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Shopping in one of Naama Bezalel's stores is like taking a stroll down memory lane - polka dots, flowers, full skirts and frilly sleeves are everywhere. Soft music from the '50s plays in the background. One almost expects customers to have their hair up in beehives.
But that's exactly what makes her designs so unique. Rather than simply providing an outlet for fashions from decades past, Bezalel puts a modern spin on styles you can probably find in the back of your mother's - or grandmother's - closet.
"There's always an air of nostalgia, but of course it's up to date," says Bezalel of her line. "I return to styles that were popular in other decades like the '50s, '60s and '70s, and sometimes even the '20s, '30s and '40s, and I get my inspiration from those times.
Walking into her store on Tel Aviv's trendy Dizengoff Street, I was struck by Bezalel's wholesome, down to earth and unpretentious demeanor. Dressed in a light blue floral print top, denim capris and Birkenstock sandals with patterned ankle socks, Bezalel appears much younger than her 39 years. With a lingering sweet, flowery scent, painted red lips and big blue eyes, she exudes the very aura of femininity infused in her collection.
Ever the artist, Bezalel has gone to great lengths to create the perfect ambiance for her designs. All of her shops contain decade-appropriate relics she's picked up in flea markets around the world.
"I'm a collector," says Bezalel, pointing to her remarkable collection of old-fashioned toys, dolls and tins lining the walls and decorating the brightly colored shelves of the shop. "I collect things from days past, they inspire me. I display them in my shops to give the women who come here a feeling of my world."
Born in Jerusalem, her interest in fashion was piqued when, as a child, she watched her mother sew all her clothes by hand.
"There was always a sewing machine around in my house," she recalls, "and I became very interested in aesthetics and textiles."
Bezalel completed a degree in fashion design at Shenkar College for Engineering and Design upon finishing the army. She then worked with other fashion designers to learn the trade first hand, but stopped after barely a year.
"I realized that to succeed in the fashion industry, I had to do what feels right in my gut, what I liked, and not what other people liked," Bezalel remembers. "It was hard for me to feel satisfied doing what others wanted me to do when I didn't agree with their tastes."
The mistake young fashion designers make today, she says, is not following their hearts, and instead following the popular trends of the moment - which usually disappear just as fast as they arrived.
Though there were few young designers when Bezalel started out - most of whom are not in the business today - she decided to take the risk and go out on her own. Starting slowly, she began to sell her clothes in other stores until she was financially able to open her own studio. Her first shop, on Dizengoff, opened in 1998, and now that she has a place of her own, her line can only be found in stores of her name.
But despite her relative success and popularity, Bezalel says her career is not an easy one, especially in Israel.
"It's not easy to make money in the fashion industry here. You have to work very, very hard," she explains. "It's a small country, and there aren't millions of people passing by your shop every day."
Most of her clients are professional, intelligent women between the ages of 25-45, she says, but adds that she likes to say her clothes are for all women aged 17-70.
"People want clothes that will stay in their closets for longer than one season, both in terms of quality and style," says Bezalel. "That's what I provide."
Though she once had a showroom in Manhattan, Bezalel got married and pregnant and found she couldn't manage a business in New York from Israel. Now she has two small children and while the future of her career is important, she says, the last thing she wants to do is neglect her family.
She plans to open new stores in the Sharon and Shfela areas in the coming months, but as for stores internationally, foreign shoppers might have to wait.
"I want to go abroad at some point," she says, "but I'm not sure I want to sell in other people's stores."
Instead, Bezalel says she'd like to open up her own store outside Israel.
"I want to keep the whole concept I have going - you get swallowed up when your clothes are in a store with a million other things," she maintains. "It's much better to see the fashion in its environment, with the music and the set up."
Sitting at a low table with a bowl of bright plastic fruit placed on top of a white lace doily, Bezalel's face lights up as she continues.
"I want to sell more than just a piece of clothing - I want to sell an experience that's warm and homey. I want them to feel my influences - the music, the smell, the mix of colors, the textures, the materials. I want them to see the whole picture."
Dresses covered in polka dots, tiny shapes and floral patterns of all colors and sizes line one wall. With dropped or cinched waists, full skirts or slender silhouettes, the light, flirty dresses are perfect for summer and evoke a carefree, feminine elegance.
Opposite are racks of tops in bold colors with frilly sleeves, bows, lace-trimmed collars and flattering fits to perfectly compliment the row of checkered, flowered and solid skirts - with and without pleats. And for those who love denim, sophisticated pants come in different styles and textures.
The light colors and bright patterns allow the creative customer to mix and match tops and bottoms at will.
In the back of the shop is the evening collection, which takes the same style and ideas of her daywear dresses and using satin, lace overlays and champagne golds, sexy blacks and shiny silvers, morphs the casual into the formal, while still staying true to Bezalel's historical inspirations.
One stunning piece is a pale pink sleeveless dress with full skirt and low, slender waist covered in almost invisible silver butterflies. A more modern selection is that of the white satin sheath dress with gold lace overlay reminiscent of the '50s.
For those with young daughters, Naamonet, Bezalel's line of clothes for little girls, provides adorably charming dresses and little outfits in the same styles as mom - red skirts and dresses with giant white polka dots are irresistible.
Naama Bezalel has stores in Tel Aviv at 212 Rehov Dizengoff, 40 Rehov Shenkin, 234 Rehov Dizengoff (outlet) and in Jerusalem at 26 Rehov King George.
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