Swinging into the spotlight

By Jan Shure, April 17, 2008
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For a very small country just six decades old, Israel has made a considerable impact on the world of fashion.

Its clothing industry is valued at $1.1 billion, and at the most prosaic level Israeli-made undergarments cover the world, its factories producing what is coyly termed “intimate apparel” for labels as diverse as Gap, Donna Karan, Victoria’s Secret and Marks & Spencer.

At the very highest level, the country is represented by Shenkar-trained Alber Elbaz, the chief designer at Lanvin whose creative hand has been responsible for the revival of the venerable Paris fashion house. Today, Elbaz’s creations for Lanvin are seen regularly on the red carpet, worn by such stellar celebrities as Nicole Kidman, Sofia Coppola, Natalie Portman and Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton at February’s ceremony.

Elbaz aside, Israel’s biggest fashion contribution has undoubtedly been in swimwear. It may be commonplace today to walk into a swishy boutique and find endless racks of designer swimwear, but in the late 1950s and 1960s, the bathing suit was more about corsetry and practicality than fashion.

Then came Leah and Armin Gottlieb. The couple arrived in Tel Aviv in 1956 from Hungary and swiftly realised that the rainwear that had been their bread-and-butter in Budapest would probably not be such a good bet in sunny Israel. Instead, through the establishment of Gottex, they created poolside couture. Designed for the next 40 years by Leah Gottlieb, Gottex produced intensely creative and covetable swimwear collections using sublime colours crafted from infinitely pliable Lycra. Whether drop-dead simple or lavishly embellished, the suits were fabulously cut to flatter the body, and every design was accompanied with another Gottex innovation, the matching cover-up. In the 1980s, Harrods had an entire Gottex department and a slew of high-profile wearers included the late Princess Diana.

In spite of the climate, the other huge fashion success to emerge from Israel was leatherwear. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Israeli company Beged-Or regularly produced impeccable collections of butter-soft perfection in mouthwateringly subtle colours, many items so infinitely desirable that coats and jackets still change hands on eBay for $500 and more. The firm’s designers, who included Calvin Klein, used only the finest hides, cutting them like silk, and introducing “distressed” leather long before anyone in Europe or the USA thought of it.

A few other individual designers have succeeded beyond Israel’s borders: Gideon Oberson with his swimwear (now, ironically, under the same ownership as its once arch-rival Gottex); and Shenkar graduate Yigael Azrouel, who shows at New York fashion week and whose fans include Sarah Jessica Parker, Salma Hayek and Jennifer Connelly. And here in the UK, Shenkar- and Central St Martin’s-trained Avshalom Gur is showing not only his own label in London, but is also the designer behind the revived Ossie Clark label.

And within Israel itself — in Tel Aviv, particularly — design talent flourishes in a way that is impossible without massive financial backing in many other cities. Its Sheinkin Street and Gan Hahashmal — Electric Garden — are crammed with shops dedicated to individual Israeli designers, and while some of the clothes may not translate to Manhattan or Manchester, many garments are immaculately stylish and beautifully made in superb fabrics and colours.

Tel Aviv could, in time, well be the fifth destination — after Paris, New York, Milan and London — for the fashion pack to visit in pursuit of the twice-yearly collections.

    Last updated: 10:04am, September 25 2009