A passion for fashion in LA

The accident that crushed Israeli fashion designer Yochi Ben’s hand ultimately gave her the chance to live her dream – designing haute couture in Los Angeles. As fashion designer Yochi Ben unzips bag after bag of delicate, intricate, barely-there couture …

The accident that crushed Israeli fashion designer Yochi Ben’s hand ultimately gave her the chance to live her dream – designing haute couture in Los Angeles.

As fashion designer Yochi Ben unzips bag after bag of delicate, intricate, barely-there couture evening gowns in her Los Angeles studio, it’s hard to imagine that she was raised in an ultra-orthodox household in Jerusalem.

Ben could easily be mistaken for a model with her lithe frame, long, jet-black tresses and all-black ensemble of tight jeans, knee-high boots and figure hugging sweater. As she fingers the delicate lace of a burgundy see-through number she created, she sighs and admits she’s come a long way from her neck-to-knee clothing roots. “I can’t imagine trying to design for [that community],” she confesses. “My mind just can’t go there.”

Ben’s appointment-only venue is set back unobtrusively on a main drag in the very non-high-fashion area of Sherman Oaks. Inside, though, everything is lush, rich and elegant – much like her gowns. She’s slowly built up an exclusive clientele, and has her sights set on having one of her creations grace the red carpet for the January 2010 Oscars. “Or if not, then 2011,” she adds.

Ben says her inspiration for her designs is fairly straightforward. “With my gowns I envision how a woman wants to feel when she gets out of a limousine and walks the red carpet and the paparazzi are snapping away. She wants to feel; ‘Wow, I look great!’ and I see that in my imagination. All my dresses are classy and sexy.”

Competing with Gucci and Christian Dior

And while LA is the place to be for designer gowns on red carpets, it’s not an easy market to break into when you’ve got to go up against designers like Versace, Gucci, Christian Dior and Roberto Cavalli – all of whom Ben confesses are inspirations for her.

“The good thing is that there are lots of celebrities always looking for new designers,” she says. She cites Jason Wu – the 26-year-old nobody until Michelle Obama decided to wear one of his designs at President Obama’s inauguration ball. “That guy is so busy now,” says Ben.

“I also offer top-of-the-line service,” she adds, “and I’m not afraid to wait for the right celebrity to wear my dress.” She reveals that a celebrity on the current season of Dancing with the Stars requested one of her gowns but Ben turned her down. “It wasn’t the right dress for her,” Ben states simply. She already has a couple of celebrity clients whose names she can’t yet reveal. “Unless it’s a red carpet event, celebrities often like to keep new designers to themselves for a while.”

Because Ben only designs custom dresses, her work is purely local. “If someone likes my style and they live in New York, they’re going to have to fly here, because I measure them, go with them to pick the fabric and we decide on the design together.”

It’s also one reason why Ben says her designs won’t work back home in Israel. “There’s also no market for them because they are so expensive, and we just don’t have such high fashion in Israel,” she states. “I just went to my cousin’s wedding in Israel and made my dress and my sister’s dress. Everybody loved them but they also said, ‘Where are you coming from,’ because we were dressed so elegantly.”

Three months in hospital

With her client list growing and her designs being sought out, it appears as though Ben has a charmed life. But she has traveled a long, hard, 20-year-road to be where she is today. After studying fashion design in high school, Ben jumped at the opportunity to move to Tel Aviv and work with a design company there as an 18-year-old. But not long after, she was involved in a horrific car accident as she was driving to Haifa.

Her right hand was crushed and Ben spent three months in Rambam hospital, underwent seven operations – during many of which she had skin grafted over her cartilage and muscles. Doctors feared she would never be able to use her hand again. A little over six months later, Ben defied the odds and managed to regain the use of four of her five fingers.

“It’s hard to talk about,” Ben says, taking a moment to breathe deeply. “It took me two years to get back to myself.” Ben went into a deep depression following her accident and recovery and refused to go back to designing. “This terrible thing happened right in the [prime] of my life and my whole life just stopped. I couldn’t do anything. I felt like I was being punished so I said, ‘That’s it, I’m not dealing with anything to do with fashion ever again.’”

Convinced her career as a designer was over, Ben spent the next 15 years working as a marketer and then as a travel agent. “I was good at both but I wasn’t happy,” she says. “And I didn’t understand why.” Years later a good friend told her, ‘God gave you a gift and you’re not using it, that’s why you’re not happy.’ Convinced she couldn’t do what she loved because of her hand, her friend told her to simply try.

Luck or miracles

“That’s all it took,” says Ben. Now married, she and her husband moved to Miami in 2004. Ben was convinced that the US was the place to be and her husband had family in Florida.

With the insurance money she received from her accident, Ben set up her own company working in mass production and designing swimwear and cover wraps and selling to stores, but she still wasn’t happy. “I wanted to do couture and it wasn’t easy to deal with the language. Everyone in Miami spoke Spanish and the language barrier was a huge problem too.”

Ben and her husband divorced in 2005 and a year later she remarried. She moved to Los Angeles with her new husband in 2007. “This is where I wanted to be,” she enthuses. “I knew I wanted to be in either New York or Los Angeles, because this is where the industry is. I know I did the right thing going with evening gowns and Los Angeles is the town for this with all the red carpet events and celebrities. This is my passion.”

“I never realized that the accident that caused me to almost give up my career actually helped create it,” she says. “I would never have had the money to follow my dream, launch my own business and hire people to work for me. I can design the dresses and they can sew them, because with my hand I can’t do all the intricate details. The doctors said my recovery was a miracle. I just think I’m very, very lucky.”

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