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With a new store in Tel Aviv's prestigious Kikar Hamedina, there's nothing simple about designer Maya Negri
While I am walking around Tel Aviv's Kikar Hamedina with designer Maya Negri and a friend, two elderly women walking by stop to admire the wide-leg palazzo pants billowing around Negri's legs.
"Gorgeous pants," says one.
"Beautiful," says the other. "Where did you get them?"
"She made them," says Negri's friend. "This is Maya Negri, the famous designer!"
As the elderly women look at Negri for confirmation, she blushes slightly and nods.
"I'm opening a new store right here in just a few days," Negri tells them. "So you can come buy them for yourselves if you'd like."
Nodding their heads in amazement, the elderly women continue staring as we walk away. What's uncertain is whether they're staring at Negri, who with her tall, lean model figure and long blonde hair strikingly resembles supermodel Elle Macpherson, or at her pants.
As we turn the corner, we arrive at our destination: a wide glass storefront emblazoned with the name Maya Negri. Set to open any day, the store is Negri's fourth in Israel in just three and a half years of working as a fashion designer, but her first in Tel Aviv.
"After living in Tel Aviv my whole life, I wanted to be outside the city, where it's quieter and there's a calmer lifestyle," says the 29-year-old designer, who has stores in Rishpon, Zichron Ya'acov and Netanya. Now, however, she's come full circle, and is opening a store just a few feet away from the apartment on Kikar Hamedina she was born and raised in.
She will be one of only a handful of local designers to have a store in the fashion plaza known for its international brands. Being surrounded by Louis Vuitton, Versace and Ralph Lauren might make a young designer feel inferior, but Negri says she feels right at home with the world's most successful fashion houses.
"I see my label as international also," she says. "And it's very exciting for me as a young Israeli designer to feel so comfortable among the designers in this place."
But her modesty belies her intrinsic talent. Upon completing her IDF service, Negri took the typical post-army trip to India, Nepal, Thailand and the Philippines. While staying in a gypsy village in India, she was introduced to the colorful, handmade dresses known as cholis. After traveling 12 hours to another village to purchase the material for herself, she began making a collection out of the unique cloth.
"I always loved creating and designing," she says. "I played with everything I could get my hands on."
When she came back, she applied to the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, using her choli collection as a sample portfolio. She was accepted, and after studying there for three years went to New York to do her internship at Tahari, a high-end fashion house owned by an Iranian and former Israeli resident, Elie Tahari.
"It was there that I really learned how a big fashion house works," says Negri, "and when I came back, I knew I wanted to be an independent designer."
But for her final project at Shenkar, Negri's outside-the-box creativity went unappreciated and her teachers threatened to fail her last collection until it was accepted into Diesel's annual international competition, which accepts only 23 designers.
"I knew then that no matter what obstacles blocked my path, this was going to be my destiny," she says. "I knew then I was going to be a designer. I had always played lots of sports as a kid and it made me very goal-oriented. Even if the road was tough, I knew I was going to persevere."
After graduating Shenkar and returning from the Diesel awards ceremony in Italy, Negri decided to open her first store in Moshav Rishpon, just north of Herzliya. Very quickly her client base grew, and she opened her two other stores.
"I just don't like the city center," she explains. "I like unique, pastoral places. People come to the stores and they make a day of it - they eat, they travel, they shop."
She says she'd like to open a couple more stores here, suggesting Ein Kerem as the site for her Jerusalem store, and then expand to New York and London. She has her sights set on Madison Avenue, a lofty aspiration but not an impossible dream for the wildly popular designer.
What sets her apart from the pack is her quiet, classy style, minimalist but with a strong presence. Her new summer collection is named "Simplicity," not because the fabrics or designs are simple, but because the colors and pieces exude a subtle elegance and power. The simple black dress is transformed into an alluring, folded wrap, and the plain white shirt and pants becomes spectacular with carefully placed pleats and creases and a leather belt tied in a knot.
While updated on art, fashion and current events, Negri says her inspiration always comes from the fabric itself. "My sketches never come out exactly as I drew them in the beginning," she says. "I play with the fabric in my hands and am inspired with new ideas."
Her favorite designers and greatest influence are Yohji Yamamoto and Giorgio Armani, but her greatest muse is her father, she says: "You know what they say - behind every successful woman is a very supportive father."
Regarding her local counterparts, she says there are a number she holds in very high esteem, but calls Israeli style on the whole "cute."
"It is developing and advancing," she adds, "and I hope more designers will follow my lead and come to Kikar Hamedina."
As exemplified by her elderly fans, Negri's line - 80 percent of which is in her own closet - has no definitive limits on age or weight. However it does suit a certain type of woman, she emphasizes, and is not meant for everyone. "It's for a working woman who appreciates aesthetics, who has a spirit and a status," she says.
The line is expensive, with pieces costing anywhere from NIS 150 for shirts and tops to NIS 4,000 for some of her evening wear. But for the quality, wearability and beauty, it's worth it to spoil yourself, at least once in a while, and Negri will certainly ensure she makes it worth your while.
"It's my responsibility to make sure that every woman leaves my store with that certain feeling," she says. "That special feeling she should have after leaving with a piece of my clothing - she should feel great about herself, her body, her soul, because clothes are like a second skin. Clothes are different than a painting that hangs on a wall, because you have to wear it on yourself, and I want you to want to wear it all the time."
Five things every woman should have in her closet
Two pairs of black pants "that you have no doubts about," says Maya Negri. One pair should be simple and classy enough to be worn from day to night, while the other should be "more avant garde" but flattering.
A long leather belt, which she says "transforms every garment."
A few comfortable tank tops that can be easily thrown on.
An amazing pair of too-expensive shoes.
A great jacket that she loves and can put on over everything.
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