Lea Gottlieb, queen of Israeli fashion, dies at 94

Holocaust survivor created blue-and-white swimwear giant Gottex.

Lea Gottlieb 370 (photo credit: The Jerusalem Post)
Lea Gottlieb 370
(photo credit: The Jerusalem Post)
Lea Gottlieb, who put Israeli fashion on the map, and whose swimwear and beachwear designs were so dramatic and sophisticated as to break political barriers, died in Tel Aviv on Saturday at the age of 94.
Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor Gottlieb, her husband Armin and their two daughters arrived in Israel in 1949.
Soon after the end of the war in Europe, the Gottliebs opened a raincoat factory.
They sought to emulate it in Israel, not realizing that for most the year it didn’t rain.
When that venture failed, the couple, still water-oriented, switched to swimwear, founding Gottex in 1956.
The elegant and flattering designs produced under the Gottex label, captivated fashion writers and buyers from abroad. It did not take too long before Gottex became not only Israel’s leading swimwear manufacturer, but also Israel’s leading fashion exporter, selling to more than 80 countries.
Gottlieb, or Lady Lea as she was known in the trade, was the company’s chief designer.
She did not limit her talents to swimwear but also designed the fabrics, which were specially made up in Italy to her specifications.
The fabric designs became particularly important after she began creating ensemble beachwear that included pareos, caftans, tunics, skirts, pants and jackets in fabrics that matched the swimwear, so that someone lazing by the pool in a Gottex maillot could top it with a caftan or pair it with pants and a jacket, wear the outfit to a formal reception and look like a million dollars.
Gottlieb loved flowers, partly because they had helped her to disguise herself from the Nazis in her native Hungary, and had thus saved her life. During the war, she held a number of clandestine jobs in order to feed herself and her two little girls, Miriam and Judith, but had to keep her face hidden as much as possible, because she simply looked so Jewish.
When out in the street, she often held a bunch of flowers up to her face, so that if she encountered any Nazis, they would take her for a regular peasant girl.
Flowers figured prominently in Gottlieb’s fabric designs, usually in bold, eye catching colors. She was particularly fond of hibiscus. But she also had a strong leaning toward geometry and was able to put together stripes moving in different directions in the most intriguing geometric formations.
Sophistication was the name of the game. Athough she personally never employed airs and graces, her mega fashion shows in Israel and abroad were not just a group of models parading along a catwalk. They were extravaganzas in every sense of the word, and everyone who was anyone wanted to see and be seen at these shows. Likewise, her catalogs created by Turnowsky and photographed mostly by Ben Lam, were works of art taken on special, exotic locations inside and outside Israel.
Gottlieb’s Tel Aviv showroom was large, airy, and oozed class, with a garden party ambience in the furniture and furnishings, plus the ever ready refreshments that often included the most mouthwatering of Hungarian pastries.
To be there when she was entertaining buyers was a treat in itself, She, or one of her daughters together with senior staff, would lay several swimsuits of varied design out on the floor. They would then add a matching jacket, or a pareo, a tunic, a sexy pair of pants or a caftan, and as this was happening, a model would emerge from the dressing room to demonstrate what these garments looked like when worn.
These sessions with buyers could take up to half a day.
Gottlieb was the darling of the Israel Export Institute’s textiles and fashion division in the days when the IEI conducted fashion weeks twice a year. It didn’t matter that swim and beachwear were not exactly winter fashion items. There were always buyers from the other side of the Equator who would snap them up for immediate delivery, while buyers from the northern hemisphere ordered them in time for the next summer, or bought them almost instantly for resort wear boutiques that catered to an affluent, traveling clientele.
These glamorous Israel Fashion Week events always took place in hotels where Gottex was allocated the Presidential Suite, because no other Israeli fashion company could hold a candle to Gottex when it came to style and image.
Four years ago, when Yad Vashem mounted a My Homeland exhibition in tribute to Holocaust survivors who played an essential role in Israel’s cultural, economic and homeland security development, it devoted the largest amount of space to Lea Gottlieb.
In 1982, she was made an Honorary Fellow of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. Several of Shenkar’s most promising young designers were taken on by Gottlieb and given a chance to taste the high life.
She had a similar attitude to models. Tami Ben-Ami, the most famous of the Gottex models, who died of cancer in 1995, joined the Gottex team when she was still in the army. Off the runway, the statuesque Ben-Ami was a giggly girl, with an almost childish attitude. But on stage she exuded a wild, feline grace.
Although Gottex employed many other top models, such as supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell, Ben-Ami remained the favorite who almost always opened and closed the show.
In addition to Shenkar students and graduates, Gottlieb was also supportive of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design’s fashion design students.
Gottlieb received numerous Israeli and international awards, and always had a little trouble with her acceptance speeches. Her heavily accented English was passable, though not entirely fluent, but she was never able to master Hebrew, and even when she started a speech in halting Hebrew, she lapsed into English.
One of her favorite and most faithful customers was Princess Diana, for whom she organized a private fashion show in London. Needless to say the fashion conscious princess placed several orders.
Actress Brooke Shields was also lucky enough to get a private show as was Nancy Kissinger, the wife of the former US secretary of state.
Some of the other wellknown personalities who proudly wore Gottex were actress Elizabth Taylor, and singer Ofra Haza, whose “authentic” Yemenite caftan was created by Lea Gottlieb, who in addition to designing this special outfit for Haza, borrowed liberally from traditional fabric design concepts of the region and translated them to suit flimsy, lightweight materials.
Wealthy aristocrats from neighboring countries, unable to come to Israel, purchased Gottex swimsuits and accessories in one of the European capitals or in New York.
Following the death in 1995 of her husband, who had managed the financial side of the business, Gottlieb’s fortunes took a turn for the worse, and eventually she had no choice but to sell the family’s shares which in 1997 were acquired by Lev Leviev, the chief shareholder in the Africa Israel Group.
Later, her younger daughter Judith died of cancer. By that time Gottlieb’s noncompete agreement with Africa Israel had expired, and at age 85, she reinvented herself and began once again to produce swimwear, not under the Gottex label, but under her own brand name – Lea Gottlieb.