Interviews

Thea Bloch-Neal


May 3, 2016

Thea, a North Carolina native and the founder of Hushed Commotion, a Brooklyn-based bridal accessories company, invited us into her Bed-Stuy brownstone and shared her wisdom on the value of community, the ups and downs of starting a business, what it was like growing up in an interfaith household, and how she’s continuing that tradition with her own marriage.

Tell us about your early years.

I’m from Durham, North Carolina. I lived in the same house my entire life. I went to high school half a block from my house. I had fun adventures skipping school and going home and not telling my parents.

My mom is Jewish and my dad is not. He doesn’t really associate with any kind of religion, but he’s very supportive of Judaism. We used to go to synagogue for Shabbat pretty often, and, if we didn’t, we at least did dinner on Friday. I loved it, but I was also thinking, “Mom, it’s Friday night! What are you making me do?!” She’d let me go out afterwards to hang out with friends.

We weren’t a kosher household and we didn’t have to be that strict on Saturday, but I did go to Jewish Day School and I learned to read Hebrew. I’ve gotten rusty. My godmother, Galia, was probably the most religious person in my life, and she converted. She loves being Jewish. She loves it with her whole life. She makes ketubahs. I would spend the night at her house once a week to give my parents date night breaks and I was like her little surrogate kid. She would make sure my mom was helping to encourage my Jewish life.

My mom met some people in the Reform community and really liked it. It was farther from our house, but worth it, and I really loved it there. The rabbi’s daughter and I went to a bunch of Jewish art camps together in Wisconsin. They were inclusive and felt natural and organic.

What’s the story behind your name?

My parents tried to find something that was short and beautiful and had a good meaning. When I was born, I still did not have a name. I was called Bloch-Neal baby for three weeks. Finally, they settled on Thea, which is Greek. It means goddess and it’s short and it’s relatively easy to pronounce. Thea also has something to do with my aunt Theodora.

What did you want to be when you were five years old?

I used to choreograph dances at home. I probably wanted to be a dancer. I wore tutus with bumblebee tights and slips. I wore a lot of mish mash clothing.

What advice would you give to your teenage self?

There’s so much that you think about in hindsight that your parents told you and you’re like, “Goddammit, they were so right.” I would want my mom’s help with stuff, and she’d say, “OK, let’s break it down. Why and how will we get there and should we look in the dictionary…what should we do to find the answer?” I’d think, “Mom, just tell me the answer!” She wouldn’t do that. She’d make me go through the motions and figure it out. She never made it easy, but, in the long run, that helped a lot.

Being yourself and being independent really means so much.

Try not to fit in or worry about what people are saying. When it came to my art, I was so confident, but when it came to myself and dating, I was way harder on myself than I should have been. I look back and I think, “You were a nice looking kid. Why were you so stressed out and freaked out about everything?”

What were the rituals and traditions of your family?

We were part of an interfaith community for a little while and that was fun. My mom was always big on family dinners, even during the week. Now, in my adult life, I don’t want to sit in front of the TV and have dinner, and it’s my mom who imparted that. Shabbat was nice and consistent and a way to connect with Judaism in a basic way.

There was this camp in the Catskills called Klez Camp. It was a week long over Christmas and five hundred Jewish people and their families would rent out an entire hotel and everything was kosher and you’d hang out with all your Jewish friends and there were classes for kids and they would do a play that would have some kind of Jewish meaning and there would be big parties in the evenings with klezmer music and dancing. My mom loved that. She would stay up until 3 AM dancing. I have a lot of good friends from that. We were all a community. For seven years, I skipped the whole Christmas thing and did all this cool Jewish stuff with my mom.

Did you have a bat mitzvah? Was there a theme?

I had a bnei mitzvah – there were four of us. Three girls and one guy. We did it at the synagogue, but it was on a Sunday, because it was so non-traditional and it was through our interfaith community. We all read from the Torah. I was friends with the other kids and I still am. No theme, but some new Janet Jackson CD had come out, and my friend brought it as a gift and we opened it up and made the DJ play it nonstop.

When you went to college, did you have any idea how you wanted your Jewish identity to fit in?

It was hard for me because I loved the Jewish community that I had in Durham and I wanted the same thing here, but I couldn’t just say, “Ta da! Here’s the same thing.” A lot of the people at Pratt, where I went to college, were not that religious. I tried to be part of the Jewish Student Union and they were super intense. I went to one event where men and women were separated and the women weren’t doing anything and were just sitting in the back and gossiping and I thought, “This is not OK,” so I left. That was discouraging, so, for a while, I didn’t do much Jewish stuff.

What’s been your favorite age so far and why?

Twenty nine was really cool. You’re wise and settled enough to feel really good about yourself and who you are. You’ve been through a bunch of the tricky stuff, not that it ever ends, but your twenties are so up and down. At that point, I felt like I figured out a lot of career stuff, I was already working for myself, I had already had a number of good years with my husband. There was lots of change, but in a good way. I didn’t feel nervous about thirty. Kind of the end of an era, but in a good way.

What’s an immediate turnoff to you?

Being disingenuous. Life is too short.

You’re not going to get anywhere if you’re not doing something because you love it or because it’s important to you.

What’s something that makes you smile?

Seeing my husband.

What is your biggest insecurity or fear?

Sometimes I feel like I’m playing pretend. Imposter Syndrome. I feel that with work – waiting for something to go horribly wrong, implode on itself. Being an only child, I have a fear of letting people down, especially my parents.

When do you feel like the best version of yourself?

Being creative always makes me feel that way. When I’m in the zone and it all comes together it just feels so good and you feel really proud of yourself. When I’m in the studio and working on a new collection and I have a really good idea as I’m going to sleep or in my sleep and then I get to execute it the next day, it feels really nice. My body and spirit are tapped in and going in the right direction.

What do you do and how did you end up doing it?

I was running a flagship store for a company that did womenswear and learning the business side of fashion. They transitioned into bridal and I started making accessories for them. It made me really happy. I created a website and made wedding accessories on the side, as well. It got to the point where I had to choose. I felt like if I didn’t try this thing for myself, even if it didn’t work, then I’d always regret it. It was slow at first. It got to a point where things felt really good.

Hushed Commotion is bridal accoutrements made with love in Brooklyn. I like pieces that have a lot of detail and a vintage vibe and a lot of presence. I don’t gravitate towards things that are overly blingy or gaudy. When I’m designing, I try to pull those two together so it feels really special and intricate but not trying to take over your whole look or outshine you.

Who or what are some of your inspirations?

Art Nouveau has always been an era I really love. Mucha. There are a bunch of fashion illustrators that are really inspiring. I love looking at photography as well. Audrey Hepburn is not someone I gravitate towards…I’d be more of a Katharine Hepburn kind of person – a little stronger, pant suits and such.

Tell me about your husband.

He’s younger than me. I’m the cougar! Only by six months, so it’s not that big of a deal. He is a very calming person. In the beginning of our relationship, he said, “It’s OK to be angry with me. I’m not going anywhere.” He helps me be a little bit more aggressive – not in a bad way, just sticking up for myself. He’s fiercely loyal. I trust him completely. He laughs a lot with me and I can be really dorky and he loves that. He’s totally supportive of my weird accessories and head scarves. He’s stylish, but he’s a t-shirt, jeans, and funky tennis shoes guy. He cooks really well.

He was born in India and lived there until he was three. They moved to Thailand and then Singapore and then North Carolina, which is where his parents still live, about twenty minutes away from my parents’ house. We met in New York through mutual friends.

What’s the key to a strong relationship with your partner?

Communication. Say what’s on your mind and accept that it might hurt the other person but that you need to talk about it. Not talking is worse than saying something that might be hurtful. Date nights are really important, forever and always.

What’s been the biggest surprise to you about being married?

A lot of people I know said that being married didn’t feel that different, but I felt like it did! It was really official and going through the wedding was a powerful thing. Having signed contracts and a person who’s got your back felt really awesome.

What was it like bringing together your two backgrounds?

It went pretty well. My parents are interfaith and are very understanding. They travel a lot and appreciate other cultures and are interested and welcoming. Both families feel like as long as we are accepting and participating in each of our cultures, then it was OK to bring them together. My husband’s best friend is way more Jewish than I am, so he actually knew a lot about being Jewish before I met him. I thought, “This is great, I don’t have to teach you anything!” Both Judaism and Hinduism are based in cultural daily life and they have similar values, so that syncs up well.

What excites you most about being Jewish?

I love the cultural part of it. When I was younger, it was a community that you were a part of and you didn’t have to go to synagogue for it. For my friends who were Christian, so much of religion was about looking at the Bible and knowing the verses and going to church and Judaism didn’t feel that way. It felt much more organic.

What’s makes you most nervous about being Jewish?

Feeling like I don’t do enough.

What does an ideal Jewish experience look like?

Something that feels comfortable and not out of my depth. Feeling like I’m in a Jewish experience where I can be fully part of it and not feel like I’m playing pretend. Also, feeling like I am getting something out of it and learning something new and eating something good.

How has your view about Jewish life and culture changed as you’ve gotten older?

When I was younger, I had people around me who were more involved and synagogue, then, in college, I got out of rhythm. In my early twenties, I was just having fun in New York, so I got out of the habit. Now that I‘ve gotten a little bit older and am thinking about starting a family and I have a husband who’s not Jewish, I want to educate him and to connect more with it. I feel like I need to be more involved and make an effort.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Iris Apfel. I love her. She loves accessories. How genuine she is to herself and her marriage and her work. She’s the full package. She’s an awesome fashion maven. She did it for the fun and love of it, and she was creative in her daily life doing interior design.

What’s a cause you care a lot about?

Having art in schools is really important. I don’t really believe in wars, but they happen, and I’ve been feeling really interested in and saddened by the veteran situation. I want to become more involved in that. There are lots of people who are really hurting and we put them in that situation and they’re not being taken care of and it’s really shitty.

Who are your favorite writers or books?

One book that I remember very fondly and that changed my attitude towards book is The Master and Margarita. I didn’t even understand half of it and I probably need to read it again. It was so cool and crazy and such an adventure. It’s an adult book, but it felt like a fairyland book. Some of it was gruesome, but it was really cool. I was at our local book store in North Carolina and there’s this wonderful team who works there and you can just talk to them about books. I also love, love The Night Circus. It’s one of my favorite books. It’s got everything. It’s got all this magic and creativity and this great love story and trauma. It’s beautifully written. I also really loved Everything Is Illuminated.

Photos by Amber Gress.

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