Lea Gottlieb, queen of Israeli fashion, dies at 94
Holocaust survivor created blue-and-white swimwear giant Gottex.
Lea Gottlieb Photo: The Jerusalem Post
Lea Gottlieb, who put Israeli fashion on the map, and whose swimwear and
beachwear designs were so dramatic and sophisticated as to break political
barriers, died in Tel Aviv on Saturday at the age of 94.
Holocaust survivor Gottlieb, her husband Armin and their two daughters arrived
in Israel in 1949.
Soon after the end of the war in Europe, the Gottliebs
opened a raincoat factory.
They sought to emulate it in Israel, not
realizing that for most the year it didn’t rain.
When that venture
failed, the couple, still water-oriented, switched to swimwear, founding Gottex
The elegant and flattering designs produced under the Gottex
label, captivated fashion writers and buyers from abroad. It did not take too
long before Gottex became not only Israel’s leading swimwear manufacturer, but
also Israel’s leading fashion exporter, selling to more than 80
Gottlieb, or Lady Lea as she was known in the trade, was the
company’s chief designer.
She did not limit her talents to swimwear but
also designed the fabrics, which were specially made up in Italy to her
The fabric designs became particularly important after
she began creating ensemble beachwear that included pareos, caftans, tunics,
skirts, pants and jackets in fabrics that matched the swimwear, so that someone
lazing by the pool in a Gottex maillot could top it with a caftan or pair it
with pants and a jacket, wear the outfit to a formal reception and look like a
Gottlieb loved flowers, partly because they had helped
her to disguise herself from the Nazis in her native Hungary, and had thus saved
her life. During the war, she held a number of clandestine jobs in order to feed
herself and her two little girls, Miriam and Judith, but had to keep her face
hidden as much as possible, because she simply looked so Jewish.
in the street, she often held a bunch of flowers up to her face, so that if she
encountered any Nazis, they would take her for a regular peasant
Flowers figured prominently in Gottlieb’s fabric designs, usually
in bold, eye catching colors. She was particularly fond of hibiscus. But she
also had a strong leaning toward geometry and was able to put together stripes
moving in different directions in the most intriguing geometric
Sophistication was the name of the game. Athough she
personally never employed airs and graces, her mega fashion shows in Israel and
abroad were not just a group of models parading along a catwalk. They were
extravaganzas in every sense of the word, and everyone who was anyone wanted to
see and be seen at these shows. Likewise, her catalogs created by Turnowsky
and photographed mostly by Ben Lam, were works of art taken on special, exotic
locations inside and outside Israel.
Gottlieb’s Tel Aviv showroom was
large, airy, and oozed class, with a garden party ambience in the furniture and
furnishings, plus the ever ready refreshments that often included the most
mouthwatering of Hungarian pastries.
To be there when she was
entertaining buyers was a treat in itself, She, or one of her daughters together
with senior staff, would lay several swimsuits of varied design out on the
floor. They would then add a matching jacket, or a pareo, a tunic, a sexy pair
of pants or a caftan, and as this was happening, a model would emerge from the
dressing room to demonstrate what these garments looked like when
These sessions with buyers could take up to half a
Gottlieb was the darling of the Israel Export Institute’s textiles
and fashion division in the days when the IEI conducted fashion weeks twice a
year. It didn’t matter that swim and beachwear were not exactly winter fashion
items. There were always buyers from the other side of the Equator who would
snap them up for immediate delivery, while buyers from the northern hemisphere
ordered them in time for the next summer, or bought them almost instantly for
resort wear boutiques that catered to an affluent, traveling
These glamorous Israel Fashion Week events always took place
in hotels where Gottex was allocated the Presidential Suite, because no other
Israeli fashion company could hold a candle to Gottex when it came to style and
Four years ago, when Yad Vashem mounted a My Homeland exhibition
in tribute to Holocaust survivors who played an essential role in Israel’s
cultural, economic and homeland security development, it devoted the largest
amount of space to Lea Gottlieb.
In 1982, she was made an Honorary Fellow
of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. Several of Shenkar’s most
promising young designers were taken on by Gottlieb and given a chance to taste
the high life.
She had a similar attitude to models. Tami Ben-Ami, the
most famous of the Gottex models, who died of cancer in 1995, joined the Gottex
team when she was still in the army. Off the runway, the statuesque Ben-Ami was
a giggly girl, with an almost childish attitude. But on stage she exuded a wild,
Although Gottex employed many other top models, such as
supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell, Ben-Ami remained the favorite
who almost always opened and closed the show.
In addition to Shenkar
students and graduates, Gottlieb was also supportive of the Bezalel Academy of
Art and Design’s fashion design students.
Gottlieb received numerous
Israeli and international awards, and always had a little trouble with her
acceptance speeches. Her heavily accented English was passable, though not
entirely fluent, but she was never able to master Hebrew, and even when she
started a speech in halting Hebrew, she lapsed into English.
One of her
favorite and most faithful customers was Princess Diana, for whom she organized
a private fashion show in London. Needless to say the fashion conscious princess
placed several orders.
Actress Brooke Shields was also lucky enough to
get a private show as was Nancy Kissinger, the wife of the former US secretary
Some of the other wellknown personalities who proudly wore
Gottex were actress Elizabth Taylor, and singer Ofra Haza, whose “authentic”
Yemenite caftan was created by Lea Gottlieb, who in addition to designing this
special outfit for Haza, borrowed liberally from traditional fabric design
concepts of the region and translated them to suit flimsy, lightweight
Wealthy aristocrats from neighboring countries, unable to come
to Israel, purchased Gottex swimsuits and accessories in one of the European
capitals or in New York.
Following the death in 1995 of her husband, who
had managed the financial side of the business, Gottlieb’s fortunes took a turn
for the worse, and eventually she had no choice but to sell the family’s shares
which in 1997 were acquired by Lev Leviev, the chief shareholder in the Africa
Later, her younger daughter Judith died of cancer. By that
time Gottlieb’s noncompete agreement with Africa Israel had expired, and at age
85, she reinvented herself and began once again to produce swimwear, not under
the Gottex label, but under her own brand name – Lea Gottlieb.