UPPER EAST SIDE — The weeks just before Passover are the busiest time of year for Flora Shepelsky.
That’s when many Orthodox Jewish women, who wear wigs in public, drop off their hairpieces to be washed overnight and set by the wig wiz behind Design By Flora.
At her 7-year-old store in Teaneck, N.J., where Shepelsky has a rabid fan base buying her custom-designed wigs, falls and toppers — which range from $1,850 to $10,000-plus — she has nearly 50 wigs a day to wash before Passover.
Just three weeks ago, she opened a second location — at 243 E. 78th St. — and religious women from the Upper East and Upper West sides, Washington Heights and the dorms at Stern College have been dropping off their wigs in droves.
For women who follow Orthodox Jewish law, they must keep their heads covered once they’re married for modesty, since hair is considered sensuous. At the same time, religious laws dictate that wives care for their appearances, so many women wear wigs.
"People wash their wigs on a regular basis every four weeks, but when it comes to Passover, they are likely to wash all of their wigs at once," Shepelksy said, explaining how some women drop off four or five wigs at a time before the eight-day holiday that starts Friday.
To prepare for Passover, families scrub and sweep everything in the home to rid it of every speck of chametz, or leavened bread — and having a clean wig (which costs roughly $60 to wash if it was purchased from Design By Flora) is just as important.
"You have people who would wash their wigs themselves, but are so busy preparing for Passover," said Shepelsky, who was born in Russia, raised in Israel and Brooklyn and got her start in the business at the age of 15, working for a wig maker in the Orthodox Jewish section of Borough Park.
When she was pregnant with her youngest of five children, Shepelsky moved to New Jersey to be closer to family and opened a small shop in Teaneck. Many women from the area's Orthodox Jewish community became clients, but Shepelsky soon became a cult figure among women suffering from hair loss, whether from alopecia, hormones or chemotherapy.
Her rave reviews on alopecia online message boards started attracting clients from around the world buying her designs from hand-picked hair imported from Russia that is “virgin,” meaning it has never been processed or colored. Within six months she had to move into a larger showroom in Teaneck where she has her "hair vault" — bins of hair of different colors and lengths that are like jewelry to her.
"Hair really tends to define a lot of women," Shepelsky said. "The devastation of hair loss sometimes is not even visual, but you can feel it. It’s hard when it starts happening. People think they’re out of their minds."
She opened her Upper East Side shop, she said, because a Manhattan location was easier for visitors flying in from elsewhere.
For Shepelsky, working with women suffering from hair loss has become more than simply a job. She has become something of a therapist, guiding women through the traumatic process of going from thinning hair to what she calls "supplemental hair."
"Many women have a fear of being found out,” she said. “There’s no stigma when women get boob jobs or pad their boobs, yet when you have thinning hair, it’s devastating and awful.”
Women suffering from hair loss cry when they come into the store and on their way out, Shepelsky said.
"They realize they love the way they look, and they have to explain it," she said.
Shepelsky tapped her eldest son, Joshua, a 21-year-old beauty school grad, to run the Upper East Side's Design By Flora. She said he’s just learning to understand this component of their family business.
"Women cry all the time just knowing there's something else out there for them," Joshua Shepelsky said. "It hit me pretty hard. I didn't realize how emotional it is."