Israel’s fashion designers, like most of the country’s entrepreneurs, have always looked abroad, eager to sell their wares outside of the small, Sabra marketplace. But homegrown fashion design is relatively new in Israel. While international shoppers with an eye for fashion are familiar with the country’s veteran fashionistas, like couture and bikini designer Gideon Oberson, swimsuit maker Gottex, and fashion retail chain Castro, most of the current fashion designers are young and have been in business for a decade or less.
Their resumes are remarkably similar. They are generally graduates of Shenkar College of Engineering and Design or the Hebrew University’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, but sometimes they are self-taught. They start out toying with clothing designs at home, and initially sell their creations out of their apartments, which tend to be located in Tel Aviv.
After some successful selling, they shell out rent for a studio/store in one of the Tel Aviv fashion centers, situated on upper Dizengoff Street, Gan Hachashmal or the au courant city of Jaffa, and if they’re lucky, do well enough to open additional storefronts. If they’re really successful, they start to look out over the ocean, to the consumer-rich shores of Europe and the US.
It isn’t easy to export Israeli-designed fashions, whether marketing clothing, accessories or jewelry. While the prices of the unique clothing are lower than those of the clothes designed in America or Europe, the bureaucracy and costs can be daunting for these small businesses that rely on blue-and-white sewing and manufacturing. If they succeed in making sales abroad, it’s usually with the help of a distributor in the destination market who handles those headaches.
It comes as no surprise that the designers who have been around longer have had more luck exporting their fashions. And even those who had beginners’ luck often experienced bad luck as well, finding that they expanded too quickly.
The designers listed here have all managed to market their ready-to-wear clothing, jewelry and accessories abroad, with varying degrees of success. Some have opened stand-alone stores, although most are limited to distributing their lines to boutiques and stores throughout the US and Europe, appealing to the shopper seeking something that can’t be found at the Gap or Banana Republic. A few have penetrated the red carpet list, appealing to A-listers and celebrity stylists. Yet whatever the definition, success is theirs, having transported a Sabra sense of style to distant shores.
1. Ronen Chen
Ronen Chen may be Israel’s best-known fashion name abroad. A Shenkar graduate who began creating simple, modern clothing for the typical urban woman in the early 1990s, Chen had beginners’ luck, selling his styles to several boutiques and department stores in London, Ireland, Japan and the US. When those first collections were not a great success, he scaled back to the Israeli market, eventually opening 14 stores in Israel, a new concept store in London and selling in hundreds of boutiques worldwide, primarily in the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg.
He produces one full and 30 mini collections each year, often introducing seven or eight new pieces each week at his local stores. His clothing is designed to flatter the wearer, with lots of draping and pleating. The overall look is classic, not trendy.
He calls himself “the bridge generation” between the older group of designers and the new, evolving cadres, referring to the leap into Israeli-style designer labels that he and his design colleagues have made. “When I graduated, there were fewer companies and more designers, so I had no choice but to start my own label,” he once told the International Herald Tribune. “Once you start, there’s no way back.”
Upon graduating from Shenkar, Mirit Weinstock jetted straight to Europe, first interning for the Alexander McQueen fashion house in London, and then at Maison Lanvin, the oldest fashion house in existence, working with Alber Elbaz, the Morrocan-born, Israel-raised fashion designer who has been dubbed “every woman’s darling.” Weinstock headed back to Israel in 2004 and began developing her own ready-to-wear collection and wedding dress collection that is now sold in Israel, Europe and the US, as well as online.
She’s been mentioned and written about in Vogue, Moda and Lucky, where her debut collection was described as “heart stopping, gorgeously feminine and nonchalantly cool… with the kind of sophistication you usually only find at the highest of the high end.”
Weinstock is also known for issMi, an international fashion project that presents photographed self-portraits of women worldwide wearing Mirit Weinstock pieces.
3. Kedem Sasson
Kedem Sasson is in a similar league to Ronen Chen, having been in the business since the early 1990s, but he designs for a very different woman – and man – than does Chen. The story told is that Kedem (Sasson is actually his first name), was motivated by the fact that his full-figured wife had few options when it came to the local clothing market. An art school graduate who had focused on painting, sculpture and jewelry, he turned to fashion design, introducing a highly imaginative and sometimes quirky collection for plus size women.
By focusing on the plus size domain, Kedem has always had the freedom to work with abundant amounts of fabric, and he tends to create shapes and forms that retain their own dimensions. Now well known for his iconoclastic designs, Kedem Sasson – a 2009 ‘mentor’ on Project Runway Israel – has become the go-to destination for full-figure women seeking to dress more creatively.
The company’s Tel Aviv store carries a Kedem’s Man line as well and there are standard women’s sizes in the stores in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. Kedem Sasson is also exported to the US, Canada, Europe and Australia.
Yigal Azrouel is considered the Israeli fashion hottie in the US, although his work isn’t actually blue-and-white. In fact, it never was. Azrouel had no formal education, but remembers sketching dresses while serving in the army. He’s known now for his expert draping techniques and feminine designs that have won him accolades in the leading fashion magazines and celebrity clients like Salma Hayak, Jennifer Connelly, Catherine Zeta Jones and Sarah Jessica Parker.
Having entered the red carpet phase of his designs, dressing Hollywood types and supposedly dating Katie Lee (Billy Joel’s ex), Yigal Azrouel is now based in New York, but can still be considered a Sabra success story. He grew up with five sisters, whom he credits with his fashion interest, and launched his first collection in New York over 10 years ago, later opening a showroom and then a boutique in the Meatpacking District of New York City.
5. Gal Feldman
Like many of her colleagues, handbag designer Gal Feldman arrived at her profession by accident – when she created a bag for her thesis assignment at the end of her studies. At the time, she called it a “utility object” so as not to limit herself. As she saw it, bags were receptacles for storage, but they also connect people with their personal belongings, sort of like a house does.
She began her line of eponomously-named Gal handbags with what has become a signature pocketbook, a soft satchelin in which the handle is fastened through a loop on the other side, to close the bag. Now Feldman imports leather from Italy and works with a local atelier, using a good amount of handiwork to design a wide range of bags for women and some for men, as well as a collection of wallets. She sees her work as “a family of objects – bags for women of all ages and all needs.”
Her bags are sold at stores throughout Israel, as well as in the US, Europe and Japan.
6. Frau Blau
The whimsical, spirited and downright amusing fashions of Frau Blau are the brainchild of Helena Blaustein and Philip Blau, a couple both in business and in life. They’re best known for their shift dresses and shirts imprinted with intricately lifelike graphics in which the wearer appears to be dressed in something completely different. One season offered a dress imprinted with the print of a denim dress, including buttons and studs.
Another winter shift is a dress designed with a print of a wool tweed, including fox stole and brooch. Blaustein and Blau call their illusional dressing “ke-ilu,” Hebrew for “as-if” or “pretend.” The idea is to create flattering dress patterns that look good on most bodies and are an optical illusion for the wearer. The result is ironic, and ironically, flattering.
Not all their clothing is illusional, but there is generally a touch of whimsy about most of their designs, whether it’s a skirt with exaggerated flounces or a blouse buttoned on the diagonal. Currently sold at their Gan Hachashmal boutique and in stores around the country, Frau Blau is also being sold in the US.
Dorin Frankfurt may well be the grande dame of Israeli fashion design abroad, having opened her first store in Tel Aviv’s Shalom Tower in 1975, when there wasn’t such a notion as Israeli fashion, much less off-the-rack clothing. At the time, she wanted something affordable for the average Israeli, and was one of the first Israeli fashion houses to design jeans for the local market. Now she’s known as a ready-to-wear designer with elegant, well-structured pieces for women, as well as the DF line for men.
With 22 shops across Israel, each of Frankfurt’s stores conveys a different atmosphere that caters to the local clientele. Her Jerusalem stores have a larger inventory of skirts and dresses for the city’s religious crowd and warmer tops for the cooler evenings, while the Dizengoff store caters to a younger Tel Aviv shopper. She also sells her line of clothing in Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the UK and the US.
8. Hagar Satat
A designer of jewelry and fashion accessories, Hagar Satat works with leather, silver and gold in her collection, consistently seeking interesting combinations of her differently toned leathers and metals in necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings. As a graduate of the jewelry and fashion department of Bezalel, she likes to redefine the concept of a ‘jewel;’ it can help to perfect a look, or become the inspiration for an entire look.
When Satat opened her first Tel Aviv studio and store, she found that she doubled her output. Today she has a second Tel Aviv store, and sells her designs to dozens of shops in Israel, the US, Canada, Europe and Japan.
Jewelry designers Einat Agassi and Tamar Harel-Klein are one of the few Israeli brands to have their own storefront outside Israel. Beside their trendy Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv location, they opened a Manhattan shop in Soho two years ago, and have become one of the favorite sets of jewelry designers for the stars, including actress Debra Messing, the Sex in the City gang, designer Donna Karan and actress Sarah Michelle Gellar.
What everyone loves is the raw, matte finish of this ancient-looking and biblically inspired jewelry. Pieces look slightly unfinished, and often have lettering or wording, usually in Hebrew, sometimes in the ancient language of Sumerian. The inscriptions generally offer blessings of joy, luck and eternal happiness, granting an additional dimension to the pieces.
10. Naama Bezalal
Known for her 40s, 50s and 60s-inspired dresses, skirts, blouses and ready-to-wear wedding dresses with vintage touches, designer Naama Bezalel graduated from Shenkar and then set up her studio in her home, like many of her fashion colleagues. The New York Times’ Suzy Menkes called Bezalel’s work “funky pastiches of vintage clothing from the 1950s,” harkening back to Israel’s early statehood period of “innocence and infancy.”
Ten years later, Bezalel is selling her distinctive line of clothing in her 10 retail stores throughout Israel and distributes it in the US as well. As she told Menkes, “I wouldn’t say it is easy [to be a 'designer start-up'], but I have my own clients. You have to work hard to bring them – and then make them come again and again.”