Fashion with a conscience

An anti-mall opens at Tel Aviv port.

namal tel aviv 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
namal tel aviv 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Whether you like to stroll along the boardwalk or fancy yourself on a catwalk, chances are you'll find a few surprises at Beit Banamal ("a home in the port"), a new concept mall wedged between restaurants and nightlife in Tel Aviv's port district. The concept, says the mall's events coordinator Yael Taragon, is anti-consumerism. It was opened as a reaction to contemporary shopping malls. "A traditional mall is set up very differently and manipulates people to buy things," says Taragon, who occasionally designs clothes. She is sitting in the mall's cafe', a bright open space facing the Mediterranean Sea with the waves crashing against the breakwall only meters away. On a barstool close to the espresso machine sits a mannequin, frozen in time and holding a pacifier. "In a way we are anti-mall. We are giving people a place to come and find things for themselves," Taragon says. While mainstream malls cater to the lowest common denominator and attempt to regiment peoples' tastes, the proprietors of Beit Banamal are hoping to forge a different blueprint in the way malls are built. The idea was hatched by fashionistas from Comme Il Faut, an Israeli fashion house with a French name and a flair for being socially aware. Ten months ago, Comme Il Faut anchored its new cafe' and store, Radical, at the Tel Aviv port, and at the same time opened a women-only spa, Coola. "People don't come here [to Coola] to become a stam cussit ('just a chick')," says Taragon, pointing to the round-bodied illustration of a woman on the business card. In addition to standard spa treatments such as facials, eyebrow shaping and massage, Coola offers workshops including belly dancing and yoga retreats. Taragon says that Coola aims to make a woman to feel good about herself, no matter how she looks. As part of its non-commercial message, almost every other Monday Beit Banamal hosts different seminars and workshops on subjects otherwise reserved for small segments of Israeli society. Last November, the mall invited Green Action's Avi Levy to talk about his project on fair trade, a scheme that cuts out middlemen and allows farmers to reap greater economic benefit from their crops. A Palestinian farmer was also invited and the two discussed the significance of fair trade olive oil. The talk attracted fashion mavens, activists and everyday citizens, some of whom happened to stumble upon the meeting while walking through the port that evening. More recently, a lesbian poet from Tel Aviv named Shez came to give readings of her work and discuss the issue of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Nevertheless, says Taragon, "The community here isn't alternative. We are much more mainstream. We are just taking some radical ideas and presenting them to women, for some of whom it may be the first time they are being exposed to such things. We are giving them something more than just beautiful clothes." A few weeks ago, movement artist Shahar Dor performed at Beit Banamal. "He explored the space and took the audience with him," says Taragon. "He started first in the open space out front and then danced into the cafe'." Another recent memorable Monday hosted DVD screenings by independent cinema group, Kol Noa Avriri. Next month, painter Keren Spielsher will hold a free workshop on painting hats. There will also be a meeting to discuss the current art exhibition, which plays on how art is dealt with in the consumer's space. "All of the meetings here are free - that's one of the main criteria," says Taragon, who is open to new ideas from the English-speaking community. Even though every day isn't Monday, there is still a lot to see at Beit Banamal. Other shops to peruse include Gal, a tiny boutique with the look and feel of a walk-in closet, where a graphic designer sells fabrics of her won design, ceramics bowls and dolls. A popular store is the African na ve art shop Uma, crammed with authentic artifacts. Other stations in the mini-mall include Sisters, an erotica shop for women; Alfa, a hair salon and Helen Ganor, a one-of-a-kind jewelry store. All of the shops leasing space at Bait Banamal were selected by Comme Il Faut, whose aim, claims its brochure, is to avoid the faceless, meaningless mold of traditional shopping malls. Comme Il Faut blames some of the problems at traditional shopping malls on globalization. Going against globalization, however, isn't cheap. A pair of pants at Comme Il Faut's Radical shop cost about NIS 900, even though prices at the Beit Banamal location are supposed to be considerably cheaper than at other Comme Il Faut outlets. Taragon agrees that the stores' fashions are expensive, but points at large chain stores in Israel, most of which have their clothes manufactured in the Far East where workers are paid pennies for their labor. "Yes, perhaps in other shops you will find cheaper T-shirts, but chances are the clothes are made in sweat-shops. Our clothes are expensive, but they last for a long time," she says. "I am wearing Comme Il Faut clothes my mother bought herself 10 years ago and they are still in great condition. We are not trying to be very trendy, rather, we have a more classical way of thinking. That way, our clothes can be a part of your wardrobe for 20 years." For those who are curious, Taragon translates the name Comme Il Faut, "as you prefer it to be." "Each woman can really connect to this concept in her own way," she adds. Taragon sports a grey knee-length sweater with pockets and wears simple soft black boots that Peter Pan might put on. She declines to have her picture taken. Shots of her face and those of some 30 other women grace a wall outside the cafe'. "I lost a shoelace," quips the down-to-earth brunette with a blunt geometric haircut, as she points to the laceless flaps on her boots, and then turns to stir a glass of lemonade colored with flecks of mint-leaves. "I took the other one out, and I think they look okay like this too." The official opening of Bait Banamal is yet to come. But before the fanfare begins, Taragon says that it is important that the mall is complete. "We are always checking what is good and what isn't; what is complete and what is missing." Comme Il Faut, one of Israel's highest-end independent women's-wear chains, was launched in 1988 by two friends Carol Godin and Sybil Goldfinger. Today the company employs 60 women and four men. Based on the unofficial beginnings of Beit Banamal, Comme Il Faut may soon be employing more.