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.

It's 10 a.m. and Tel Aviv designer Yosef Perez ofthe 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 paperand turning to his espresso.

Ina few months, the 36-year-old will be celebrating a decade of slim,elegant designs that includes four clothing stores and a relatively newline of casual wear. Yet, despite his overwhelming success, Yosef'srise to success in the local and international fashion market tookextreme dedication and required much personal risk. His designs, whichare 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 decidedto study photography. After eight months in a private course, he hadhad enough. "That wasn't for me," he says, adjusting the band of a goldnecklace that loops around his neck twice and has a hanging charm inthe shape of a dog.

After photography, he decided to become a dancer. He moved toNew York at 22 and was accepted into a small dance troupe. "After ayear, we went to Miami as part of a tour and I got stuck in SouthBeach. The dancing hours were too rigorous for me and I was tired ofworking 12 hours a day for pennies."

In 1997, after a year on the beach, he returned toIsrael and took a job with a prestigious fashion and interior designfirm. After two years, he decided to sign up for a technical course infashion design, but it ended badly. "One of the instructors saw mysketches 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 thecourse."

STILL UNWILLING to give up his dream of becoming a fashiondesigner, he enrolled in private courses at Shenkar College of Fashionand Design. During his studies, he began to make dresses for hisroommate, a beautiful girl who worked in a Tel Aviv PR firm. "She'd gointo work wearing my dresses and all of her colleagues would want onetoo, 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 makingorders." In the end, he decided to leave his studies and turn tofashion design fulltime.

In2000, he participated in Tel Aviv's first fashion designer's market inan old hangar in the port. "At that time, there were no young designersin Tel Aviv and the well-known designers only came there to sell theirleftovers," he says. "The manager told me to take a small stand becauseit was expensive to be there." In the interim, on a trip to Berlin, hehad a drunken epiphany. "I called up the manager when I got back andtold her I wanted a full stand for my new collection. She tried to talkme out of it but I insisted."

In a month and a half, Perez designed and completed 800 piecesof high-end clothing for the market. When he arrived, the otherdesigners told him it was beautiful but too expensive. "Everyone toldme I would never sell it all, but after a day and a half of thethree-day market, my stall was empty. I sold every single item."

With the overwhelming success, he decided it wastime to open a store. For the first year, he was located in South TelAviv, but it went well and he moved to Rehov Dizengoff, which at thattime was in a slump. "I walked down this street and I could have had mypick of places," he explains. "It was all empty."

In 2002, he was awarded with the best young Israeli fashiondesigner's award and in 2003, he won the overall award for best Israelifashion designer. From there, his reputation began to grow and hecompleted a large project for Hamashbir that led him into casualattire.

"People said I was crazy to design for Hamashbir, but they'rewrong because people bought something there and then when they neededan evening dress, they came to visit the store and bought somethingthere," he explains. "It was fantastic."

The television campaign, which pictured model Melanie Peres asa marionette with Perez controlling her strings, caught a lot of flakfrom outraged feminists, but the collection was another success.

Since then, he has been designing two collections a year ofevening gowns and casual attire. "My language of my design focuses onthe cut and how it fits the woman," he says. "Fabric that costs $2,000a meter doesn't make someone a good designer. It's all about thestyle."

IN HIS flagship store on Rehov Dizengoff, this spring andsummer's collection includes bridal gowns, colorful and elegant eveninggowns and casual wear. "I'm not afraid of colors," he says, pointingout the yellow, peach, green and red dresses. He uses satin, chiffon,lace, cotton and polyester, but all of the material has a distinctfeminine appeal that is reminiscent of a fairy-tale princess withoutthe poofy pomp and circumstance that defines many local bridaldesigners.

Although the price is not inexpensive (dresses range from NIS3,000 all the way up to NIS 10,000 for custom orders), his simple whitegowns are flattering and elegant. In the window, a long fitted dresswith small silver beads has a transparent, rounded piece of chiffoncovering the open back that looks gorgeous on the body.

"I like to think that I was partially responsible for theeducation of Israeli brides," he says. "They all come to me at firstand they want me to make them a dress that looks like an evening gownbut with more poof," he says. "I insist that they shouldn't be wearingsomething that will suffocate them like a raisin. For me, the extrapush of a bridal gown is the hand-sewn beads and delicate lace. It's inthe 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 haschallenges to meet. "Today it's not like when I started. There are tonsof talented young Israeli designers on the market today and there are alot of beautiful clothes coming from abroad. I have to keep making newthings that are more beautiful than everyone else's."

Part of the reason why his dresses have an unusuallook is also because he works differently. Rather than sewing fromsketches, he puts the fabric directly on the mannequin first and piecesit together with pins until he's satisfied with the outcome. "It's alot more challenging to work that way, but in the end it gives afinished design that is interesting and sophisticated. I make a lot ofmistakes, but I learn from those mistakes and the put together thingsthat are not overdesigned. It's not about more. It's about less."