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'We wanted "Made in Israel" to be as important as "Made in France" or "Made in Italy" because the fashion is as good'
On a quaint, tree-lined street in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood, next to Kimono House and a vintage handbag and jewelry store, is an illuminated shop window displaying three striking black-and-white dress ensembles piled with chunky, beaded necklaces. The eclectic fashion of Lower Manhattan is often eye-catching, but what really stops me in my tracks is the name on the large label next to the mannequins - Kedem Sasson, one of Israel's foremost designers.
As I step inside, warily scanning the shelves of Samy D ceramic tea cups, the racks of cutting-edge clothes with labels like Dorit Sadeh and Comme Il Faut, the table of shoes by Couple of and Shani Bar, I slowly realize that every single item in the store is imported from Israel.
"It's an Israeli lifestyle concept store," explains Fern Penn, who together with her husband, Leslie, founded the store named Rosebud that sells everything from bath products, CDs and art to clothing, handbags and jewelry. "We're trying to show people that there's more to Israel than just embroidered tops and wooden camels."
It all started during the days of the second intifada, when the couple started visiting Israel more to show support and solidarity during a time when tourism was low. Then, Fern was a buyer at Macy's New York and Leslie a leather merchant.
"Every time we came to Israel, I would buy a hat," recalls Fern. "When I returned to New York, everyone would ask me where I got the great hat, and I started thinking to myself, maybe this is a way I can help Israel."
She contacted ladies' hat designers Ora and Kolav Sagol and ordered 100 hats from each, which she carried and shipped back to the US and then sold out of her Greenwich Village home and the community synagogue. In 2002, Fern participated in her first Israel Fair at Kehilat Jeshurun, and within two years, more than 3,000 hats were sold and the designers had to hire more staff to keep up with the orders.
"During one trip to Israel, I started buying clothes," says Fern, "and when I got back to New York, people would say, 'Great clothes! Where'd you get it?' At that point Leslie said to me, 'You are not starting to sell clothes out of the house!'"
But intrigued by the prospect, Fern began researching the Israeli fashion industry. She bought women's magazines, but couldn't read Hebrew and tore out the pictures of clothes she thought could sell in New York. Finally, she contacted Hanna Kamionski, head of the fashion and food export division of the Israeli Consulate, and told her about "my crazy idea to open a store."Kamionski put her in touch with various connections in the fashion world.
"We came back to Israel and wandered the streets of Tel Aviv and I was amazed by all the talent," says Fern. "We wanted 'Made in Israel' to be as important as 'Made in France' or 'Made in Italy' because the fashion is as good."
In July of 2003, they found a space on Thompson Street between Prince and Houston, the perfect location for exclusive, original fashion. Leslie shut his leather business and devoted himself to renovating the 100-meter space and building all the necessary elements, all of which were self-financed. Rosebud, named after the tiny detail Fern would attach to all the hats she sold, opened its doors that October and is still the only store of its kind in the US.
WHEN IT FIRST opened, many of the customers were Jews who came because they knew it was an Israel concept store, but today few of the customers are Jewish, let alone Israelis living abroad, because that isn't the target audience.
"The point is to show the world - and the whole world shops in Soho - how wonderful fashion is in Israel," says Fern. "We keep track of everyone who comes into the store, and so far we've had customers from every state and 50 countries, including Kuwait and Dubai."
Only once did the fact that the shop is Zionistically inspired deter a customer - a woman came in, saw that everything was from Israel and immediately left. But the point isn't for customers to come just to support Israel, either.
"We don't want anyone coming in and buying something out of sympathy for Israel," says Fern. "The store should stand on its own merit; Israel doesn't need that kind of charity and you shouldn't be able to assuage your guilt by buying a blouse."
Of the store's 24 designers, it primarily showcases Ronen Chen and Kedem Sasson, but also features Katomenta, Karen Oberson, Karen Muallem, Yael Orgad, Elian Stolero, Roni Bar, NuFarGalPaz, D & A, FishnDag, Delicatessen, Sigal Ephod, Mandinka, Reuma and Baladi. The variety of brands caters to women of every age and size, whether you're 18 and looking for a sexy dress by Yosef, a career woman looking for Ronen Chen work attire or an older woman looking for an elegant outfit by Dorit Sadeh.
"Everyone in New York looks the same these days, everyone is so brand-conscious and if you're 35-55 there's nowhere to shop," says Fern. "What's great about our store is that you can find something unique and not look like everyone else on the street."
Fern and her husband keep up with all the changing trends by making trips to Israel every six to eight weeks, one of the great perks of the job. On a recent trip to check out new talent and touch base with designers, they stopped by Kedem Sasson and Dorita jewelry before making their regular round of fashion boulevard Rehov Dizengoff in Tel Aviv "to see what's out there."
In fact, one of her favorite parts of the job is having a close relationship with the designers she works with, something that in the regular fashion world would be impossible. "I'm on a first name basis with all of them and call them on their cellphones," says Fern, "and you can't exactly call up Calvin Klein!"
The only catch when working with Israeli designers, she notes, is Israel's longer summers and New York's longer winters, which renders the fashion incompatible at times, especially since new seasons in America come out months earlier than they do in Israel.
The financial aspect is also difficult, they say, pointing out that they are certainly not in this business to become billionaires.
"It doesn't necessarily make a lot of business sense all the time," says Leslie, "but there's a bigger picture here for us."
"If nothing else," quips Fern, "it justifies us coming to Israel so frequently!"
Since opening the store, Fern is outfitted by Israel from head to toe. At our recent meeting in Jerusalem, she had on a colorful pair of Ronit Furst glasses, a Gal Feldman leather handbag, a Roni Bar shirt, a Ronen Chen skirt and Caligula shoes.
Now that the name has become more popular and designers are actually calling them to sell their wares, Fern and Leslie are thinking of expanding the store or opening another one in a different location, perhaps even outside New York.
"The fashions stand on their own and I'm proud to be able to sell them," says Fern. "If I didn't have the store, not only wouldn't I be able to come to Israel as much, but I wouldn't be able to say that Israeli clothes are being worn by women around the world. I guess you could call us the Zionistic fashionistas."
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