Israel’s ‘electric’ fashion springs to life

Designs from Helena Blaunstein’s boutique Frau Blau.Walk into Idit Barak’s stylish Tel Aviv boutique Delicatessen, and you can easily imagine that you are in a downtown fashion district in a city like New York, London, or Berlin.The store design, sleek …

Designs from Helena Blaunstein’s boutique Frau Blau.Walk into Idit Barak’s stylish Tel Aviv boutique Delicatessen, and you can easily imagine that you are in a downtown fashion district in a city like New York, London, or Berlin.

The store design, sleek and modern, has been written up in several international design magazines. More importantly, the clothing is up-to-the minute stylish, yet wearable, and the accessories on display, particularly the handbags, are utterly original and hard to resist.

But not only is the young Israeli designer’s shop in Tel Aviv, it’s in a section of town that until a few years ago was considered a seedy, uninteresting neighborhood known mainly for the illicit activity that took place there in the evenings – it was a favorite spot for transvestite prostitutes to meet their clientele.

Even Barak herself was surprised that she ended up headquartered in the now-flourishing ‘Gan Hahashmal’ area (the name translate as ‘Electric Garden’). It happened at the urging of her friend Nait Rosenfelder, who was the first pioneer to open a high-end boutique away from the established trendy areas of Dizengoff, Sheinkin, and Neve Zedek and strike out several blocks south.

“She told me that this is where I had to open my shop – near her store, Nait,” recalls Barak. “I said she was crazy, and joked that she just wanted me near her to keep her company. She said, ‘no, no, look at what’s going on here. If we just hang on a little while, the renovations the city is doing to the garden will be finished and this neighborhood is going to take off.’”

Barak is glad that she listened to her friend. With a refurbished garden in the middle, the once-sleepy neighborhood is dusting itself off, authentic Bauhaus buildings are being renovated, and boutique after boutique is opening their doors, creating an atmosphere of energy and chic in the wide boulevards around the neighborhood’s refurbished central garden.

Gan Hahashmal has become identified with young and cutting-edge Israeli designers, who have set up studios and shops in the neighborhood. Around the boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants are blooming as well. The growth has been accelerated by the decision of Rosenfelder, Barak and the other early settlers to formally establish a collective of neighborhood businesses. The group is open to any business in the area, and its members meet weekly. The atmosphere of mutual support and friendship is unusual in the typically competitive world of fashion.

“Working together has paid off,” says Barak, who returned to Israel to launch her design career after spending seven years in New York, studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology and working for several top designers there. “It was our collective, very small at the time that brought us to the attention of the Israeli media, and that has moved the growth of the neighborhood ahead quickly.

“People read about us and decided that they wanted to be part of it,” she told ISRAEL21c. “Our collective now has 22 members, and we’ve formed subcommittees. We organize events, fashion shows, coordinate sales, and generally support each other. Some of the designers help one another when it comes to cutting and sewing.”

The neighborhood and its designers recently caught the eye of Fern Penn, who operates Rosebud, the only boutique in New York City devoted exclusively to Israeli designers, carrying designer clothing, accessories, giftware, jewelry, ceramics, bath products, music, art, etc. which are all designed and manufactured in Israel.

“We are in Israel every six to eight weeks, looking for something new,” Penn told ISRAEL21c. On a recent visit, she was so impressed by the clothing by the collective, she decided to feature the work of the Gan Hahashmal designers in her New York store during the entire month of May.

“I already knew Delicatessen, I was doing business with them and carrying Idit’s clothing. On one of my trips, I saw an Israeli fashion magazine with a big article on the neighborhood, and I decided to visit and meet with the collective. That’s how the whole thing started,” Penn explained. “I think it is so great that these young people are transforming a whole neighborhood, making it funky, high-fashion and a lot of fun.”

New York shoppers who visit Rosebud this month will see a wall with photos of the designers and the neighborhood, with a brief history of the area. They can then browse through the store and discover the clothing and jewelry of Gan Hahashmal shops like Delicatessen, Nait, Johanne Rubinstein, Nufar Galpaz, ShaniBar, the unique handbags and wallets at Kisim, and one of the most amusing shops in the district, Frau Blau.

Frau Blau is Helena Blaunstein’s boutique – she named it after her great-grandmother, a top seamstress in Odessa in the 1930s. Only after naming the boutique did she realize that in German slang, it meant “drunk lady”, – but decided that it suited her whimsical, humorous design style, notable for the colorful graphic prints on the clothing, done by her partner and boyfriend, Philippe.

“Our goal is to create clothes with an additional meaning, to turn them into objects with conceptual value – real collectors items,” says Blaunstein, who graduated from the respected Israeli school, the Shenkar School of Design.

The district already has some loyal customers. Debra Shabbes, who works in downtown Tel Aviv, has been shopping in the new district ever since the first boutiques opened their doors, and regularly checks out the wares at stores like Delicatessen and Frau Blau.

“I like shopping there: the architecture is funky, it’s off the beaten track, which makes it more interesting. I like to shop in boutiques and I knew some of these designers from their first jobs out of school working for the uptown designers in north Tel Aviv on Dizengoff,” she said.

“When I heard that they were opening their own studios, I came to look. Shopping here is also fun because it’s not crowded. I also really believe in and applaud the willingness of these young designers to do something different, and I want to support and encourage people who aren’t choosing the mainstream path and instead are following their own creativity.”

The creativity of Israeli designers is also appreciated in New York, says Penn. Rosebud has been operating for more than two years in SoHo, and Penn reports that business is brisk. Most of her customers don’t shop at her store because the designers are Israeli, she says, but because they “just love the clothes.”

“A lot of our business is people who just come in off the street in New York – from all over the country and all over the world. We have a lot of repeat customers, people who fly in periodically from places like Texas or Argentina and have put us on the list of stores to visit. And, of course, the New Yorkers like us, too.”