From Rags to Riches- Israeli fashion rediscovered

As a teenager, and later as a fashion-design student, I always looked to European and American designers for inspiration and fashion direction. The fashion of my homeland, Israel, seemed poor and mundane, it didn’t seem to offer anything new and exciting, it wasn’t glamorous or edgy.  Only in my senior year at Shenkar College for Engineering and Design I first became aware that Israel actually had a rich and diverse fashion tradition. For my under-grad thesis I researched the swimwear company Gottex, and I came to realize that Israel in fact was once a global fashion force. In the 1970s and 80s fashion was only second to diamonds in export.  But, like me, most people in Israel do not even know how prized and coveted was once the fashion created by Israeli designers. Very little historical sources are available. The Book Halifot Ha’itim (“Changing Styles: 100 Years of Fashion in Eretz- Israel”) (Yediot Books, 1996) by Ayala Raz was for many years the only one from which you could learn on the subject, if you so desired. Ms. Raz is my former professor and thesis instructor and her book is a comprehensive history of Israeli fashion, but was published more than 10 years go and copies are very hard to come by.

Recently I was happy to discover that the Israeli fashion editor Nurit Bat-Yaar published the album-book Israel Fashion Art 1948-2008 (Resling), a compilation of images collected through her long-time career. Ms. Bat Yaar was the fashion editor of Yedioth Aharonot (Israel’s most-widely circulated daily newspaper) from 1975 to 2001, she curated the exhibition Glimpses of Glamour- Fashion Photography in the Mirror of a Century which inaugurated the millennium at Israel Museum of Photography at Tel-Hai and graduated Summa Cum Laude in art from Upsala College, NJ.

Ms. Bat-Yaar was kind enough to answers my questions and to share her experience  putting together this extensive overview, the challenges she faced and her point of view of Israeli fashion then and now.

K.BH.: Please tell us about the research process for your album-book? What were the challenges you faced in the research and material gathering?

N. BY.: My starting point were the visuals which I have been saving during several decades since the time Maskit multi-cultural’s designer Fini Leitersdorf convinced me to become her model on whom she created some of her fabulous creations in which she incorporated the handicrafts of the Hebrew tribes gathered from over 100 diasporas. These crafts, hand-woven beduine wool, Yemenite embroidery and jewelry etc. were applied to avant-garde cosmopolitan designs. Later, while I lived in the U.S. I saved the photos of leading Israeli designers of the 60s and 70s who participated in the Israel Bonds great fashion shows. And during my position as “Yedioth Ahronoth”‘s fashion editor I had saved the additional visuals, some of which I had art-directed and styled myself for the paper. Since 2002 I updated my visuals selection and would order photos from photographers and/or newspapers which I thought would fit into the subjects of the chapters I’ve decided on. The visuals of typical Israeli designs such as embroidered ones, coin decorated ones and kafia fabric ones, as well as art-to-wear ones, and Israel’s leading industries (beach wear, leather, knits) were the main subjects I had chosen for the chapters. As far as the text goes I used info from my personal knowledge, from my own thousands news paper reports, embellishing it with info I had gathered from the books and papers indicated in the book’s bibliography.  I had also interviewed several leading figures such as the unique visionary (and international expert on the use of hand crafts in marketable fashion items) Rut Dayan, who founded and was the president of Maskit; leading haute-couture designer Gideon Oberson; Rozi Ben-Yosef, creator of the Kafia fabric fashion and other uniquely Israeli designs; Shenkar‘s Fashion Dept. Chairperson Lea Peres  and Tamara Yovel Jones among others. One of the main challenges was locating some of the visuals’ photographers and getting their written permission for the use of their photos in the book.

K.BH.:Please explain what was behind the decision to dedicate the chapters to design concepts, rather than to organize them in a chronological order

N. BY.: I thought that the design concept was more original and creativity-oriented than the common familiar pattern. Yet, in each design chapter the subject is dealt with chronologically. In each chapter I explore the specific design’s historical sources and then follow its development decade after decade. The other option would have comprised of 6 chapters only (instead of the 28 chapters of the book) dedicated to the 6 decades I’m covering, would have limited the number of the visuals, and would not have emphasized all the creative and  typical Israeli aspects I wanted to bring out.

Head piece by Yaron Minkowski, 1989. Photograph by Gadi Dagon. Stylist and Art-Director: Nurit Bat- Yaar.

K.BH.:What do you think Israelis will find in the book that they did not know about Israeli fashion?

N. BY.: Present day Israelis know very little about the heritage of Israel’s fashion industry and its fabulous success on the international arena. I’ve even encountered a Bezalel (Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem. K.BH.) fashion student who did a project using a kafia who knew nothing about  Kafia fabric lines of the 60s and 70s which were a phenomenal success abroad. And before the book was published I had to send her one of its pictures to give her an idea about what has been done in that area of creativity in the past.

Rozi Ben-Yosef for Rikma, 1967. Photograph by Ben Lam; On the left embroidery decorated caftan from the Kafia fabric. On the right a design made of a fabric that up until then was only used for hand towels, which Ben-Yosef upgraded by adding colorful stripes.

K.BH.:Once the book is translated to other languages, what do you think non-Israelis could learn from it about Israeli fashion?

N. BY.: Once the book is translated to other languages non-Israelis –  in addition to enjoying the uniquely Israeli visuals – could learn that leading international fashion icons such as Jacky Kennedy, Princess Diana, Katherine Hepborn, Elizabeth Taylor, and “Sex & the City”‘s Sarah Jessica Parker wore Israeli creations by Beged Or, Gottex, Maskit, and Israeli Alber Elbaz of Lanvin.  That Israeli designer Tamara Yovel Jones and Victor Bellaish were among Roberto Cavali‘s designers, Yossi Katsav was head designer at DKNY Men, that Kobi Halprin designs for Eli Tahari. That Israeli fabric designer Zuri Guetta invented the use of silicone incorporated fabric whose clients include leading haute-couture Paris designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier. And many others international success stories. Also, that Bagir goes green and offers wash and wear men’s suits which require no dry-cleaning as well as suits made of plastic bottles. That leading U.S fashion chains such as Saks Fifth Ave and Bloomingdale’s invented new words combining fantastic and fabulous to describe Israel designs in their newspaper’s ads. And of course, the rags to riches story of Israel’s fashion. How the unique Israeli style was developed in Maskit whose purpose was originally to provide livelihood to the newcomers, how the style was enriched by additional designers and companies who followed in Maskit‘s footsteps. Gottex becoming the leading beach-wear of the world, Beged Or becoming the most innovative leather company of the international arena, etc. The various aspects of Israeli art-to-wear creations, such as the use of sea-shells, jeweled gowns, sculptural inspired designs, the use of hand-paint and painting inspired creations, etc. And how Israel’s first leading fashion figure, Lola Ber started out in the 40s and 50s by buying Dior’s patterns believing there is only one fashion in the world – that of Paris, and how today this turned over, and it is the Israeli Alber Elbaz who is leading Paris fashion and (according to Vogue)  turned Lanvin into the world’s most desired label.

K.BH.: How do you think Israeli fashion is perceived in the world?

N. BY.: Presently, not much is known about Israeli fashion due to the effects of globalization. The reason is that since production moved to the far-east and the industry lost its price leverage – many manufacturers closed down and the export institute stopped organizing fashion weeks here and abroad.  Instead fashion chains such as Castro are opening branches overseas, and young designers are being represented abroad by local showrooms. However, Israel is known, especially in Europe for being a very trendy and innovative place where things are happening all the time, and people such as Sonia Rikiel’s daughter who visited  here a couple of years ago did a lot of shopping in some of the local designers’ stores as do other fashion oriented figures. Also, many Shenkar students who participate in international students competitions win prizes. And figures such as Donna Karan, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and John Galiano’s studio’s assistance (who visited Shenkar for design-critics) often offer the students apprenticeships in their studios.

K.BH.: Which piece in the book you most personally relate to? And which do you think best captures the essence of Israeli fashion?

N. BY.: I especially relate, professionally and artistically to Fini Leitersdorf Designs for Maskit which exemplify the crème de la crème of unique Israeli creations, such as her one design in which a modern interpretation of the traditional Moroccan  Hamsa is incorporated in a very artistic and whimsical way in the outfit which captures the essence of Israeli fashion. Also to Rozi Ben-Yosef’s designs which also derive from Israel’s cultural heritage and to some of the Gottex printed designs which reflect the Israeli melting-pot/multi-cultural approach based on the variety of the Hebrew tribes.

Lea Gotllieb for Gottex, 1976. Photograph by Ben Lam

I personally as well as artistically relate to some of the Bezalel, Shenkar, and Wizo‘s students’ creations which I chose to photograph for my newspaper’s editorials styling and art-directing them myself  as well as to some students’ photos I’d just picked for the book such as Mor Hemed’s futuristic-sculptural image and  Aschola‘s ( Israeli design academy that closed in recent years KBH) Shani Ben-Hur design  which exemplifies texture and fabric creativity which derives from and compensate for the lack of a wide variety of textile choices here.

Mor Hemed's futuristic-sculptural designs, 2004. Photographer by Dafna Grossman.

K.BH.: What difference do you see in the Israeli fashion of the 60s, 70s and early 80s and that of today’s?

N. BY.: In those decades many fashion manufacturers existed and exported Israel’s fashion to countries around the world. Leading fashion stores buyers and journalists would come to Israel’s fashion weeks organized by the export institute. Designers were more oriented to the country’s cultural resources and used them as an inspiration. Today, on the other hand, globalization has taken over. Companies go to far-eastern low-cost labor manufacturers. Young designers (once hired by the export industry) now work on a small scale in their own studios.

K.BH.: Is fuchsia really your favorite color? if yes, why?

N. BY.: Fuchsia is one of my favorite colors, in addition to black, green, red, purple, wine, and off-white. I like it because (in the correct shade) I find it to be a very happiness-inspiring color as well as a sophisticated “statement-color” alternative  to the lovely red (Diana Vreeland’s favourite color) combining both pink and violet. Also, because it is very becoming to most women, adding energy to one’s appearance.

The Cover of the album-book "Israel Fashion Art 1948-2008" (Resling) by Nurit Bat-Yaar

Ms. Bat-Yaar’s  book was not translated to English yet, but you can find all about it in here blog It  is a huge contribution to the very limited sources of the history of Israeli fashion and fashion design.

Top image: Fini Leitersdorf for Maskit, 1968. Photograph by Peter Herzog.

All images are courtesy of Nurit Bat-Yaar and belong to Nurit Bat-Yaar & Resling Publ. Any commercial or other use of the imges without prior written and expressed permission of Copyright Owner is strictly forbidden.;

This entry was posted in interviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to From Rags to Riches- Israeli fashion rediscovered

  1. Pingback: The History of Israeli Fashion « Fashion Israel אופנה ישראלית

  2. Pingback: Then&Now- special edition | ON PINS AND NEEDLES

  3. Pingback: Marilyn my Love! | Dreed * Tea

  4. Peter Herzog says:

    Great imagination. loved the designs and how they were presented. Great use of color and light.

  5. Pingback: Shenkar Fashion Design | Alumni 2012 | Dreed * Tea

  6. Pingback: Nurit Bat Yaar | A Life Time of Fashion | Dreed * Tea

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s