Yael Shenberger doesn’t use the word “fashion” lightly. In fact, while talking about her work leading up to the grand reopening of legendary Israeli label Ata, Shenberger stays clear of it altogether. Seated at a small coffee shop across the street from the recently opened Ata store on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, Shenberger orders orange juice and a club soda. She is surrounded by totes, which contain various necessary items for the day at hand. Her wavy hair rests against a black, piqué T-shirt, named the Alona shirt, which will make it to the Ata shelves in the coming weeks.
A veteran stylist and designer, Shenberger and businessman/ restaurateur Shahar Segal are responsible for the significant buzz among Tel Aviv’s fashion-savvy.
The store, which has been overrun since cracking its glass doors ajar, has hit a style nerve that runs deep into the heart of Israel’s history and design aesthetic.
The infamous Ata textile factory opened in 1934 outside Haifa and for the next five decades provided sturdy, reliable and reasonably priced apparel to Israeli citizens. At some points in the company’s lifespan, Ata produced garments for the British army. At others, the Israeli government issued ration tickets to local families to be used for the purchase of essential clothing items at Ata. Though the style shifted over the years, Ata maintained a clear aesthetic philosophy: keep it simple.
Shenberger, 51, is something of a clothing fanatic.
She pays attention to every last detail, noting the sounds, smells and feels of different types of fabric.
“I’ve been standing next to people as they get dressed for more than two decades. Clothes are very emotional, very personal and intuitive. A lot of times, people will try something on and tell me it looks good even before they see it themselves. They swap one sense for another, sight for touch. I believe that when something feels good it looks good and the opposite. Often, we feel comfortable in a garment but can’t say why, and usually that is connected to the part of the clothes we can’t see. Lining and pockets are super important to me. If a pair of pants has ineffective pockets, I won’t wear them.”
Five years ago, after a visit to the Eretz Israel Museum’s Ata exhibition, Segal mentioned his idea to purchase and revive the brand to Shenberger. The two had worked together on various projects over the years and had established a similar approach to style.
“When he told me that he was going to do this, we started to have this long discussion that came and went about what it meant to take this on, especially now. We tried to understand how to take this big thing that was and translate it to today. What should stay from the original Ata, how it should stay and what we could get rid of. There was a process of taking the idea apart and reconstructing it.”
This began a research expedition that took Shenberger around the country several times.
“Everyone has their own Ata,” says Shenberger. “For people who lived in cities, it was school uniforms.
For people in the villages, it was work clothes. A lot of people remember Ata as being 100 percent cotton, although as fabric development progressed, there was the introduction of synthetic materials into the company’s stock.”
“I never owned Ata clothes myself but a big part of my job as a stylist is roaming around the shops and markets, looking for pieces. When I started working, twenty-some years ago, there were a lot of Ata garments around. Nowadays there is much less. I started to search for Ata so my first stop was Kiryat Ata, where the factory used to be. But, as things go, the real treasures were right under my nose.”
Shenberger goes on to tell of two stores, one tiny shop in Givatayim and a larger outlet in Petah Tikva.
“The Petah Tikva store, which sadly is closing these very days, was a huge surprise. I went in and asked about Ata. The owner, a wonderful man, said he thought he had a few pieces lying around. The next day he called me to say that he had found a huge stock of unopened inventory. Most of [it was] school uniforms.
As I went through them I learned so much, not just about how people used to dress but about culture. It wasn’t just about how Ata did things but why they did [them] that way.”
To save fabric, Ata’s patterns were cut square and the spaces in between, the scraps, were used to make children’s clothing. Ata also used to sell dresses in sleeveless form with the sleeves pinned on inside the package.
“This way, women could choose how they wanted to wear it, one of two ways. But what it means is that everyone knew how to sew,” says Shenberger. “Sewing was considered a survival skill, like cooking. Today, very few people know how to sew. We are taught that if something rips, we should throw it away and buy a new one. I strive to make clothes that have a lifespan, that age well and get more beautiful as they grow older.”
The current collection is comprised of two groups, near replicas of classic Ata items such as Shabbat shirts, work shirts and jackets, “shiber” shorts (shiber is the colloquial term for the length between pinkie and thumb outstretched, around 20 centimeters).
“I started with men’s because it was somehow easier for me,” explains Shenberger. “I took these designs and tweaked them slightly to suit everyday life in the now.
We made the pockets bigger to fit iPhones and tried everything out on bicycles. I live in the city, my days are long and I’m usually biking around from place to place. My clothes have to be able to withstand a little wind, some dirt, sweat, weather and movement.”
The second group are pieces designed by Shenberger with the Ata manifesto at heart. There are luxurious yet austere sweatshirts, jeans, dresses and long coats.
“The guiding force here was that the clothes’ functionality write itself.”
In fact, practicality at Ata has canceled out Shenberger’s concept of gender. The collection, which was designed for men and women, became unisex the minute the store opened.
“We set up the store as one, with men’s and women’s clothes mixed together. We are seeing men trying on and buying things I originally saw as women’s and vice versa. At some point, this thing we made becomes not ours but everyone’s, and the special thing about the clothes, what makes them, is the person wearing them.”
The plan is to produce the same basic items over and over, perhaps adding and subtracting colors and prints as they go.
“The fashion world tells us that if you like something, you should buy it right away because it won’t be there tomorrow. At Ata, if you like something, it will be there tomorrow and the next day and next week and next year.”
Functionality, comfort and durability are attributes that raise the production price of clothing. For example, Shenberger explains, the difference between two well-known American brands, one mid-range and one low cost, is in the size of pockets and width of inseams.
“If you have an extra two inches in a pocket multiplied by hundreds of thousands of yards of fabric, you are looking at a significant price increase.”
That said, Ata is striving to keep costs reasonable, staying in line with the company’s original philosophy of local, affordable clothing or, as Shmuel Yosef Agnon put it: ATA – Ariga Totzeret Artzenu (Textiles from Our Land).