Holy Fashion: Gender-bender

Fashion expert Ella Manor talks to Israeli designer Shai Shalom about gender bending in fashion and the slow fashion process.

Shai Shalom's WF 1415 collection (photo credit: ALON SHAFRANSKI)
Shai Shalom's WF 1415 collection
(photo credit: ALON SHAFRANSKI)

Shalom prides himself on being one of the only Haute Couture designers in Israel, stretching the limits of this definition to a more relevant version he calls Custom Made Collection. Hand sewn to measurements for his private (and secretive) clients, Shai employs a staff of seven who help create this intricate and well rounded designs.His WF 1415 collection, which exhibited in fashion week last March, presents a collection that would run the gamut between the female and the male apparel worlds. Quotes from the male wardrobe have been loaned to the female collection, and vise versa. The color palette serves warm spicy colors such as camel, forest green and dark purple, highlighted with a mellow turquoise.Shai seems to believe in an ongoing yet dynamic work process: slow fashion. This process allows him the freedom to create sub-collections because one of the designs he created by specification for a client was a success on a certain season. Don’t be fooled, this freedom can only be allowed within a strict and clear design path and business model, one which Shai cleverly and diligently built in the seventeen years he has been running the show....Hi Shai, I was really happy to be researching and learning more about you and your work for this piece in Holy Fashion. Your work and process seems very intricate, high-end and even mysterious. I was curious to meet you in person and see what kind of person you are and learn a little bit about your history and why you do what you do and how you do it. You're also not that easy to get to so thank you for this interview.I would love to hear about your development as a designer through the years, I believe its been 17 years since you graduated from Shenkar college of engineering and design? Yes, around 17 years I know Motti Reif took you on right before graduation to collaborate with Cartier which I’m sure was a huge landmark experience in the beginning of your career helping to shape who you are as a designer. Is that correct? When you think about back then when you just graduated, did you have any idea of what kind of designer or brand you wanted to be? Tough question! I don’t know why I started with that I’m sorry its very interesting to me.
To be quite honest when I was just starting out I never could have figured that I will be this sort of personal hand on designer working so closely with my clients to create custom made collections made to measure.
How did that come about? It really did develop because of Motti Reif and the collaboration he brought me into with Cartier. That was the head start.
Tell me about the project with Cartier and how it shaped who you are as a designer today.
This was an event which revolved around the launch of Cartier’s perfume, “Pretty”. We did a fashion show where six models wore the same dress according to the specifications of the Cartier branding, and started there.That was a huge moment for you. Yes, it was three days after graduating from Shenkar. Motti allowed for that to happen?
Yes, Motti is the key for everything that I have today.
That’s amazing, and I love Motti, he is such a wonderful and giving human being.
I think, and I believe he is one of the most important people in the fashion industry in Israel.
No doubt.
And without him, none of the last three fashion weeks would have taken place.
Certainly not in such a professional manner. In israel its not a simple task to orchestrate such a huge event to be so professional and accurate and high end.Yes. Actually come to think of it, in that regard, I’m a little surprised that you do what you do here. Its so NOT Israel to do this. Is it?
Well, I must agree that I hear it often, its very common to think that.
Although, there are obviously people here who want what you provide, who want the prestige and the accuracy in their apparel, as you are very successful here at what you do and your clients are Israeli.
Of course, the people who choose to come and create a private collection are people who are not intimidated by a non brand. They are not people who go blindly for a brand just for the sake of its name.
Which, a lot of the times, wealthy people do; care about the brand, so that’s an interesting combination. Somebody who can afford it but doesn't need the brand name, or even more accurate, someone who wants the mysteriousness of being a part of something that is not in plain sight, something not everyone could be a part of.
Everything is done custom made, made to measure, nothing can be sold off the rack. Everything is designed according to the lifestyle and demands of the client.
How do clients reach you and vice versa?
Appointments can be pre arranged. Word of mouth mainly.
If someone wants to work with you or know about the brand they make an appointment with you? Yes. And you take them through what the process is?
Usually when people come they already have an idea of what the process is.
They heard from the person who referred them?
Yes, or they read. And another thing that sets us apart is that our clients have been with us for many years, some from the beginning, could be 17 years.
Very loyal. Yes, and also its like they are a part of this little private club which they keep coming back to. No entrance fee is required. Just being aware of the process. Because the process is not easy to be part of.Why is that? There are at least three or four meetings before the garment is ready. Everything is done first as a sketch version of the outfit, a prototype, and only then we cut it from the real fabric.Everything is hand sewn. Its a very delicate process. The showroom may be sitting in the middle of Tel Aviv but the outside is not coming in. Everything is done very discreetly.Sounds like fun. And when a client comes to you do they usually want something for an event, or a whole wardrobe, does anything go?
Usually people have a wardrobe that they want to add to. We build a clever closet.
What is that? When people come and ask for designs they usually have some key items that they want to add to or mix and match, usually they add to existing pieces so they can evolve with their own process in fashion. Its like having a private collection.Yea, which is a very cool concept for the “regular” person. It sounds like something that used to be more apparent in olden times, fit for royalty and such.
Yes, Its totally different from the concept of fast fashion. It would be accurate to say that its the slowest fashion there is.
That process could also start and never finish, with your clients that stay with you for years. You're always working on something. It becomes part of their life.
Yes, it becomes part of everyone’s life which is involved with the studio. My staff members work for me for many years like 15 or seventeen years. So everything is done like a fashion house without having a window display.
I can relate to that a bit because my process is similar in the way that when I work with a client, I like to take the time to know the person, find out what inspires them and what drives them and build a concept for creating visuals based on that, and that takes a little time. Its also not something everyone expects or wants, its not for everyone but I find that its is a much more meaningful experience and the results reflect that, as with your designs. Its very clear that a lot of work and thought and time go into them and it shows.
And clashing these different creative worlds and collaborating in that meaningful way creates some pretty amazing and innovative results. Tell me about an interesting collaboration you had.
Relatively recently we did a collaboration with Lee Jeans which was an amazing experience, it was the first time I worked with such a big brand to create a capsule collection which is very different from everything that I have done until that time. It was a collection for LEE in which I received a bunch of old denim pieces of their and I took them apart and reconstructed them again into the collection. I also designed knitwear for that collection.
And commercially what was the strategy for this collection?
It was a conceptual collection, not meant for manufacturing.
You have placed yourself in a spot where you create a very specific line of design work and you're probably one of best at what you do. Do you have the desire to design a line of clothing that could be more accessible for a wider audience?
I have to admit that working with LEE on this project definitely made me think more seriously about something like that and want to do it. It was the first time we made clothes that weren't made for a specific person which was totally new for me.
That opens up a world of possibilities.
It completely opens things up. The fact that we came up with a collection that has commercial appeal, which my designs usually don't have, definitely was fun for me, and it totally made me start thinking, mostly positive thoughts about that. Nothing was yet done about it but “never say never.”
I feel as though you are a cautious person, is that true?
You can say that, but maybe more accurately, if I tried to define it I would say that its taking my time and “not feeling the need to be in a hurry,” which embodies the entire process of how the studio works.
I like that, not feeling the necessity to hurry. Its such a breath of fresh air in today’s fast paced, sometimes ridiculously fast western culture.Yea, and that’s how one can reach finer results which are well rounded, thought through, and precise, and that has been the way of my studio since the beginning. Side by side with designing custom made apparel you work on seasonal collections right? Yes, those collections are an invitation to start a dialogue with the client, sort of like my seasonal personal suggestions when it comes to a color pallette, material etc. and then the private dialogue between me and the client takes us to where it does, while the outcome can be close to an original design from the collection or very far from it.
How does your creative process start? It really starts with the materials I see and choose to work with. I travel a lot abroad to select materials, usually natural material, cashmere, leather, silk, cotton, linen, and they dictate the direction in which I want to go.
OK now I have an important question for you about a topic that I find dear to me. I read somewhere that you use “quotes” from female apparel and lend them into the clothes you design for men and vice versa.
I’d love to hear more about why you do that since gender and its “limits” is a recurring topic in my artwork. I like to try and test the boundaries and raise questions about gender roles and appearance, challenge the thought patterns we have about it, as in what is acceptable and not acceptable.
Today everything has opened up in that subject so its a more open and interesting discussion. When I read that you do that slight “gender bending”, or “gender lending” in your designs, I wanted to know what is interesting to you on that topic and why you choose to do that?
As an approach I think that it would be very limiting to define a specific material as belonging to a certain gender based wardrobe. Meaning does material exist only as material? or does material recieve identity before you even made use with it to create something else? can velvet only be worn by women or can it be adopted by a designer to be connected to a man’s piece of clothing in a way that it can maintain its male identity and still have some appeal that exists in the female, softer wardrobe? When you start working with a material you can see that, eventually, and I believe you will relate to this a lot, is that material is in the hand of its creator. For the simple reason that from the same material I can design a piece of clothing for a woman and immediately transfer it to the male’s department and still maintain the male attributes which I look for in a male collection.
Do you have women clients who come to you wanting a more masculine looking wardrobe?
In its characteristics?
Yes.Certain women come from worlds of content which are more business oriented environments where the dress code is more strict to require a tailored polished look so there’s that.
What are you working on now?
We’re working on Summer 2015, and were also shooting this week a new Winter 2014 collection exclusively for men. I used the collection which I exhibited in fashion week in late March, took it apart, reconstructed it and rebuilt a smaller remake on the large collection. Wow, in addition to the four seasonal collections you create and the private clients sounds like a lot of work! But you don't do this every year I imagine, this is something new.Correct, it doesn't happen every year, I went with the flow this year to make this sub collection which will be smaller and more accurate for the upcoming season. When we work we work! EM: Well Shai, I for one enjoyed this visit and interview very much. Its wonderful to know there are still designers (and clients) who take their time to create fashion that is an example of professionalism, dedication, beauty and history, and all in a modern and relevant manner.
Chapeau! More of Shai here ...

The writer/photographer is a multimedia artist, fashion photographer and trendsetter.

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