Grapevine: Shining stars in Israel's fading fashion industry

Castro, started by Aharon Castro with the help of his dressmaker mother, Anina, is one of the great survivors in a declining market.

By
August 13, 2013 22:32
Castro Top presenters.

CASTRO TOP presenters Gal Gadot (second from left) 370. (photo credit: Golan Liobonchitz)

 
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There are some extraordinarily talented fashion designers in Israel, but the fashion industry as such is dying. Once upon a time, most Israeli fashion houses had their own production plants; if they wanted to reduce production costs, they gave out piece work to women in Arab, Druse and Palestinian villages. Then company owners discovered countries with cheap labor – Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Eastern Europe and in more recent years, India and China. Today, the bulk of global fashion, regardless of where it may be designed, is produced in China.

Even then, it’s not easy to compete, and many Israeli clothing companies whose brands were once household words no longer exist.

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But some have survived against all odds – not only survived, but expanded.

One of the greatest survivors of them all, if not the greatest, is Castro, which had its beginnings in 1950 in a store on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street.

The company, which has become Israel’s most widely known fashion chain, was launched by Aharon Castro, who brought in his mother, Anina, a professional dressmaker and gifted designer who sewed for private clients out of her own apartment.

Anina became the creative side of the operation, and Aharon and his wife, Lina, the business side.

The idea was to produce clothes that were chic but affordable. When their daughter, Etti, and her husband, Gabi Rotter, joined the Castro enterprise, it was during an economic crisis, and the family gave serious thought to making an exit while the going was good. But they had second thoughts, and decided to restructure using new strategies.

The upshot is somewhere in the range of 180 Castro stores in Israel and abroad. The company has branched out to include a menswear collection, with separate Castro Man and Castro Woman stores, and at the beginning of this year launched its online store. The Castro concept includes accessories – shoes, bags, belts, scarves, caps, jewelry – the whole shebang. Castro, then, has evolved from a brand name to a lifestyle, and the overwhelming majority of Israelis have at least one Castro item in their closets.

Ran Rahav, who with his wife, Hila, runs one of Israel’s leading public relations firms, has been handling Castro’s publicity for 22 years.

In fact, he and his wife are listed as co-hosts on invitations to every Castro fashion show – and the one for the new Fall-Winter collection was no exception.

One of the secrets of Rahav’s success is that he had thousands of friends long before the Facebook era, and he invites large numbers them to events in his home and in more spacious venues. He is actively associated with a number of charitable causes in addition to his business interests, and invites people from many of these different interests to mega-events such as the Castro Spring-Summer and Fall-Winter fashion shows.

At the beginning of this week, the Rotters and the Rahavs were on hand very early at the Tel Aviv Convention and Exhibition Center to meet, greet and mingle with the 1,000 invitees who had come to the launch of the 2013-2014 Fall-Winter collection. The invitation was for 9:30 a.m., but almost everyone knew that the show would not start until 11. After all, hardly anything starts on time in Israel – especially fashion shows.

For whatever reason, a lot of the invitees were there well before 9:30.

Maybe it was because they wanted to see the celebrities as they came in.

There were stage and screen personalities, models past and present, fashion writers past and present, judges, lawyers, business leaders, architects, socialites – and then some. There were also well-known fashion designers, among them Dorin Frankfurt, Sasson Kedem, Raziela Gershon, Gideon and Karen Oberson, Yuval Caspin and of course, Leah Peretz Recanati, head of the Shenkar College Fashion Design Department. Among the other well-known personalities were Liraz Charhi, Guy Pines, Zvika Pik, Ivri Lider, and hair and make-up artist Mickey Boganin and his mother, Ada.

Sometimes the apparel worn by invitees is no less eye-catching than that on the runway, and the perks for coming early include being able to walk around the reception area to get a good close-up. Though black continues to be the dominant color on and off the catwalk (which says something about the ongoing state of the economy), there were also a lot of bright hues and a huge variety of textures.



The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community was also well-represented, with some of its members choosing conservative attire, but most decked out in flamboyant styles and colors. By the way, Castro caters to this particular market segment, which for several seasons now has been been included in the mainstream collections. By the same token, religious women will have no problem finding dresses with high necklines and long sleeves.

It was amazing how many women coming to a morning event chose to wear long evening dresses, though many more wore micro-minis or short shorts. Many dresses and tops were made of diaphanous fabric, revealing just about everything.

Castro invariably has the most comprehensive fashion show, with many models; this time there were 60. Etti Rotter, dressed as always in an item from the current collection, said that for people in the company, fashion was more than mere clothing.

It was power, sensitivity, mood – but above all, a way of life. Indeed, with a 23-member design team, it would have to be.

The good news for buxom ladies who’ve had difficulty finding anything that fits amid the Castro designs, which are too frequently targeted at women with svelte, compact figures, is that now there’s something for them, too. In addition to the slim, body-hugging creations, there is also a selection of loose, flowing items that grace the fuller figure without stretching the seams.

There’s a lot of layering, but the essence is deliberate in its grungelike mismatching.

The women’s collection is to a large degree both feminine and flattering, with princess-line dresses and waist-accentuating, swishing bouffant skirts with masses of fabric. The menswear also has a grunge-like element, with some absolutely fabulous cardigans and jackets that will have women scurrying into the Castro Man stores to buy cardigans for themselves.

Leading the models were Gal Gadot, who has to juggle her modeling career with that of motherhood and being a Hollywood actress; Liraz Dror; Yonatan Wagman; and Arik Mor.

■ ELECTION FEVER is running high in municipalities around the country, with a series of new mayors destined for certain cities – in which present incumbents have been indicted on a variety of corruption and sexual abuse charges, with others are under investigation for fraud, bribery, betrayal of public confidence, et al. But another election race is also underway. The municipal elections will take place in October, while the elections for a new head of state will take place in 10 or 11 months’ time.

In its weekend edition last Friday, Ma’ariv published a story about the presidential aspirations of Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who is currently the oldest and longest-serving legislator in the Knesset. The article quoted Ben-Eliezer as confident of multi-partisan support.

That was what Shimon Peres and most of the Labor Party thought Peres had in his pocket, when he ran against Moshe Katsav and lost. It was only after he made a post-Katsav bid that Peres won – and that was partly because fellow candidates Reuven Rivlin and Colette Avital withdrew from the race.

It’s possible – even probable – that Peres would have won anyway, but we’ll never know. Meanwhile, he became infinitely more popular as a president than he was as a politician, and established a precedent for extraordinary physical and mental activity on the part of public servants who have advanced well into the third age. At 90, Peres retains both long- and short-term memory; travels extensively in Israel and overseas; delivers a minimum of three or four public speeches each week; and meets regularly with the prime minister, heads of the defense and security establishment, officials from various government ministries, hi-tech innovators from Israel and abroad, and people from almost every strata of Israeli society, as well as highranking dignitaries from many countries. He is on the job for more than 12 hours a day.

He was just over two weeks away from his 83rd birthday when he became president, and so far is the oldest person to become Israel’s No.

1 citizen. Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann was 74 when he entered office, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi was 68, Chaim Herzog was 64, Zalman Shazar was 63, Ephraim Katzir and Yitzhak Navon were 57, Katsav was 54, and Ezer Weizman was 53. If Ben-Eliezer’s confidence is justified, he will be 78 when he assumes his new role.

It is still not clear whether Rivlin will try again. If he does, and wins, he will be 74 when he takes the presidential oath. The multilingual Avital, with both a diplomatic and parliamentary background, may also make another attempt, and if she becomes Israel’s first woman head of state, she will be a very youthful 74.

It’s also possible that former Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik, who did a fairly good job as acting president during the period in which Katsav suspended himself while under police investigation, may throw her cap into the presidential ring. If she does, she will turn 61 during the race.

Then again, all these possibilities may prove irrelevant – and an unexpected dark horse could emerge to capture the trophy.

■ APROPOS KATSAV, he is eligible for a furlough from prison on Rosh Hashana, but is unlikely to be able to spend it with his family – because he is permitted only a 48-hour absence.

Rosh Hashana is a two-and-a-half day festival that is instantly followed by Shabbat, and Katsav, who is religiously observant and does not travel on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, would not be able to return to prison in time. As the prison authorities have not permitted him any special perks to date, other than a sevenhour leave for the marriage of his son, it would seem at this stage that he will not spend the new year in the bosom of his family.

■ A PRESS photographer who frequently covers the activities of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu suggested to colleagues this week that the PM should stop playing football.

A year ago, Netanyahu sprained his ankle while playing the sport at Jerusalem’s Kraft Stadium and had to call off a faction meeting. This week, he underwent a hernia operation after playing football at Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa. As such, he was unable to preside over the ministerial meeting to decide which of the Palestinian prisoners would be among the 26 released prior to the resumption today of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Heaven only knows what he might miss out on if he plays another game.

■ WITH REGARD to the peace talks, US mediator Martin Indyk, who arrived in Israel over the weekend, met Sunday night with Peres, one of the few Israelis who ardently believes there is a good chance that the current round of talks will not be more of the same – but will actually come to a satisfactory conclusion, with the signing of a peace treaty.

Time will tell.

Meanwhile, Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, has had meetings with other Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and has come in for criticism by members of the public on both sides. There are some Israelis who perceive him to be too pro- Palestinian, and there are some Palestinians who can’t understand why the Americans had to appoint a Jew as mediator. The rule of thumb is that when both sides criticize the man in the middle, it indicates he was the right choice for shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

■ AMERICA’S CLOSE involvement with Israel on a somewhat different level was evident the day before the meeting in Jerusalem today between Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, is touring the region and is in Israel as the guest of Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz. This is Dempsey’s third visit in his present capacity.

Also currently in Israel is a Congressional delegation of senior Republicans, headed by House Majority Leader Sen. Eric Cantor of Virginia, who since December 2010 has been the only Jewish Republican in Congress. Cantor is known to be a strong supporter of Israel.

Another Congressional delegation, led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, chairwoman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, House Foreign Affairs Committee; and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy, Water Development and Related Agencies, met last week with all the usual Israeli dignitaries, as well as with ambassador-designate to the US Ron Dermer.

At the request of the US Embassy, the delegation also visited the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and met with IDC founder and president Prof. Uriel Reichman, as well as with senior researchers.

■ IT IS customary after new ambassadors present their credentials for them to meet their colleagues, various Foreign Ministry personnel and Israelis who are important to their embassies, for a lunch-hour vin d’honneur at the capital’s King David Hotel. There are no speeches, but there is a lot of networking.

Swedish Ambassador Carl Magnus Nesser, who has been in Israel since April, has already met a large number of his diplomatic colleagues, especially as he invited them to the Swedish National Day reception he hosted at his residence in June.

Colombia’s Dr. Fernando Alzate Donoso and Australia’s Dave Sharma, who have been here since June, have also had a chance to meet some colleagues, though perhaps not as many as Nesser.

Denmark’s Jesper Vahr, who had been in the country for only three days, and Papua New Guinea’s Winnie Anna Kiap, a non-resident ambassador who came specially from London for the occasion, missed out on meeting most of their colleagues since so many ambassadors were on vacation – although Cameroon’s Henri Etoundi Essomba, the dean of the Diplomatic Corps, made it his business to attend. Someone quipped that Essomba will soon be eligible for permanent resident status in Israel.

Most ambassadors serve terms ranging from two to five years, but Essomba will celebrate his 15th anniversary as ambassador in October.

Although there was no shortage of important people at the vin d’honneur, the person who stole the show was Daphne, the youngest of Sharma’s three daughters, who at four months of age is already quite a charmer.

■ ISRAEL IS not known for adherence to pomp and ceremony, but when it comes to giving the red carpet treatment to new ambassadors, the Jewish state is apparently a shining example. In some countries, male ambassadors have to dress in strictly formal attire, and spouses and children are not permitted to accompany them. In Israel, there are no hard and fast rules for attire and spouses are more than welcome, as are the children of an ambassador – since Israel is fortunate in having presidents who are all well disposed to children.

Up until the time of Ezer Weizman, spouses and children attended the presentation of credentials, but did not enter the smaller reception room in which the president and the new ambassador had a tête-à-tête.

That changed when one of the Latin American countries sent a female ambassador, whose husband happened to have been a high-ranking air force officer. Weizman, a former commander in chief of the Israel Air Force, had a special sense of camaraderie for anyone who was or had been in any air force, and immediately invited the ambassador’s spouse to join him and the ambassador.

That established a precedent that continues to be the norm till this day, and also includes the children of the ambassador.

One thing that Israel certainly does better than some other countries is to enhance the prestige of the ambassador by providing full red carpet treatment, replete with military honor guard, the hoisting of the flag of the ambassador’s country alongside the presidential standard, and the playing by a military or police band of the anthem of the ambassador’s country. Kiap, the non-resident ambassador of Papua New Guinea, who is also her country’s ambassador to the Court of St.

James, had not expected anything that would give her such an emotional high. She had been told before she left London that everything in Israel is very low-key. But the Israeli ceremony did much greater honor to her country than any place, including London, in which she has previously presented credentials. She will have another opportunity to experience the warmth of the Israeli welcome in October, when she accompanies her Prime Minister, Peter O’Neil, on his visit to Israel.

Papua New Guinea is rich in natural resources, and a number of Israeli businesspeople have invested in the country’s extensive energy reserves.

According to Dr. Jacob Weiss, PNG’s honorary consul in Israel, the country has one of the largest gas fields in the world.

Of the new ambassadors, Sharma is the youngest, and although he is a career diplomat who has worked abroad before, this is his first ambassadorial posting. One of Nesser’s previous postings was in Iraq. Donoso came to Israel from New York, where he had been Colombia’s permanent representative to the UN and had served on the Security Council; Vahr, for his part, had served as chef de cabinet to NATO’s secretary-general.

■ BACK IN 1974, when he was a member of Australia’s parliamentary opposition, Peter Nixon – who before and since has held various ministerial portfolios, including shipping, transportation, agriculture and the interior – was in London, en route to Israel as a guest of the Israeli government, when he was summoned home to participate in the double dissolution federal elections of that year. Nixon maintained a hankering to visit Israel, and finally, almost 40 years later, he got to do so – arriving this month with his daughter, Jo, and his sonin- law, Peter Christie.

The Nixon family spent a week touring the country, with fellow Australian Moish Oberman as their guide. This time, Nixon didn’t have to worry about Australia’s upcoming elections on September 7. Nixon caught up with some other Australians while in Israel, including Gary Stock, the chairman of James Richardson – a brand name familiar to anyone who visits the Duty Free stores at Ben-Gurion Airport.

■ FOR ALL the good work it does, Chabad has a habit of trying to overrun the Jewish communities in which it operates, regardless of whether there is an established Jewish leadership or not. In some places, particularly in those European countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc, it has either usurped the position of chief rabbi or has set up a rival religious authority. It seems to have failed in this regard in Lithuania, where the Chabad emissary was all but ostracized.

While the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was alive, Chabad did not operate in Poland – because he regarded the country as the largest Jewish graveyard in the world, and a place not worthy of the revival of Jewish life.

Very soon after his death, Chabad set up shop in Warsaw under the direction of Rabbi Shalom DovBer Stambler and his wife, Dina – who at the end of 2005, opened a Chabad House with an extensive range of services, including some which had already been in existence before their arrival in Poland. Stambler’s brother, Meir, who has business interests in Poland, commutes there frequently.

In 2007, Rabbi Stambler organized an historic event – the lighting of a Hanukka menorah in the Polish Parliament.

He compromised by using a traditional menorah, rather than the triangular-shaped one that Chabad places in public squares all over the world. Four months later in April 2008, during the visit there by Peres, the Stambler brothers organized a ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw for the completion of the writing of a Torah scroll. The following month, they and their wives accompanied President Lech Kaczynski when he visited Israel.

At a reception that Kaczynski hosted at the King David Hotel, the writer of this column found herself sharing a table with the Stambler family, and asked why they had defied the Rebbe’s edict. The reply was that many Jewish businesspeople coming to Poland were in need of what Chabad provides; many had kosher food requirements, and were also in need of other religious services.

That didn’t quite wash, because even in Communist times, Malben/ JDC ran a kosher kitchen on the premises of what was then the only remaining synagogue in Warsaw, and which is today referred to as the main synagogue. In December of that year, Kaczynski paid a memorable visit to Warsaw’s main synagogue, in which Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich officiates, and lit a Hanukka candle.

Though conventional wisdom had for years said there were hardly any Jews left in Poland, the Lauder Foundation, which was active in Poland long before Chabad, persuaded many Jews to come out of the woodwork.

The annual Krakow Jewish Festival, which ironically is run by a non-Jew who knows more about Judaism than many Jews, lured even more Jews. Schudrich has always believed that there are at least 30,000 Jews in Poland, and the fact that Chabad now operates in Krakow as well, and that Shavei Israel has rabbis living and teaching in several Polish cities, plus the Reform Movement’s presence in Warsaw since 1995, all indicate that Schudrich is correct in his assessment.

greerfc@gmail.com

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