Clothes like days

Designer Michal Bassad has turned cotton T-shirts into an unplanned, intuitive aesthetic.

tshirt fashion 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy of Michal Bassad)
tshirt fashion 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy of Michal Bassad)
"It's a kind of a dance," says Michal Bassad. The designer is perched on a table next to her sewing machine. Her studio, which also serves as her store, has only a few racks of clothing, reflective of her artistic approach to fashion. Though the space is minimal, its energetic, loud music streams though a laptop computer, and the teal walls serve as an impromptu chalkboard. "Anger is energy" is scrawled in white beside the makeshift dressing room of little more than a corner partitioned by paper patterns hanging from a steel rack. Her clothes are as dynamic as the environment they are created in. "My clothes are very organic in that manner, they are not planned, they are intuitive," Bassad says. This approach explains why no two pieces are identical. "Each is one. It's like days," says Michal. "No day is the same, no day repeats itself." While each piece is distinct, they are all reflective of Bassad's unique vision - part punk rock, part recycled, entirely fanciful. Though her style has evolved over the nine years she has been making clothes, it is rooted in her first strokes. She began after "a beautiful, handsome man" broke her heart. Left with empty time and a lot of large T-shirts, she started sewing. "I started making them into other shirts, much more fitted, much more elegant," she recalls. Working as a fashion photographer at the time, she made these early pieces for herself and friends. "I didn't think about turning it into something big. It just grew," says Bassad. "I had a sale... and I sold all [the shirts] but one. I realized that there must be something there I should explore." After this early success, she managed to place some of her clothing in what she refers to as "the right boutiques." But eventually she struck out on her own, becoming one of the first designers to open shop in Gan Hahashmal in South Tel Aviv - a neighborhood that simmers with young designers. "I was living in the neighborhood when it was only foreign workers - it was cheap, and I thought it was smart to start here," Bassad says. HER STORY is one of adaptability. Bassad began working with used cotton T-shirts out of necessity, but gradually turned it into an aesthetic. Echoing one of her influences, John Galiano, her work is feminine and edgy. On the day we interview her, Bassad is wearing a loose one-shoulder halter top that she has revamped from many shirts into one. Though faded, the word Venezuela cuts diagonally across the torso, leaving the viewer to guess about the previous lives of the shirt. A customer tries on a form-fitting, vivid blue dress. Bassad has treated the fabric a bit like a canvas - she began with white cotton, dyed it a subtle gray, and then painted it with uneven strokes that create a suggestion of water. The customer looks at herself in the mirror. "It's like wearing a spring," Bassad comments. This dress, like her other pieces, is at once playful and dramatic, reflecting her outlook on life, "Every day should be a celebration." The bias cut of the fabric ensures a fluid fit that traces the lines of the customer's body. "The material gives me an idea of what to do with it... the material reacts." But this approach isn't limited to her use of fabric alone. "Real fashion designers communicate with things around them, and my clothes respond to everything I care about." Three years ago, during the Second Lebanon War, Bassad made T-shirts that simply said "Run." Others implored "Don't Shoot," with one word on each side of the shirt. "So many people don't understand why they are working, what they are trying to say... But I believe because everything was hard for me I had to find a different way of doing things, my own language, a language that comes out of life." "I'm a black North African - my father is from Libya and my mother from Tunisia," Bassad says. A first-generation Israeli, she grew up in Azarya, a village not far from Tel Aviv. "I had a very normal, quiet village life, but in my teens I found it boring, and I couldn't find anything to relate to," she recalls. Her parents hoped she would become a white-collar professional, but Bassad gravitated naturally toward the arts, beginning with music in her mid-teens. "I studied classical singing, that's why I moved to Jerusalem, but then I discovered rock and roll... I wanted to be in a band, but I couldn't, I was too embarrassed. So instead I started taking photographs of rock bands." ONE THING led to the next, and Bassad eased into the fashion world via photography. She never studied design formally - she enrolled in art school but quickly dropped out. She spent several years in Europe, but despite the vibrant fashion scene there, it wasn't until her return to Tel Aviv that she began to explore the industry herself. From the start, it was apparent that her approach was less than traditional and that her vision - which hearkens to the innovative, sometimes eccentric work of Belgian designer Martin Margiela - was unique. Some of her early designs included external seams, which designers from Shenkar told her were "against the rules." "'What rules?' I asked them. 'Is there some kind of fashion rule book that says what is allowed, and what isn't?'" What some might consider flawed fabric destined for the garbage, Bassad sees as opportunity. She shows us an older piece, one that's not for sale. It serves as a testament, of sorts, to her past. She began with a shirt so worn out it was riddled with holes. She carefully stitched around each opening to reinforce and preserve the ragged look, then draped the reinforced fabric over a vintage punk rock shirt - leaving the word "vicious" visible through a gaping hole. It's a high-fashion twist on punk - taken off the street and turned into art. Holding the shirt before her, Bassad reflects on its history and her own. "It has to do with your surroundings - when it's hard core, the clothes are too. My design has become softer over the years... it's not only about aesthetics, it's about philosophy and life."