The lady is a Trompe l’Oeil

It’s been a busy year for Helena Blauenstein and Philip Blau, the husband and wife team behind Frau Blau, one of Israel’s most innovative fashion houses. They were recently awarded the 2007 prize for design from Israel’s Ministry of Science, …

It’s been a busy year for Helena Blauenstein and Philip Blau, the husband and wife team behind Frau Blau, one of Israel’s most innovative fashion houses.

They were recently awarded the 2007 prize for design from Israel’s Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport – the first time that fashion designers were granted the prestigious arts award. They’ve just come out with Frau Blau’s summer collection. And only a few months ago, they had a baby. Life is hectic but good.

The prize, says Blau, confirms their status as artists who use garments, and the people who wear them as their canvas.

Both come from commercial backgrounds – Helena, a designer for a leading Israeli fashion house, and Philip, an art director at a top advertising agency – and Frau Blau’s distinctive clothing line makes best use of their different backgrounds.

Some creations employ fabric draping and stitching in shaping the garment but most comprise simple shifts and shirts imprinted with complex trompe l’oeil graphics so realistic that wearers get double and triple-takes from passers-by.

“We don’t use the phrase trompe l’oeil,” Blau tells ISRAEL21c. “We use the word “ki-illu” (“as-if” or “pretend”). We use flattering dress patterns that sit well on the body and create optical illusions with graphics. We play with proportion and come up with things that would be impossible to achieve in real life.”

One garment this season, for example, is imprinted with an outlandishly exaggerated jeans texture, buttons and studs. Another dress seems made of satin brocade slashed with sharp thin blades of lace. This past winter featured a dress printed in an impossibly large tweed weave, replete with fox stole and rhinestone brooch.

“In reality, you couldn’t create these sorts of fabrics and combinations, let alone wear them” notes Blau.

Technology plays a big part in creating the Frau Blau look. Blau says there are no big secrets to what they do – though he won’t divulge certain parts of the printing process – claiming that the real trick is painstaking attention to detail.

“I don’t know many people who would do this,” says Blau. “Learning our printing technology took a long time because it’s built up layer by layer. The final result for each graphic comes from a lot of trial and error – you can’t just press print.

“Each season, the work starts with the questions: What can we create that’s impossible to sew?” adds Blau. Sketches follow. Then begins the hunt for real fabric to be scanned at 2400 DPI resolution. “It isn’t always easy. Some fabrics don’t have the proper weight or texture to scan well, while others that scan well don’t come out right in printing,” he explains.

The next stage is the tailoring process. It may be their sentimental Russian roots, but both feel they are carrying on the centuries-old tradition of the Jewish tailor – with a high-tech twist, of course, as computers are used to create the garment patterns. After the puzzle pieces of the patterns are ready, it’s time to overlay the graphics.

“Then we start the interesting part that creates magic,” says Blau. “Helena always says that the secret to good design is proportion, and that’s true. The graphic can’t just fit the garment pattern – it has to fit the angles of the body as well. You have to understand female anatomy so that it will be flattering because once it’s cut, the garment can’t be altered.”

To make the prints look real, the couple also try always to use fabrics with small defects, so that they are clearly prints, and not just computer generated pictures. “The technology we use is generally applied to another field – I won’t say which – but I can say that the ink we use penetrates deeply into the fabric. You won’t see cracked surfaces or white bands from the fabric stretching because the print bonds to it,” says Blau.

The fabric itself is microfiber, which breathes, doesn’t fade and is very suitable to Israeli weather. “Also, it isn’t body-hugging. That would be too theatrical,” adds Blau.

Indeed, Frau Blau walks a fine line between clothing and costume. The difference, Blau says, is that which lies between a smile and a guffaw. “It has to be witty, even ironic. Our work is sophisticated and current, and the fun derives from that. For example, we’ve launched socks printed with classic oxford shoes and socks. The laces are overly long, but it’s still a real thing that, at the same time, can’t be real.”

Frau Blau fashion is already being marketed in boutiques in the US where, Blau believes, there is a market for the company’s higher priced “collectors’ pieces”.

“Some garments don’t have a framework,” he explains. “They’re not seasonal. The people who buy them want them in their homes as a point of pride. These are items that are beyond fashion.”

About Rachel Neiman

A veteran media professional who has lived in Israel since 1984, Rachel has been part of the ISRAEL21c organization since 2008. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Globes Online, the English-language edition of Israel’s leading business daily, and before that, at The Jerusalem Post, as a business reporter, feature writer, and consumer columnist. Rachel began writing about Israeli technology companies at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine and is a professional Hebrew to English translator. In her spare time, she is an active member of the Havurat Tel Aviv congregation, and the Holyland Hash House Harriers, part of an international running and drinking disorganization.