The Room Downstairs is graduated to a Berkley storefront operation.
“I used to start different fashion trends in school,” says Forta, 43, looking part office-casual, part bohemian in a slim black sweater with a gray ruffled faux scarf, paired with a tulip flared denim skirt. “And my mother’s parents used to own a clothing manufacturer, Madora Sportswear, that supplied clothes for Winkelman’s and Hudson’s in the ’50s and ’60s.”
The racks in Forta’s Berkley boutique, The Room Downstairs, are filled with modern and arty looks — lots of denim, tunics, embellished tops and jackets. A small section in back of the store is devoted to girls clothing that’s as savvy and sophisticated as the adult counterparts. It looks much like the boutiques one would find along Queen Street West in Toronto, in New York City’s Soho section or on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.
There is one thing you won’t find in The Room Downstairs: Pants.
Forta caters to a relatively small market of Orthodox Jewish women — adhering to guidelines for modest female dress, known as tznius: skirts below the knee, sleeves of sweaters and tops that go below the elbow, and high-neckline tops.
Forta started her boutique in the basement of her Oak Park home in 2003, opening it up to customers in the evenings and by appointment, which allowed her to work and still stay at home with her seven children.
“It’s always a challenge to find clothing that fits our requirements but is still fashionable,” Forta says. “I got the idea of opening a store during a trip to Israel where there are some great stores, and I was buying things for myself, my daughter and friends.”
In 2008, Forta opened the storefront on Coolidge that carries 1,600 skirts — from frilly and flouncy florals to tailored looks for the office, and casual cargo pocket twill skirts — as well as extenders, layering pieces that go underneath shorter skirts and dresses.
Shells, which she loves to layer under jackets, vests and sleeveless tops, jumpers and tunics, are available in more colors than are in the rainbow plus tie-dye and metallics. “The shell industry has revolutionized the modest dress closet,” Forta says. “They make it possible to wear anything you want and make it modest.”
Most of the looks come from Forta’s personal taste that leans towards fun and functional with a bit of edginess and glamour.
“Tunics are very big this year, especially when they’re paired with a belt,” she says. “Denim is huge, too. Fashion should be functional. You still have places to go and errands to run.”
While the Coolidge storefront keeps Forta close to her Orthodox clientele, The Room Downstairs is also positioned as a trendy boutique for fashion’s avant-garde fans.
“I see Berkley as an up-and-coming area for fashion and boutiques,” Forta says. “On this street alone, I have seen five or six stores that have come in during the time I have been here, so there’s growth.”