From dance to design

After dabbling in photography and performance, Yosef Perez has found his metier making elegant clothing set apart by unusual cuts and hand-sewn details.

Yosef Perez 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yosef Perez 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It's 10 a.m. and Tel Aviv designer Yosef Perez of the well-known Yosef label is still buzzing from a long run at the gym. "I go every morning," he says with enthusiasm, folding up today's paper and turning to his espresso. In a few months, the 36-year-old will be celebrating a decade of slim, elegant designs that includes four clothing stores and a relatively new line of casual wear. Yet, despite his overwhelming success, Yosef's rise to success in the local and international fashion market took extreme dedication and required much personal risk. His designs, which are known for their unusual cuts and extraordinary hand-sewn touches, originated with a route few have taken. Born in Kiryat Shmona, he arrived in Tel Aviv at 19 and decided to study photography. After eight months in a private course, he had had enough. "That wasn't for me," he says, adjusting the band of a gold necklace that loops around his neck twice and has a hanging charm in the shape of a dog. After photography, he decided to become a dancer. He moved to New York at 22 and was accepted into a small dance troupe. "After a year, we went to Miami as part of a tour and I got stuck in South Beach. The dancing hours were too rigorous for me and I was tired of working 12 hours a day for pennies." In 1997, after a year on the beach, he returned to Israel and took a job with a prestigious fashion and interior design firm. After two years, he decided to sign up for a technical course in fashion design, but it ended badly. "One of the instructors saw my sketches and told me to go back to dancing," he says with a wide smile. "I told her to go back to being a librarian and she threw me out of the course." STILL UNWILLING to give up his dream of becoming a fashion designer, he enrolled in private courses at Shenkar College of Fashion and Design. During his studies, he began to make dresses for his roommate, a beautiful girl who worked in a Tel Aviv PR firm. "She'd go into work wearing my dresses and all of her colleagues would want one too, so I started taking orders," he says. "From there, it exploded. I'd have 40 or 50 girls in my apartment trying on dresses and making orders." In the end, he decided to leave his studies and turn to fashion design fulltime. In 2000, he participated in Tel Aviv's first fashion designer's market in an old hangar in the port. "At that time, there were no young designers in Tel Aviv and the well-known designers only came there to sell their leftovers," he says. "The manager told me to take a small stand because it was expensive to be there." In the interim, on a trip to Berlin, he had a drunken epiphany. "I called up the manager when I got back and told her I wanted a full stand for my new collection. She tried to talk me out of it but I insisted." In a month and a half, Perez designed and completed 800 pieces of high-end clothing for the market. When he arrived, the other designers told him it was beautiful but too expensive. "Everyone told me I would never sell it all, but after a day and a half of the three-day market, my stall was empty. I sold every single item." With the overwhelming success, he decided it was time to open a store. For the first year, he was located in South Tel Aviv, but it went well and he moved to Rehov Dizengoff, which at that time was in a slump. "I walked down this street and I could have had my pick of places," he explains. "It was all empty." In 2002, he was awarded with the best young Israeli fashion designer's award and in 2003, he won the overall award for best Israeli fashion designer. From there, his reputation began to grow and he completed a large project for Hamashbir that led him into casual attire. "People said I was crazy to design for Hamashbir, but they're wrong because people bought something there and then when they needed an evening dress, they came to visit the store and bought something there," he explains. "It was fantastic." The television campaign, which pictured model Melanie Peres as a marionette with Perez controlling her strings, caught a lot of flak from outraged feminists, but the collection was another success. Since then, he has been designing two collections a year of evening gowns and casual attire. "My language of my design focuses on the cut and how it fits the woman," he says. "Fabric that costs $2,000 a meter doesn't make someone a good designer. It's all about the style." IN HIS flagship store on Rehov Dizengoff, this spring and summer's collection includes bridal gowns, colorful and elegant evening gowns and casual wear. "I'm not afraid of colors," he says, pointing out the yellow, peach, green and red dresses. He uses satin, chiffon, lace, cotton and polyester, but all of the material has a distinct feminine appeal that is reminiscent of a fairy-tale princess without the poofy pomp and circumstance that defines many local bridal designers. Although the price is not inexpensive (dresses range from NIS 3,000 all the way up to NIS 10,000 for custom orders), his simple white gowns are flattering and elegant. In the window, a long fitted dress with small silver beads has a transparent, rounded piece of chiffon covering the open back that looks gorgeous on the body. "I like to think that I was partially responsible for the education of Israeli brides," he says. "They all come to me at first and they want me to make them a dress that looks like an evening gown but with more poof," he says. "I insist that they shouldn't be wearing something that will suffocate them like a raisin. For me, the extra push of a bridal gown is the hand-sewn beads and delicate lace. It's in the small details, not the extravagant, over-the-top fluff." Inspired by daily life - books, films and women on the street - Perez insists that even though he is well known, he still has challenges to meet. "Today it's not like when I started. There are tons of talented young Israeli designers on the market today and there are a lot of beautiful clothes coming from abroad. I have to keep making new things that are more beautiful than everyone else's." Part of the reason why his dresses have an unusual look is also because he works differently. Rather than sewing from sketches, he puts the fabric directly on the mannequin first and pieces it together with pins until he's satisfied with the outcome. "It's a lot more challenging to work that way, but in the end it gives a finished design that is interesting and sophisticated. I make a lot of mistakes, but I learn from those mistakes and the put together things that are not overdesigned. It's not about more. It's about less."