Paula Reed Visits Tel Aviv's First Fashion Week

24 November 2011

Dorit Bar Or at Tel Aviv Fashion Week

Dorit Bar Or at the finale of her Tel Aviv Fashion Week collection 

‘Israelis!!! Step. Away. From. The. Fashion. Press. I want to talk to them,’ barked the flame haired whirlwind, Dorit Bar Or, backstage after showing what was only her second collection. The officious assistant was trying to herd us, bodily, back out front where he thought we clearly belonged, backed off sheepishly. ‘ Oh my God, look what they are doing to my clothes,’ she wailed as another group of helpers stuffed hand embroidered chiffon gowns into plastic bags. ‘I am so stressed, I am sweating. They don’t know how to handle delicate things. You’ll have to wait till I pack them myself. They are going to destroy them.’

I wanted to cry myself as a well meaning helper manhandled ‘my’ gold embroidered djellabah shirt dress into garment bag, like it was a dish rag.

‘Dodo’ is an Israeli television actress, a local celebrity, a fixture of the national best dressed lists and lately one of the country’s new generation of fashion designers: the Victoria Beckham of Israel if you like – a concept that takes some adjustment of just about everything you thought you knew about the Middle East. Well it certainly took me a while to get my head around it.

 Dorit Bar Or at Tel Aviv Fashion Week

Looks from Dorit Bar Or at Tel Aviv Fashion Week

One of the easiest and necessary lessons for a first time visitor is that Israelis are nothing if not direct. They can be comically brusque. Our Israeli guide called them the ‘friendliest unfriendly people in the world.’ Other lessons take more effort.  

Any trip to the region is bound to be fraught with the possibilities of peril.  But that is only hand luggage compared to the baggage that accompanies a trip to Israel.  A trip to Israel comes with the possibilities of peril, the pitfalls of politics, the promise of pernickety security measures wherever you go, warped perceptions and opaque ideas about what happened when and why.

Funny place to go for a fashion week! But that’s what several international fashion editors, including me, did this week. I have no connection to the country and have never visited before. And I wouldn’t share my politics with you if you promised me a Birkin by bedtime.

 Dorit Bar Or at Tel Aviv Fashion Week

More looks from Dorit Bar Or at Tel Aviv Fashion Week

I went, because I am intrigued by the number of local fashion weeks there are popping up around the world (from Sao Paolo to Berlin, Copenhagen to Kiev). Seems you aren’t a contender as a cool city unless you have a catwalk, some homegrown supermodels and a world class designer or two in waiting. The over crowded schedules of the major fashion centres don’t welcome fledglings. The industry needs platforms that can launch new talent.

I am completely seduced by the aesthetic of the Middle East. And I wondered what talent might be waiting to be discovered in the city that produced fashion’s beloved Alber Elbaz. His alma mater, the revered Shenkar School is considered to be among the best in the world, turning out students who are in huge demand as interns among designers from Seventh Avenue to Shoreditch. British designers such as Jonathan Saunders are hugely valued as visiting professors.

But I was conflicted. At some deeply subconscious level I have obviously absorbed some of the British attitude that fashion is a superficial pastime, because I felt weird going to look at clothes in a place that had bigger problems than how to wear a peplum.  I like to communicate. For the first 24 hours I really wasn’t sure how.

 Tamar Ishtar at Tel Aviv Fashion Week

Tamar Ishtar at Tel Aviv Fashion Week

The sky is blue, the sea is inviting, the food is exceptionally good, the shops are cool (a bit downtown NY), the people are dynamic and way younger than I expected (I thought it was a retirement place, but there’s a lively club, restaurant and bar scene). All the elements of a fabulous lifestyle are here if everything you said and did wasn’t overshadowed by the backstory of politics and Palestine.

Tel Aviv Fashion Week is the initiative of Ofir Lev, an ex Armani model and local entrepreneur who has rallied the support of local government, the Ministry of tourism and none other than Mario Boselli of the Camera Moda Italiana to help launch the event. It was ironic to hear Mario Boselli talk about the need to support new talent when his organization has been threatening the very existence of London Fashion Week in September 2012, but that’s another blog.

The event took place in the disused but beautifully restored train station that dates back to the 1930’s. The ticket halls and train sheds are pretty boutiques and café’s now. The1930’s wooden railway coaches on disused sidings looked so much like a scene out of Sophie’s Choice that it made my stomach lurch, but nobody else seemed bothered.

 Sason Kedem at Tel Aviv Fashion Week

A look from Sason Kedem at Tel Aviv Fashion Week

I had no expectations of the talent. Watching London Fashion Week steadily carve a place for itself as a global fashion capital has taught me that talent is a diamond in the rough that can come from anywhere and sometimes you have to put up with frustrating delays and sore feet to unearth it. But I was pleasantly surprised by the professional staging, the efficient timetable, the audience’s enthusiasm and the organiser’s humility and eagerness to please (‘it’s all right, isn’t it?’ Are you ok, do you need anything, is this terrible, tell me how we can help you). They clearly had no idea they were dealing with hardened cases used to a perfunctory ‘paf’ in Paris, a dismissive shrug in Milan and energy sapping bureaucracy in NY.

What was on the catwalk was admittedly a mixed bag. Inexperience and scarcity of materials were evident. The shows ran way too long for attention spans diminished by digital media. The accessories were often shoddy. The styling looked a little tortured at times. 

 Isreal Ohayon at Tel Aviv Fashion Week

catwalk for Israel Ohayon at Tel Aviv Fashion Week

But there was definitely talent. My Tel Aviv Hotlist includes Israel Ohayon, recent Schenkar graduate, who shone among the group show of upcoming designers, Paula Bianco for her jewellery, Tamar-Ishtar for her romantic interpretations of folkloric fashion in vintage fabrics.

And then there was the indomitable Dorit Bar Or. The assembled foreign press who had dutifully sat through some fashion flotsam and jetsam, sat bolt upright from the off and barreled backstage to find out what had inspired her mix of east and west with distinct Arab and Israeli motifs.

Once finished bagging up her clothes she took a deep breath and delivered her philosophy.  “I am an Israeli woman who lives and works in the Arab quarter. My clothes are made in Tel Aviv by Arab and Israeli artisans. My inspiration is the Rabbi Abbadi Joseph whose garments are beautifully embroidered by the same craftsmen I use. It is also the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum not just because of her incredible style, which still inspires me, but because she was loved by Arabs and Iraelis alike. She was the daughter of an Imam and her name means Mother of All Nations. If it was possible that’s what I would like to achieve with this project. I believe fashion, like art and music, can communicate across barriers in a powerful and unique way.’ 

 Galit Levi at Tel Aviv Fashion Week Yosef Peretz at Tel Aviv Fashion Week

Catwalk looks from Galit Levi (left) and Yosef Peretz (right)

I felt a little ashamed that I had come with the belief that there was no level on which Arabs and Israelis cooperated.  Every designer we spoke to put me right on that, working with craftspeople from all communities and drawing inspiration across boundaries. I was surprised, inspired and heartened.

I met people at Tel Aviv fashion week who seemed better equipped to boldly go where politicians falter. Agreed, the Middle-Eastern problems will not be solved on Net A Porter. But there was a glimmer of something genuinely heartwarming here.

I have great hopes for Tel Aviv fashion week. It’ll be interesting to see how April’s schedule develops. Creativity, tolerance and cooperation are in short supply. Any event that fosters and nurtures all three deserves support.

-Paula Reed in Tel Aviv


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