma Zack, the Jewish founder of “curated for curves” online vintage shop Berriez, had a worse experience.
“I was 12 years old when I cried on the floor of a Macy’s dressing room, one of those carpeted fitting rooms with the harsh overhead fluorescent lighting and three full-length mirrors that make you cringe from every angle,” Emma wrote in an op-ed for Teen Vogue. “My mom walked in and found me bawling in the corner. Her arm was weighed down by the pile of potential bat mitzvah dresses we both knew weren’t going to zip all the way up.”
Ultimately, Emma couldn’t find the Jessica McClintock dress she so desperately wanted. She ended up wearing a black lace shirt with a blue silk taffeta skirt for her bat mitzvah. “It was very not traditional at all. But it was what I found, and I had to work with what I was given,” she told me recently.
In 2018, after years of collecting plus-size vintage clothes for herself as a hobby, Emma decided to redistribute the clothes that no longer fit her body and began Berriez on Instagram. Now, Berriez has 32K followers on Instagram and has been featured in The New York Times and Good Morning America. In addition to the website and weekly Instagram story sales (which I’ve shopped a few times), Berriez also started offering ultra-popular in-studio appointments this past spring. Inside the Berriez closet, clients can shop from Emma’s impressive collection of vintage as well as collaborations from Berriez and independent designers. Throughout it all, Berriez has been healing her inner bat mitzvah girl.
On the warm day in August that I visited Berriez, I hoped Emma could help heal my inner bat mitzvah girl, too.
Entering Berriez’ sunlit Williamsburg studio, I felt like I had stepped into a fat, funky, sexy and sartorial Garden of Eden. In the center of the room, a strawberry coffee table displayed a menagerie of jewelry, scrunchies, barrettes and lighters. The white walls were brought to life with a giant pink watch, bedazzled purses and food-themed sweaters. Though the space was small (Berriez has since moved into a studio three times bigger), its excess of clothes, ranging in sizes from small to 4X+ and hanging neatly on racks all over the room, weren’t overwhelming in the slightest. It was exciting. For the first time in my life, I was in a room full of chic outfits and most (if not all) would fit my zaftig body.
Though my inner reason was healing, outwardly I was there for a styling session — Emma had graciously agreed to assemble Jewish outfits for me to play dress-up in. But first, a kibbitz.
Sitting around the strawberry accessory display, Emma told me that her Jewish identity is very important to her. “I love being Jewish, and I feel like I don’t talk about it enough. But it’s such a crucial part of my identity,” Emma, who grew up Reform in the Brookline, Massachussetts Jewish community, explained. She went on, “I would say that I’m definitely more culturally Jewish than I am practicing Jewish, but I still feel really connected to Judaism.”
Another connection to her Jewish identity comes from her grandma Edna, whom she was named after and considers a style icon. “My mom says that whenever [my grandma] walked into a room, people would stop and turn their head,” Emma said. “She was just so elegant. Apparently, she would also never go out of the house disheveled. My grandma always pulled a fit.” Beyond her grandmother, Emma doesn’t have too many other fashion inspirations — not even Jewish fashionista Fran Fine from “The Nanny,” whose style she said she loves, but quite literally could not wear. “I try not to look too much at what other people are wearing because a lot of times, people who are considered fashionable are thin and I just can’t see myself in what a thin person is wearing,” Emma said, expressing a sentiment that I know I (and many other fat people) struggle with.
During our chat, Emma admitted that she almost had to shut down Berriez last spring due to financial issues. However, starting to offer in-studio appointments changed everything. With a more reliable stream of income, Emma was able to keep Berriez open and continue to create joyful shopping experiences for her plus-sized clientele, something both she and her customers find deeply rewarding. These days, her focus shifts between facilitating the appointments and going on vintage shopping trips to refill the Berriez’ inventory. But in the future, Emma hopes to be able to dedicate her time to the bigger picture. “I would love to come out with my own line inspired by vintage pieces that I find that fit really well. It’s just a matter of how to do that while still being ethical and sustainable,” she told me.
With that, I shared with her my vision for the styling session. I wanted outfits for three separate Jewish events: a sukkah party, a casual Shabbat dinner and some kind of Jewish deli moment. Emma got down to business. Here’s what she came up with…
Outfit #1: Feeling Fruity at a Sukkah Party
Emma has described her affinity for fruit patterns saying, “Why fruit? Because humans, like fruit, are uniquely vibrant, sweet and desirable at any size, shape or shade.” When I read those words, I knew I had to ask her to style me in something fruity — and she did not disappoint. Just because Sukkot happens in the fall (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), a season of typically muted and earthy tones, doesn’t mean that one can’t go bold and bright for the harvest festival! I could easily see myself wearing this to jam out to my Sukkot playlist in the sukkah or to get cozy under some blankets. (As a side note, elastic waistbands were horrendously unfashionable when I was a kid and I’m so glad we as a society are starting to move past that.)
Top: A fruity, sequinned cardigan by Storybook Knits, exclusively for the HomeShopping Network (no size listed) over an untagged light green linen tunic
Bottoms: Alfred Dunner green polyester pull-on pants, size 14
Accessories: Bejeweled grape earrings by History Time Travel x Berriez
Outfit #2: Chill Shabbat Dinner with Friends
I loved this set so much that I ended up buying it. Slightly revealing cardigans have been a huge trend this year, and I’ve been on the hunt for something slinky for awhile. My dream Shabbat dinner scenario includes this outfit, a table surrounded by my closet friends (which happens to be decorated with Susan Alexandra Shabbat candles and other Judaica) and likely some takeout food. After saying the prayers and eating, we’d end the night by screening Emma Seligman’s movie “Bottoms.”
Set: Deadstock lace cardigan and skirt by nlt, in 1XL
Underwear: The bra is my own, but it’s the Not Sorry Lightly Lined Lace Balconette Bra from Savage X Fenty
Outfit #3: Hungover Sunday Morning Jewish Deli Run
If I were the type of person who could actually get out of bed when hungover, this is exactly what I’d throw on my body. Every component of this outfit was chic while still being comfortable enough for someone to wear while in desperate need of a bagel with lox and a strong cup of coffee. Emma kvelled over how good my butt looked as soon as I put on the jeans, so naturally I had to get them.
Top: Veggie button-up from Nicole Miller
Bottoms: Vintage Levi’s 550s with relaxed fit and tapered leg (women’s size 16)
Accessories: Offbeat Sweet Cobalt Soft Chain purse
By the time the session was over, I was a new Jewish woman. As I bid Emma goodbye and walked out onto the Brooklyn street, beaming, I realized that I’ll probably never be able to fully soften the blow of missing out on bat mitzvah dress shopping. But, as I thought back to my conversation with Emma, I realized that she had said something I desperately needed to hear. At one point, as we discussed with the reclamation of the Yiddish word “zaftig” (meaning juicy), she remarked, “People try to use it like [an insult], ‘Oh, she’s chubby. She’s zaftig.’ It’s the same with the word ‘fat.’ But it’s just like, ‘Yeah, I am fat. So what?‘”