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(photo credit: ERICA DANIELLE CHERNOFSKY)
Before Versace and Calvin Klein were names synonymous with style, they were nobodies sewing out of their basements and hoping to get noticed.
But every designer has to start somewhere, and while Israeli designers have yet to reach the ranks of Armani, the undiscovered talents of the designers' boutique in Tel Aviv have convinced me they just might.
Every weekend, Israel's freshest clothing and accessory designers take the stage to showcase their merchandise to the public, and as the word boutique implies, this venue is resplendent with current fads as well as the designers' own artistic and original creations.
At a quarter to four one Thursday afternoon, the designers were just beginning to hang up their clothes and set up their jewelry and bags on the racks and tables provided. Meital Bruner, the manager of the boutique, was running around, greeting arriving designers and helping them get organized.
"No one that works here has a store of his own," explains Bruner, who previously reported on fashion and style for Ma'ariv. "This is the only way for up and coming designers to display their styles and the only way for the public to see their stuff."
The designers' boutique was started three years ago by Sheril Gold - who worked for Dizengoff Center, the giant mall that houses the boutique - and at its outset, the Center went looking for the designers. Today, however, designers are lining up to have the chance to sell at the market. After carefully evaluating their collections, Bruner selects all the designers herself and admits that though they currently exhibit 24 clothing and 17 accessory designers, the waiting list is endless.
As the shoppers begin to arrive, each designer stands beside his or her wares, helping the customer find the right size and style and offering his or her own "expert" opinions.
"He is going to be huge," Bruner says of a male designer hanging up dresses in a corner. Upon closer inspection of his collection, Bruner's assessment could be accurate - Ran Zuriel's impressive line includes everything from swanky dresses, feminine skirts and exquisite lace shrugs to brightly colored fitted tops and comfy stretch pants. Made from quality textiles, the clothing feels good to the touch and, with its wide range of styles and colors, Zuriel's collection is already gaining national recognition - his clothes have even been featured in the popular women's magazine La'isha.
"My background is sculpture," says Zuriel, who is originally from Sde Boker, "and it has greatly influenced my work - I use all different types of materials to mold different and new pieces of clothing."
And the budding star designer, who has been creating clothes for almost a year, attributes any success to the designers' boutique.
"This place saved my career. I wouldn't even be in design if it wasn't for [the boutique]," says Zuriel, who despite the lavish praise poured on his talents remains extremely modest, even attempting to shy away from the camera. "This market puts you in direct contact with the client and allows you to earn a direct profit, unlike working for a store, so you can develop very quickly."
Outside the nearby dressing rooms, Lee, a petite woman in her mid-20s, tries on one of Zuriel's exotic black halter dresses and admires herself in the mirror.
"I come here all the time," she says, "and I always go straight for [Zuriel's] clothes. They're so different, so special. I just love them."
A few racks away, customers are flipping through a row of vibrant summery skirts and dresses, all made at home by Maya, a striking 30-year-old who says she has only been making clothes for a mere couple of months.
"I studied interior design," she says, "but my father worked in the garment business, so it's in my blood."
Maya's clothes, made from all natural materials, are more classic looking in style and geared for comfort, she says, and adds that she recently added length to skirts and sleeves to dresses to appeal to the more religious market. Modest or not, her clothes are fun and flattering. Wearing one of her own creations, a black and white polka dot dress with a wide belt, Maya exudes the same quiet sense of style as her clothes, and like Zuriel, feels eternally grateful to the boutique.
For the boyfriends/husbands/bag-carriers who were dragged along on the shopping trip, Yotam Bezalel's vintage T-shirts are great for men and boys and figure nostalgic symbols of Israel's past - the old post office logo, old factory labels and a likeness of Menachem Begin.
In the coming months, Bezalel plans to expand his line to women and children, but for now the shirts are uni-sex, he says, and they do come in smaller sizes.
Bezalel, who studied graphic design at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem, describes his T-shirts as "human billboards" through which he is attempting to preserve the visual culture that was 100 percent Israeli.
And this ardent sense of nationalism is actually one of the requirements for acceptance into the designers' boutique, Bruner explains.
"The whole idea is that people make all their stuff in Israel - not India, not Thailand, but Israel," she says. "It's a bit Zionistic, but those are the rules."
Aside from that, no rules apply in this unique shoppers' paradise, where one of the best parts is the affordability - most of the clothes range in price from NIS 70-200 for tops and skirts and up to about 500-600 for dresses.
After browsing through what seems like hundreds of racks of clothes, I lay my eyes on what I immediately decide is the best find of the day - the Cinderella skirt. Made to look like drab-colored rags clumsily sewn together, the amazing result is designer Ofira's triumph, and is suitable for both day and night.
"My clothes look complicated but are really simple. They're a bit trendy, very different and really 'me,'" says Ofira, whose short pants with leather clasps are also selling "like hot cakes," says a customer who is about to purchase a pair of her own.
Ofira has become quite a success in the two years she's worked the designers' boutique. With over 500 customers, she's set to open her own studio - a dream come true for those looking to make it in the fashion industry - in only a couple of weeks.
In fact, there have been plenty of success stories to come out of the boutique, says Bruner, naming Ido Recanati, D and A and Mik off the top of her head.
Not all of the designers at the Center are destined to have their lines flaunted on the runway, of course. While retaining their individual panache, some of the garments do appear as if they were simply made in the basement with inferior fabric and amateur hands, especially after eyeing the professional quality and spice of collections like Zuriel's and Maya's.
But clothes are only the beginning; up the stairs are tables full of accessories. Vivid glass jewelry illuminates designer Ziva's counter, while Keren Volf's handmade vintage necklaces and earrings garnish another. I particularly loved Volf's gorgeous satin flower belts, which can add romance to a simple pair of jeans or spruce up a skirt or dress.
Small, delicate evening purses, leather satchels and bags with printed graphics caught the eyes of the dozens of shoppers who pushed their way through the rapidly-crowding area as I began to make my exit.
As one bubbly shopper put it, "they have stuff here they don't have anywhere else. It's worth the trip every time."
The designers boutique is located at the Dizengoff Center Mall on Rehov Dizengoff in Tel Aviv and is open on Thursdays from 4-9 p.m. and Fridays from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.