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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sitting on the blue and white striped sofas in the living room, Lea Gottlieb, founder of the famous Israeli swimwear brand Gottex, starts off the interview with a charming smile and disarming declaration: "Ani me'od old," she says, in English sprinkled with Hebrew, explaining her use of a hearing aid. "Mrs. Gottlieb," as she is referred by all who know her, turns 89 in September.
Judging by her current creative output, however, it's hard to categorize this fashion matriarch as "old." A few minutes into the interview at her Tel Aviv penthouse, she's already showing off the 2007 catalogue of the Lea Gottlieb swimwear line she established in 2005. The opening gala event of the International Women's Festival in Holon taking place tonight will salute Gottlieb for her past-and present-contributions to Israeli fashion.
Gottlieb's rags to riches story is already the stuff of Israeli fashion history lore. Born in Hungary, Gottlieb came to Israel on ship after World War II with her late husband, Armin, a raincoat maker by profession. With no use for raincoats in the Mediterranean heat, the seamstress Gottlieb began to make swimsuits in their small Jaffa flat with her sewing machine. Gottlieb defines "taste" as their greatest, initial capital.
"You need good taste-and with taste, a very strong desire-then anything is possible," she says.
In their early days, her husband would peddle their wares door to door to shop owners throughout Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Decades later they sold their wares to Jacqueline Kennedy, Princess Diana, Nancy Kissinger, Elizabeth Taylor, and the list goes on.
But today Gottlieb speaks as if her career has just begun.
"At this age, thank God I am healthy-I can work and think-this is fantastic," Gottlieb says with a gentility and sweetness that belies her imposing stature in the Israel fashion world. "Everything comes from here," she says, pointing to her heart. "I need to do. I need to be active."
Her youthful ability to look forward may have been honed by some of her past heartbreaks.
Gottlieb's decision to start a new swimwear line at age 85 was prompted by the dying wish of daughter, Yehudit, who passed away from cancer.
"She told me at the last minute that I have to work. It will not be good if I don't work, and therefore I am working," relates Gottlieb. Both her daughters were full partners in Gottex operations. Gottlieb is even out-working her older daughter, Miriam, 66, who lives in New York where she works a full-time grandmother. Gottlieb is grandmother to six and great-grandmother to seven.
Gottlieb would rather not discuss the widely-publicized, painful, and friction-filled sale of Gottex to the holding company, Africa-Israel Investments 10 years ago. That Gottlieb wasn't invited to Gottex's jubilee anniversary celebration last year speaks itself for the soured relations between the old and new owners. Today Gottlieb is, after all, Gottex's competitor.
IN 2005 Gottlieb teamed up with Macro Clothing, a subsidiary of Tefron, a publicly traded apparel manufacturer in Israel, to manufacture, market and distribute the first Lea Gottlieb collection. As a test run, Macro flew with Gottlieb to Spain to present the largest department store chain there with their first collection. They bought 25,000 pieces on the spot.
"She's a legend," relates Tamara Lew Wik, brand manager for Macro. "When you say 'Mrs. Gottlieb', anyone in the swimwear business is still excited that she still has vision and talent." Gottlieb visits the Macro studio weekly to develop her original ideas together with a team of designers assigned specifically to the brand. Gottlieb travels yearly to European fashion shows to stay current. Currently, they are preparing the 2008 collection, which will be sold in department stories and boutique shops across Europe, Russia, and the US, including Bloomingdale's and Neiman Marcus, past Gottex clients.
"My collection is like boutique Gottex," Gottlieb says of the inevitable similarities between her new designs and classic Gottex. Her 2007 collection include the signature patterns that made Gottex a household name: bold, colorful, floral prints; marine and yacht motifs; and exotic patterns inspired by artists Gauguin and a Frida Kahlo.
"I love colors," Gottlieb affirms. Towards the end of the interview, she walks me through her lush, flower-filled patio to reach her book-lined studio, where she is greeted by her Pomeranian, Motek. She pulls out the books of the artists who provide her with plentiful inspiration: Renoir, Matisse, Dali, and Cassatt, to name a few. "I love Gauguin a lot," she says. A poster of the post-Impressionist master hangs across from a bright print of Naomi Campbell posing in an earthy Gottex bikini, and the similarities are evident.
When she is not thinking up new designs, she attends museums, shops for flowers to add to her collection, and takes Motek out for walks. Her assistant reminds her that later that night they she is attending a Toscanini tribute concert.
Gottlieb has no complaints: "I'm always satisfied."
Tonight's gala for the International Women's Festival will be hosted by Israeli model and television host Galit Gutman, and will feature a tribute fashion show, interviews with Gottlieb's friends colleagues, and a ballet performance.
Gottlieb's advice to the career woman is simple: "To find an idea to work hard for that-after that success comes."