As one of the holiest cities for the three Abrahamic religions, Jerusalem is often thought of as the epicenter of the world. But it is never thought of as the center of the fashion world, not even in Israel. When planning a shopping trip, Tel Aviv is the one-stop shop, the cosmopolitan city with Kikar Hamedina, Rehov Dizengoff and the Ramat Aviv mall providing every woman with all the local designers' outlets, along with many international brands. And if that's not enough, Herzliya is just a hop, skip and a jump away.
While Jerusalem may provide all the spirituality one needs, it doesn't even cross one's mind when it comes to clothes shopping. But drawn to the sacred city's historic charm and irresistible mystery, some designers are beginning to drop their anchors on the ancient stones, positive that the legendary Jerusalem of gold is really a gold mine.
"I'm an Israeli designer, so how could I not open up a store in Jerusalem?" quips Dorin Frankfurt, the 55-year-old designer who creates clothes for what she calls the urban Israeli female. Her casual style is suited to a strong yet feminine woman "with the twist that is the Israeli lifestyle," she says.
Frankfurt first opened a store in Jerusalem on the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall in the 1970s. Though she closed it some years later for reasons having nothing to do with the location, she jumped at the next opportunity to set up shop in the city, selling her collection in Galeriat Hame'atzvim (Designers' Gallery) in the Jerusalem Mall and waiting for something she could call her own.
"Jerusalem is a jewel," she says earnestly, and when the municipality decided to renovate Jaffa Road, Frankfurt decided it was the perfect place for her resurrection.
"It's an absolutely charming street, and the second I heard they were renovating I started looking for space," she recalls. "It's the center of town, and I believe the center of town is the center of life. It's the heart of Jerusalem, and with all due respect to shopping malls, there's nothing like window shopping on Jaffa Road."
The veteran fashion designer has 22 shops across the country, has been selling her collection in England for more than 20 years and has customers from Norway to Japan, but says her primary goal is to outfit the Israeli woman, and thus selling in Jerusalem was for her a necessity.
"I know everyone goes to Tel Aviv to go shopping," says the Ramat Gan resident, "but shopping should be accessible and easy. Clothing is like the last thing left in life that's just fun, so why should everyone have to travel far to enjoy it?"
Each of Frankfurt's stores has a different atmosphere that caters to the area's specific clientele. Her shops in Jerusalem, though showcasing basically the same collection, stock up on extra skirts and dresses for the religious crowd and warmer tops for the city's cooler evenings. Whereas her Dizengoff store caters to a young, hip crowd, her Jerusalem stores cater to "a career woman who works in government offices or studies in university, or for the high-society women of Jerusalem, which contrary to popular belief do exist," she explains.
And surprisingly, in a city where fashion is seemingly last on the list of priorities, her Jerusalem stores are just as successful as her other shops.
"I think Jerusalem is a cosmopolitan city," Frankfurt insists. "And frankly, I'm quite amazed there aren't more designers' stores here."
In fact, there are only a handful of prominent Israeli fashion designers with stores in the capital. Daphna Levinson, the name behind the Daphna Levinson for HDL line, considers herself a pioneer; when she opened her store in the Jerusalem Mall eight years ago, she was the only Israeli designer to have an outlet in Jerusalem.
"Back then, no designers had a store here, and it was actually quite a gamble made by my husband, Zvika," she says, adding that it was originally her customers in Tel Aviv who gave her the idea to open a branch in Jerusalem. But the gamble paid off, and today the store maintains a large clientele and is so successful that the couple is considering opening a second shop in the city.
"I really don't see much difference between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv when it comes to fashion and style," says Levinson. "Israel is a small country, and in less then one hour you can travel from one city to another. This closeness creates a very dynamic, fashionable fusion."
Levinson's line, which she updates with new pieces every few weeks, is romantic and feminine but still very modern and sophisticated. She currently has 15 other stores throughout Israel and one in Budapest, and like Frankfurt, each of her stores carries the elements of her collection best suited to the customer base of that area. The main difference between her Jerusalem store and all the others, she says, is its larger selection of dresses and skirts to satisfy the needs of the religious crowd.
"There is a great demand for fashion in Jerusalem," says the popular designer. "Both the religious and secular customers are looking for fashionable updates and are hungry for what's new and exciting."
According to Levinson, Jerusalem is definitely witnessing a big fashion awakening that began in the past few years as a result of the growth, development and diversity of the population in and around the city.
"More and more designers are realizing the huge potential in Jerusalem and opening stores there," she says. "And I urge more designers to catch on to the trend and create a fashion scene that consists of more than just big-brand chain stores."
And slowly, some designers are catching on.
After Ronen Chen marketed his collection in Galeriat Hame'atzvim in the Malha mall and developed a client base, he decided to open his own store there last June. His modern and classic style, a composition of architectural lines and graphic shapes in muted colors, is tailored for the working woman "who has to look good from morning to night."
This comfortable, easy fashion found a huge fan base in Jerusalem, and thrilled with his success, Chen is opening another store in the Mamilla project near the Jaffa Gate. Indeed, his store in Jerusalem is even more profitable than his stores in Tel Aviv.
"The air in Jerusalem is just different," says Chen, an established designer who has been in the fashion business for more than 15 years. As a designer, he adds, selling in Jerusalem provides a hearty challenge because of its mixed population of foreigners, religious Jews, Arabs and diplomats. As for why he chose the Mamilla project, the answer lies in the historic charm that has always attracted people to Jerusalem. "It's on the line between the Old City and the New City, and I just fell in love with the location."
But unlike Frankfurt and Levinson, Chen contends that Jerusalem is not becoming more cosmopolitan, and says Tel Aviv will always be "the place where everything happens."
"I used to think Tel Aviv was the only city in Israel, which is a very childish way to think," he says. "But I wouldn't go as far as to say that Jerusalem is changing or becoming more international. I think the designers are just moving toward their customers."
That was certainly one of the reasons behind Naama Bezalel's opening on King George Avenue a year ago. A favorite in every circle for her unique and one-of-a-kind looks, Bezalel decided to establish a presence in Jerusalem after learning from her Tel Aviv neighbor, fellow designer Sasson Kedem, that his store in the capital was a big success.
"I had been looking for a long time to get out of Tel Aviv and open up a store somewhere else," says Bezalel, whose very feminine and nostalgic styles garner inspiration from the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Her collection, she realized, was geared for the city's mixed population. Much more modest and understated than many of the clothes flaunted by young Tel Aviv designers, her clothes are perfectly suited to the religious sector, but her eclectic style - filled with polka dots, floral prints, frilly sleeves and bows - attracts the fashionable secular crowd as well.
"I knew I had a strong nucleus of customers that would like to have a store closer to them than Tel Aviv," she says, "and I liked the idea of opening up to a new crowd."
Bezalel's collection is the same in all her stores, although to acquiesce to the requests of her religious clientele in Jerusalem, she adds length to some of her skirts and dresses. She chose King George as the location because the atmosphere of the busy street is more suited to her styles than a mall, she explains.
As a former resident of Jerusalem, Bezalel also has a very strong personal connection to the city that many designers from Tel Aviv lack.
"I lived in Jerusalem until I was 12, so for me, having my own store here is kind of like closing a circle," she says, and as an afterthought adds that she thinks fashion is gradually but definitely seeping into Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
"There's a special magic here," she continues. "It's a unique city, it's a different world, and I think it calls to people."
In recent weeks, trendy designer Yosef also heeded the call and began to sell his line in Galeriat Hame'atzvim, which in the past has been many designers' first step toward a store of their own.
And with their first collection barely off the racks, Zavaron Lavan designers Ehud Ziv-Av and Maya Baranis have already begun their search for a place in the capital.
"Jerusalem really speaks to us," says Ziv-Av, echoing Bezalel's sentiment. "Even though it's not a big fashion center, it has a special character that we're attracted to on a personal level."
On the business level, Ziv-Av says he thinks their collection - Israel-inspired and made for "the real Israeli woman" - would really suit the Jerusalem scene. "It's a unique crowd," he comments, "and we make unique clothes."
But ultimately, like the others, he finds it impossible to separate business from pleasure in the holy city.
"We want to be in Jerusalem because it's Jerusalem," he says. "Everyone has his own meaning for Jerusalem, and for us it represents what it means to be Israeli, not only in the religious sense, but in every sense, because of its history and meaning as a city."
But as such an important place for so many peoples, the city is plagued by a controversy that at times threatens its vitality. Even when discussing fashion, it's difficult to escape "the situation," Frankfurt asserts, and says the city's flourishing, even as a fashion capital, depends on the conflict on the ground and the state of affairs with the Palestinians.
"I think the future of Jerusalem depends greatly on the political situation," she says. "If we have peace, I think - no, I'm sure - that Jerusalem could be the real center of the world one day."