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For a straight man to admit that sketching dresses was his favorite pastime while serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, he must truly love fashion. Designer Yigal Azrouel casually recalls filling books with such drawings whenever he could sneak in some time.
Perhaps he has no compunction about it because his designs now grace the catwalks of Paris and the covers of leading fashion magazines like Marie Claire and Elle, and his New York boutique boasts celebrity clients including Salma Hayak, Jennifer Connelly, Catherine Zeta Jones, Natalie Portman and Sarah Jessica Parker. Azrouel has clearly "made it."
Remarkably, he succeeded with no formal training. He hit the streets of New York with just $500, a dream and immigrant determination. Vogue recently quipped that his classic rags-to-riches tale could have been penned by Horatio Alger. It helps, of course, that Azrouel grew up in a big Moroccan-Israeli family with five older sisters.
"They would take me shopping and ask me what I thought," he recalls. "It influenced me."
Fern Penn is not surprised by the international success of designers like Azrouel, asserting there is plenty of room for Israelis in the elite fashion world. Her store - Rosebud boutique in Manhattan's trendy SoHo district of New York - exclusively sells clothing by Sigal Dekel, Kedem Sasson, Ronen Chen and other Israeli fashion moguls. Their lines, Penn reports, have been snapped up by high-profile celebrities like Natalie Merchant, Gloria Vanderbilt and Lou Reed.
Penn's inspiration for her store came from walking up and down Dizengoff Street in Israel's metropolitan hub - watching what people were wearing and buying and asking who the hottest designers were. Compared to world hubs like Los Angeles, Milan, London, Berlin and Tokyo, Penn admits, Tel Aviv is a tiny outpost in the fashion universe. But, she is quick to assert, that fact gives designers the freedom to bend the rules and blend in unique new flavors.
Take Kedem Sasson, moniker for fashion designer Sasson Kedem: Women pay more for designer clothing, Kedem says, because they want to communicate that they are free thinkers who know what is stylish. They also want clothes that fit their personality and body type better than what they can get from a chain like the Gap. They don't, however, necessarily want designs marching straight off the runways of Paris. That's where the Israeli edge comes in.
"You can see the spirit of Israel in our clothes. We know how to combine comfort and style," he asserts. Kedem primarily designs clothes for full figured women - in America, exclusively so - and reports that since fashion for plus sizes is generally designed to mask or cover heavy women, his customers are delighted to find clothing that celebrates them.
"When I design for big ladies," Kedem says, "I think, how can I tell the women to feel beautiful? More sexy? To show their character?"
Designer Sigal Dekel's husband, Shai Snir - who owns the Dekel label and is the general manager for the business - agrees that Israeli fashion has an edge. Dekel and Snir recently opened a Sigal Dekel boutique in SoHo and are overwhelmed by the enthusiastic reception they have received. Pursuant to this response, they have launched plans to expand their boutique to Chicago, San Francisco, Santa Monica and other American cities that appreciate casual fashion with flair.
"A woman around 40 has the money to spend on clothes and wants to look fashionable. What we offer is for every day, but with a kick - and in patterns that look nice on the body," says Snir.
But doesn't it take more than practical marketing sense and a flair for fashion to prevail against international boycotts and anti-Israel sentiment?
"Yes, it is sometimes difficult to obtain fabrics from countries like Turkey and Germany, because the suppliers are prejudiced against Israel," Kedem admits. "That can be discouraging."
Penn, however, considers anti-Israel sentiment motivational, not limiting. The 2002 intifada inspired her to open her New York boutique as a way of counter-acting the heavy anti-Israel sentiment.
"I needed to do something to help," she recalls. Many of the customers who seek her out are American Jews who come to her store looking for a novel way to support Israel, only to find themselves hooked on the fashions.
Similar sympathies may have helped Azrouel break into the industry. He credits his first break to a "nice Jewish lady" who helped him get a deal on the venue for his first trade show. "I was very successful. I started to do business with Barney's in New York, Joyce in Hong Kong, a store in Japan and other specialty stores around the country [USA]."
From there everything fell into place for Azrouel.
"I hired more people to help me, then I moved to a different location and hired a manager from Dolce & Gabbana, Donata Minelli. She brought my label to a lot of retailers - like Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom."
Tips for aspiring Israeli designers? Be confident that the world will love what is unique to Israel, advises Kedem.
"I think our fashions do best in areas of the United States that are similar to Israel - like California, Arizona or Florida," he says. "It is very easy for us to make linen shirts and sell them in San Francisco or Key West."
And while some Israeli entrepreneurs may worry about the wisdom of venturing into world markets when the economy is flagging so badly at home, rest assured the fashion universe never discriminates against the right summer dress.
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