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From his new store in Jerusalem's Mamilla Mall, Ronen Chen advises a customer on his winter line as she shows him a dark gray skirt she's interested in. She nods at him admiringly while he speaks, and when he finishes, she rushes to the dressing room to try it on. A few minutes later, she's out the door, new purchase in hand.
The charming designer certainly has a way with women, at least that's what all the devoted customers say of the veteran fashion designer.
"He just understands the female body," says one woman, swaying her hips seductively as illustration. It's a compliment he hears all the time.
"I'm very well-known for my flattering shapes," says Chen, who has been designing women's clothes for almost 14 years. These shapes are what set him apart from the pack of hip and trendy Israeli designers, whose short-lived fame rarely lasts a couple of seasons.
"My collection isn't trendy; it's not in today and out tomorrow; it's beyond that," says Chen, dressed all in black and a shirt of his creation along with a pair of rimless spectacles. "Nothing here says '2007' - it can all be worn forever."
His classic, modern style is definitely the secret behind his long life in the fickle fashion business, but stems from a hobby that has nothing to do with clothes.
"I've always been into architecture," he explains. "Since I was young, I was always sketching and building constructions, and I always thought I would be an architect when I grew up."
But when he applied to the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and Shenkar College of Engineering and Design and was accepted only to the latter, he decided to try fashion on for size.
"I felt like a fish in the sea," he says of his time at Shenkar, where he graduated at the top of his class. "Whereas in architecture it can sometimes take years to see a finished product, I like that when I have a new idea it comes out very quickly in clothes. I can see it in front of me almost right away."
The straight lines and geometric shapes of modern architecture still remain the primary inspiration for Chen, and shape every garment he touches.
"I take stiff, masculine squares and triangles, drape them on a mannequin and pull at them until I deconstruct them into something flirty and feminine," he says. "It's not something I can sketch or draw - it's something that has to be draped on a woman's body to be designed."
As a male designer, he admits he sometimes feels he's at a disadvantage that he can't try his clothes on himself to see how they really look and feel. Instead he uses mannequins and models, who wear the pieces all day long to check for comfort and durability. And though he'll design clothes for himself, a collection for men is out of the question.
"Men's clothes are just boring, it always looks the same," he says, chuckling. "Fashion is about what's new and exciting, and you can only do new and exciting with women."
To complement his unique and distinctive shapes, his colors are often muted, mostly grays, blacks and creams, with a few bright reds, allowing women of every age to find his collection wearable. Though geared for those 35-55, plenty of younger women top his client list because of the timelessly chic look of his clothes. Anything in his stores today, he insists, could easily fit into one of his collections from 14 years ago, and vice versa.
Back then, however, he was operating out of his Tel Aviv home with a staff of one seamstress. He sold to other stores until he could open his own, which he did on Rehov Sheinkin, where it still remains. Less than a year later he had exported his collection by gaining a spot in a prestigious fashion exhibition in London. Someone had canceled at the last minute and Chen was told he could attend, and had just two weeks to compile an updated collection.
"That was my naÃ¯ve beginning," he says, laughing. "I received 500 orders from stores in London, Sweden and Japan, and I didn't have enough money for fabric or a place to manufacture it all!"
Today, Chen has nine stores across the country and sells in 250 stores in the US, Ireland, Australia and Canada, and his ultimate goal is to open a store of his own abroad. His line is international, he says, and it's almost impossible to tell where his clothes are from. He strives to acquire the recognition and reputation he has here in the US as well, but says he would never leave his homeland.
"I love the warm weather, the warm people, the warm, homey feeling here," he says. "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."
Sitting in his new store overlooking Jerusalem's Old City, surrounded by customers and unexpectedly busy on a weekday evening, Chen says his biggest achievement thus far is continuing to create new pieces every day within his classic framework.
"It's an unbelievable feeling to see someone on the street wearing my clothes, to see women in my store," he says. "I may have gotten used to it, but it still makes me feel alive."
Three must-haves for every woman for winter
Very deep V-neck sweater in black - "to wear something sexy underneath or layer with a button-down, it's a basic to dress up and down."
Balloon skirt - "in a dark color, can go great for day and night."
Fleece jacket - "can be used as a cardigan or a coat."
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