Joyce Azria: Fashion Icon and Orthodox Jew
The energetic designer’s journey from Chanel to Shabbat.
Fashion icon and Orthodox Jew are two descriptions that are not often used together. Yet those are the terms that best describe Joyce Azria who was the creative director for BCBGeneration, the fashion powerhouse that recently announced it is shutting its doors after 28 years of providing red carpet style at affordable prices.
One of the most sought-after designers in America today, Joyce isn’t retiring. She is starting her own fashion line, Avec Les Filles (“With the Girls”), a fashion line aimed at younger women, providing Joyce’s trademark fashion-forward look with classic pieces and affordable price-points.
Aish.com recently caught up with the irrepressible and energetic designer who shared her thoughts about being a fashion icon and observant Jew.
The daughter of famed designer Max Azria, who founded the BCBG and other high-fashion clothing lines, Joyce grew up in a fast-paced, glamorous world, dividing her time between Paris, where she was born, and Los Angeles, where she grew up and still calls home. “Everything we did was fashionable,” Joyce recalls. The family vacationed in the most fashionable resorts, enjoyed summers on yachts. “And everything was very material.”
“My dad is a Sephardi Jew who raised us with a lot of spirituality and excitement towards God.”
Joyce remembers growing up in Los Angeles. “I saw a lot of people who were lost, focused only on the latest trend and adopting the newest fad.” Even though she was living in that milieu, Joyce notes there was something different about her family. Joyce’s father was born into a large Jewish family in Tunisia and moved to Paris as a child, eventually studying fashion there. “My dad is a Sephardi Jew,” Joyce explains, “and always raised us with a lot of spirituality and excitement towards Hashem (God).”
One way he conveyed that spirituality was through Shabbat. Although he travelled constantly for work, Max Azria always made it home in time to say Kiddush on Shabbat. That sent a powerful message to Azria’s seven children. “We were very grounded in our beliefs,” Joyce says.
That spiritual element helped the Azrias maintain perspective even in the center of the high-fashion worlds of Paris and LA. “Our family had a funny take on how unimportant it all was.” Travelling to developing countries where some of their clothing lines’ garments were made also helped shape Joyce’s view of the world and of fashion’s place in it.
Joyce entered the family business at age 18, learning the clothing industry and designing. From the outside, her life looked impossibly glamorous; she travelled the world, rubbed shoulders with celebrities, but the reality was far different. Building up the family’s fashion brands was intense, grueling work, and many of the famous people Joyce got to know didn’t seem fulfilled or happy up close. “Those people are real people, they have a lot of trials and difficulties.”
Her work was thriving but after a few years in the fashion industry something seemed missing. Joyce began delving more intensely into Judaism, reading articles online and taking classes at Los Angeles’ Aish Hatorah and Chabad centers. She first turned to Aish.com because she was looking for recipes. Growing up Sephardi, Joyce didn’t know how to prepare her Ashkenazi husband Ilan Trojanowski’s favorite dishes. “We each have different ways to enter into new worlds of ideas. Food is one language,” Joyce explains, “that motivated me to learn more about Judaism.”
Learning about the weekly Torah portion started to change the way Joyce looked at her life and the world around her.
Joyce started taking classes at her local Chabad center. Learning about the weekly Torah portion started to change the way Joyce looked at her life and the world around her. “I could always relate it to something that was going on with my life,” she notes.
Joyce started learning the weekly Torah portion with her young son. “I was intrigued and taken by the stories. They seemed very modern, even though they are timeless. No matter how modern my life felt, every Shabbos I felt like there was a relevant lesson for me.”
Joyce and her husband Ilan
Learning about Judaism felt like falling in love. Soon, Joyce, who was divorced, was sharing that love with her new husband, whom her rabbi introduced her to. After she and Ilan married, they made the decision to adopt an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, moving to an Orthodox neighborhood where they live with their five children.
Joyce believes that becoming an observant Jew has helped her grow not only in her personal life, but professionally as well. “Having a strong moral center helps you be a better businesswoman, a better partner, a better wife, a better person.”
Joyce notes that since becoming Orthodox people think she has become even more stylish.
Though she jokes that she moved “from Chanel to Shabbat”, Joyce notes that since becoming Orthodox people think she has become even more stylish, calling her more modest style “classic”.
Designing for young women, Joyce is keenly aware of the pressures that girls and young women face to conform to the latest styles. “A lot of girls buy into fashion trends and they push their level of comfort which creates insecurity,” Joyce notes. “The number one thing you should look at when selecting clothes is how comfortable they make you feel. Are they revealing too much? Making you feel insecure? Confidence is central in fashion and confidence really means being comfortable in yourself. It’s about finding the authentic ‘you.’ If you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing. And if you stand for nothing, people can’t stand you,” she quips.
Confidence also comes from whom we surround ourselves with, Joyce notes. When we make sure we are surrounded with positive people and mentors, it can help us discover who we really are, and feel confident in projecting that. Instead of trying to fit in, spend time discovering who are, what we really think and stand for. “The whole point of fashion is to reveal who you really are,” Joyce explains.
Joyce sees that respect for her has increased since she became more religious. She notes that she is seen as a more trustworthy and honorable person. Wearing modest clothes has also changed the way people relate to her. Joyce has noticed that in conversation people look more at her eyes and seem to pay more attention to what she says. “They can get to know you on a much deeper level.”
As a female entrepreneur, Joyce appreciates the more professional way people now relate to her. “Women are royalty, and when you dress that way, you became royalty. People are beautiful when they are true to who they are.”
Joyce is incredibly busy, working to launch her new fashion line online and in hundreds of Macy’s stores across the country. Amid her intense schedule, Shabbat is her anchor in time, just as it was growing up when her whole family would gather together each week to hear Kiddush.
With her irresistible laugh, Joyce recalls an intense business meeting when she was still with BCBGeneration that took place late on a Friday afternoon. “We were going through a really big business decision that had to be made within 24 hours, and it was just before Shabbat.” As the meeting concluded, one of her coworkers told Joyce that he’d call her soon and let her know how the decision turned out. “He said I’m going to call you, and get you on the line and let you know,” Joyce recalls, “and I said ‘Sorry, the world just stops for me Shabbos.’”
Her colleague was incredulous, asking Joyce wouldn’t she be curious?
“Not really,” Joyce replied. “On Shabbat, I leave behind the business world and focuses on my family and my relationship with God,” she told the colleague. “I am fortunate that I’m not a slave to my work.”