Award Winning Designer Launches Career as Wedding Dressmaker

Walk through the bustling Machaneh Yehuda market, past the produce sellers shouting their daily deals and the locals pushing their overflowing carts, and take a left down a quiet side street.

Award Winning Designer 758 (photo credit: NEFESH B'NEFESH)
Award Winning Designer 758
(photo credit: NEFESH B'NEFESH)
In a golden stone apartment tucked into Jerusalem’s artsy Nachlaot neighborhood, Chana Studley’s studio is an oasis. From her balcony, sunlight streams into the room, reflecting off the white tulle fabric of a wedding dress, its belt’s silver gems sparkling. 
In her dressmaking studio, surrounded by petticoats and pins, Chana looks right at home. A tall, impeccably dressed woman, Chana emanates a confident and no-nonsense vibe. She has a full day ahead of her—three back-to-back sewing classes, as well as brides coming in and out to try on dresses during the rest of the week. 
But until five years ago, living in Israel was not a part of Chana’s plans, and until 10 years ago, being an Orthodox Jew was also not a part of her reality. Back then, Chana was an Academy Award-winning animatronics model designer living in Los Angeles. 
Living The Hollywood Life
Originally from England, Chana studied embroidery at the University of Manchester and got her start designing costumes, props, and lifelike animal puppets for plays and television shows. After winning an Academy Award for her work on the movie, Babe, Chana packed her bags and relocated to Los Angeles in 1994.
“To get a green card, you have to prove that you’re one of the top five in your profession in the world,” Chana explained. “When you stick on fur and feathers and make weird things, it’s possible.”
In Los Angeles, Chana, who had always worked as a freelancer, was in high demand. From John Travolta’s wings in Michael to the tiger in Dr. Doolittle to the lion in George of the Jungle, Chana’s projects were dynamic, requiring her to spend time observing animals to replicate them perfectly, as well as months on international sets where she managed her puppets.
In her field, Chana was at the top of her game, but personally, she was not satisfied. “I had always been searching for answers and truth—like a lot of people in California—and I’d done the usual types of things that people do, like yoga and meditation classes. But
it just never had any meaning for me,” she said. Chana, who had not grown up religious, began attending a synagogue with high profile actors and directors, like Dustin Hoffman and David Mamet. 
But having Judaism in her life only on the weekends wasn’t enough for Chana. She wanted to devote herself to it full-time.
Goodbye, Hollywood Glamour
The first movie that Chana turned down was Stuart Little. “I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, what do I do now?” Chana knew that once she said no to a project, people would stop calling. But she never regretted her decision.
Because Chana had previously volunteered in the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, she knew she liked to teach. After becoming involved in the local Orthodox Jewish community, Chana met the principal of Ohr Eliyahu Yeshiva day school who asked her to be the school’s art teacher.
Chana taught there for five years, teaching her students to create religious items, like sukkah decorations and seder plates, as well as training them in the basics of painting and drawing.
“Being in an atmosphere that valued integrity and honesty was incredible,” said Chana. “It was a privilege to work in a place where I could learn and grow early on in my religious life.”
Discovering Israel
By her mid-forties, Chana had been living an observant lifestyle for several years, but still had never had the opportunity to formally study Jewish texts. This changed one summer when Chana spent a few months at Neve Yerushalayim, a seminary in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood. “I loved being able to sit and learn with other women who were also there to learn,” said Chana. “I thought, this is what I want to do.”
But Chana had no idea how she’d afford to return. Then she learned about a Los Angeles-based business owner who is committed to paying for women’s flights to Israel so that they can study in seminaries.
Chana was worried about asking for money, but the man was happy to hear from her. “He was so excited to help me,” said Chana. “And he didn’t want anything in return.” 
While living with a host family in Har Nof, Chana spent the next year immersed in her studies, waking up at six in the morning to teach herself Rashi and prepare for her morning Chumash class, and then completing her homework well into the night. Known as a “frum illiterate,” Chana enrolled in advanced classes in Jewish law and in beginner classes in Jewish text.
Knowing she wouldn’t survive a year without her sewing machine, Chana had asked a family who was making Aliyah from Los Angeles to include it in their lift. When she went to retrieve it from their home, the mother asked her to tutor her children in art once a week. To this day, Chana is still very close to the family. 
Starting Over In Israel
In 2009, Chana had only been in Israel for three months when she knew she wanted to make it her permanent home. “I went to my rabbi and said, ‘I don’t think my neshama (soul) will be able to get on the plane,’” said Chana.
When Passover rolled around, Chana was even more confident in her decision. With transportable skills, Chana planned on teaching sewing and doing alterations. With the help of Nefesh B’Nefesh, she began her Aliyah paperwork in Israel, and returned to Los Angeles to pack and collect the rest of her documents. Chana was set on arriving in Israel in time for Rosh Hashanah, but the Israeli Embassy was on strike until a week before the holiday began.
As soon as her Aliyah was finalized, Chana called El Al to book her ticket. The agent told her, “Hashem must love you very much. You just got the last seat on the plane.”
A few months into her new life, Chana found an apartment where she could see herself living and working. It was perfect, but not inexpensive and Chana knew she needed to start building her business. “I had always been self-employed, so I was used to the reality of not knowing where my next check was coming from. But living in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language added to my stress,” said Chana.
She started telling everyone she met that she could sew and little by little, people started bringing her clothes that needed alterations. She advertised her services in Nefesh B’Nefesh’s listservs and in other online communities for Olim. 
“To this day, I have not spent a single cent on ads,” said Chana. “All of my customers have come because of word of mouth.”
Then one day, a friend from seminary who had just gotten engaged asked Chana to make her a wedding dress. “I thought, why not? If I could make talking tigers and 1800s-style dresses for Les Miserables, I could definitely make a wedding dress,” said Chana. Her friend drew her
a picture of the design she wanted and as Chana was fitting her, she realized that she could start a wedding dress gemach (rental warehouse).
“I felt like Hashem had tapped me on the head,” Chana said. “I asked my friend, ‘Do you want to give the dress back to me when you’re done with it?’ I had given her a good deal, so she agreed.”
During that next year, Chana made 24 gowns—or two each month—in addition to doing alterations, teaching, and studying Hebrew in a local Ulpan. Chana also participated in the MATI course, a highly subsidized program offered to Olim who want to start businesses in Israel. 
Now with 30 gowns—and two new ones added to her stock each year— Chana, owner of Chana’s Gowns, is known as the Jerusalem wedding dressmaker. Her clients are Israeli and non-Israeli, and wear the dresses both in Israel and internationally, returning them after their weddings. Chana has transformed dresses—adding hoops, petticoats, belts and buttons—according to her clients’ visions, and even once started and completed the alterations for a dress within 90 minutes for a wedding that was being held the next day.
“I’m not a seamstress by trade. I’m a costume maker,” explained Chana. “So I can think outside the box, make the changes the women want, and take part in their happy days.”
Four years into her new life in Israel, Chana said that it feels like a dream. From her window, she often sees Israeli soldiers walking beneath her balcony. When she goes to buy fabric, she usually needs to move a tallit to see what she wants or wait for the store owner to take off his tefiilin before he can help her.
“It’s a privilege to live in Israel, surrounded by Jewishness,” said Chana. “And it feels like home.”