Dorin Frankfurt fashions a successful career for herself

"Don't call me a businesswoman, call me an industrialist," says fashion designer and manufacturer Dorin Frankfurt. "Businesswomen don't necessarily manufacture anything; industrialists do.

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March 8, 2007 07:13
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dorin frankfurt 88 298. (photo credit: )

 
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"Don't call me a businesswoman, call me an industrialist," says fashion designer and manufacturer Dorin Frankfurt. "Businesswomen don't necessarily manufacture anything; industrialists do." Despite her insistence on the semantic difference, there is no doubt that Frankfurt is also a businesswoman - otherwise she wouldn't own 22 stores in addition to her studio and factory in south Tel Aviv. In 1985, she opened a store in London, and found herself on a regular commute, traveling back and forth at least once a month. The original plan had been to open additional stores abroad at some stage in the future, but then in 1991, Frankfurt, at age 39, gave birth to twin daughters and made a conscious business decision to close the London shop. "I waited too long to have children. I wasn't about to neglect them for the sake of my London operations," she says in retrospect. How much this may have cost her in revenues, she is not prepared to even speculate. Would she do it again? Absolutely. It wasn't the first time that she had closed a store. She opened her first shop in 1975 in the Shalom Tower adjacent to Tel Aviv's garment district. Soon after, she opened two more stores - one in Jerusalem and another in north-central Tel Aviv. In the early 1980s, she closed all three. "I left a hole in the market," she recalls, and suddenly there was a demand. "First I created a market, then a hole in the market. It's not an ideal formula, but it worked." It wasn't a planned formula either. When Frankfurt opened that first small store in 1975, her raison d'etre was to create Israeli fashion. "There really was no such thing as distinctly Israeli fashion," she says. "There was European-style fashion and there was ethnic fashion." Kitan and Ata were among the leading clothing companies, but their production consisted mainly of quality basics. Castro was still a relatively small company compared to what it is today and had minimal impact as a trendsetter. Gottex, in addition to its swimwear, produced flowery caftans and other cover-ups, and Oberson focused on couture, which made his output prohibitive price-wise for the majority of women in the country. Frankfurt wanted to do something different, something that would be affordable and that would reflect the Israeli population mix and lifestyle. In 1983, a year after opening her factory plant, she went into partnership with Margit Segal. Their first joint project was a collection made entirely from hand-dyed fabrics generally used for diapers, kitchen towels and blankets. A year later, they came out with the first Dorin Frankfurt jeans collection and a vintage collection, which they called austerity in recognition of the economic recession in Israel in the early 1980s and which they compared with the austerity period of the 1950s. The partnership continues to this day, but both women admit that what they have achieved might not have come to fruition were it not for the encouragement and support of Frankfurt's mother Nava. Her father was also very supportive, but he didn't inject the same drive, enthusiasm and encouragement as her mother. Frankfurt conceived and produced the austerity collection in an effort to persuade the government to invest in Israeli design, which she says, would have been the best possible advertisement for the country. "If this kind of support had been forthcoming then, it would have had a positive effect on Israel's economy, not to mention Israel's image in the world," says Frankfurt. The Minister for Trade and Industry at that time was Ariel Sharon, and although she was friendly with his wife, she could not persuade him to adopt her idea. In recent years, Frankfurt has been troubled by the frequent personnel changes at the Israel Export Institute. Such changes both at the IEI and at government level hamper the development of the fashion industry, she says, because every new person who arrives in an executive capacity brings new policies and leaves before they can be fully implemented, if at all. There is no sense of long-term planning and continuity, she says. Very theatrical in appearance, almost always attired in black, with her long black hair and its dramatic gray streaks in the front and with her perennial dark glasses, Frankfurt evokes images of the female lead in "The Adams Family" television series. In fact, early in her career, she was photographed as a modern witch who traded her broomstick for a vacuum cleaner. Always theatrically inclined, Frankfurt had and maintains a close relationship with the entertainment industry. She has created numerous outfits for ballet and theater as well as stunning costumes for popular singers and musicians. In fact, her contacts with leading entertainers enabled her to bring the AIDS problem to national attention. In December 1986, she organized a fashion show and huge concert featuring top line entertainers such as Shlomo Artzi, Mati Caspi, Yehuda Poliker and other popular singers in a major AIDS benefit. She came in for a lot of criticism at the time, but the show at the Tel Aviv Cinerama was nonetheless a total sell-out and paved the way for the various AIDS awareness and support organizations that exist today. Frankfurt is a strong believer in business enterprises supporting community and universal social projects. In 1995, Frankfurt launched her menswear line "DF." After making outfits for male entertainers for years, she felt it was time to develop her men's fashions into a commercial enterprise. The customers for that line are men who want to stand out in the crowd - although the designs are not particularly flamboyant, the cut and the combinations of fabrics and colors go way beyond classic concepts. All her endeavors haven't been demonstrated the same degree of success, however. Soon after, she engaged in a project with the Ethiopian community that included an exhibition and sale of Ethiopian handcrafts and a collection of clothes based on traditional Ethiopian fashions. The event, which had been so promising in the planning stages was a total disaster. The media were simply not interested and the only coverage the event received was on the Guy Pines Show, although the clothes were snapped up by her regular customers. Another unfortunate decision she made was in 2001 when she started sewing "peace labels" into the garments she produced. She kept telling people that no progress could be made in the peace process without talking to the other side, and she frequently visited the Erez checkpoint, which she says is a great example of coexistence, because people have no other option. However, at a time when Israel was under constant attack by Palestinians terrorists, Frankfurt's peace activities were not viewed with great favor, a factor that to some extent impacted negatively on her profits. Yet, in an era in which the merchandise of most Israeli clothing companies is being produced in cheap-labor countries, most notably China, Frankfurt boasts that 80 percent of her production continues to come out of Tel Aviv. While she does import fabrics, the design and manufacture is Israeli, and those garments in the 80% local output are labeled "Designed and Manufactured in Tel Aviv." The label is much more than a marketing gimmick. "There are some people for whom the political agenda of the garment is important," she says. "These are people who want to contribute to the national economy as much as is humanly possible, and their preference, no matter what they buy, will always be for products that are made in Israel." When Frankfurt and Segal, did not follow their colleagues and rivals into cheap labor manufacturing countries, business pundits told them that they couldn't last, that they would be unable to compete on prices. But the two women weighed the odds and decided that they could not deprive faithful employees of an income; to move the bulk of their manufacturing operations abroad, they would have to dismiss most of the people on their payroll - and this was something that their consciences would not allow them to do. The fact that there are 22 Dorin Frankfurt shops and that she also sells to specialty stores in Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the UK and the US, is indicative that decisions made from the heart are not always bad for business. What advice does Frankfurt have for any young designer who might want to follow in her footsteps? "Be very attentive to your public and your workers. Check the relevance of your concept every day. Be open to new ideas and be aware of what's happening around you. Don't ever take anything for granted, and know that if you have something important to say, people will eventually understand you. Above all be grateful for all your accomplishments and don't forget your failures." Dorin Frankfurt Age: 55 Family status: Significant other - photographer Mickey Kretzman Mother of 16-year-old twin daughters; step-mother to two girls Profession: Fashion designer, industrialist, businesswoman Education: Graduate Polytechnic Paris under the auspices of the French Ministry for Industry and Trade Greatest professional challenges: To create clothes that are recognized as Israeli fashion and compete quality-wise with the merchandise of cheap-labor countries that has infiltrated and almost overtaken the Israeli market

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