Israel's only shoemaking school, nestled in the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, celebrates a successful year.
By MEREDITH PRICE LEVITT
It's 10 a.m. and Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station is teeming with people. Golden rays from the morning sun are lighting up one black boot in the window display nestled among the industrial stalls. Its laces are undone, and the black leather tongue is resting to one side of the old wooden table on a platform above the workshop. Behind the display, a shoe is drawn in golden circles on a piece of cardboard. Above this, "The Guild" is written in Hebrew.
As you enter the new shoemaking and accessories design school, a few steps lead up to a wooden platform that overlooks the rest of the room. Along the walls, a neat row of desks with sewing machines frames a large table in the center, where pattern-making materials, scissors, strips of leather, glue and various tools are waiting to be used.
The students have yet to arrive, and a quiet hush hangs in the air. Nina Rozin, who co-founded The Guild with her partner, Gal Shukroon-Ganon, greets me with a warm smile near the receptionist's desk.
"Let me show you around," she says. The walls of one large classroom behind the open studio are decorated with former student projects. Plastic feet models used to shape and fit shoes are neatly aligned on a table in the back corner. A sink with colorful plastic bowls and a white board used for instruction frame the long table.
"This is the wet room," Rozin says. "We use this room for teaching." She points to a leather shoe model pinned to the wall next to a series of conceptual drawings. The sandal looks like one long strap that has been wound in circles, leaving large gaps. It was the creative design of a former student who needed to produce a shoe for dancers that would be worn in the sand. Rather than trying to keep the sand out, the loose leather straps allowed it to enter the shoe. For Rozin, this illustrates the importance of technique and creativity when it comes to shoe design.
"The design is the easy part," she says. "The hard work is putting it together in a high-quality shoe."
In a small salon next to the classroom, a coffee table is lined with the latest design magazines and catalogs from local shoe designers, many of whom are former students.
At the end of the workshop is a spacious, open-air garden area where the students can get some fresh air and work on projects that require smelly glues.
Rozin and Shukroon-Ganon, former instructors at Achilles, the country's first - and now defunct - shoemaking school, officially opened The Guild a year ago in January after a summer experiment that was wildly successful. Rozin, who returned to the country after studying at Cordwainer's in London, left behind a prominent career in the shoe design industry to come home.
"I arrived in 2004 completely prepared to give up my career because I knew that there was no footwear design industry in Israel," she says. She heard about a woman teaching shoe design and joined her endeavor.
Rozin met her partner Shukroon-Ganon, who majored in costume and accessory design at the College for Technology Education in Tel Aviv, while both were teaching at Achilles. After a flood destroyed the school's studio in Jaffa, the Argentinean owner decided to move the courses to Herzliya. Difficulties with transportation and the distance from the actual shoemakers completely changed the atmosphere, and the school closed its doors in 2007, two years after it opened.
"We struggled with the decision about whether to open another school after Achilles closed, but we realized that there was a lot of interest and we believed that we could offer students a place to learn, share their knowledge and succeed in the industry," Rozin says.
The Guild, which places a strong emphasis on technique and design, is the only place in the country that offers students the ability to learn all aspects of shoe design in short and long courses - including technical shoemaking and production, design, uppers, jewelry and bag design, multimaterials and textile design and production.
"We try to offer interesting courses in different areas, and we have students who are fresh out of the army as well as those who are older without any prior experience who just want to see if they can design shoes and bags," says Rozin.
The nomenclature is infused with Rozin's and Shukroon-Ganon's philosophy. A guild is defined by Webster's as an organization of persons with related interests and goals, especially one formed for mutual aid or protection. And this, Rozin says, is the foundation of the school.
"Our manifesto is to continue not only as a school but as a guild, a place where we make the connections between designers, manufacturers, suppliers and exhibitions abroad. We want to pool our expenses and create a unified voice of Israeli shoe designers who can come here to share and learn. It's not enough to just give an education," she says.
The greatest indication of The Guild's success is the number of students who return to take more courses and the growing enrollment.
BUT LEARNING how to design and make shoes is simply not enough to become a successful shoe designer. One of the biggest challenges facing new designers intent on making shoes is the dying shoemaking profession. Although large factories, like Naot, Beautifeel, Shoresh and Moran, are flourishing, the small, skilled cobblers are disappearing.
Israel has a rich shoemaking history. In the 1950s, waves of skilled cobblers immigrated from North Africa and set up shops in Jaffa and Tel Aviv. When import taxes were lowered in the 1980s, many of them retired or left the industry. In the 1990s, another wave of skilled cobblers arrived from the former Soviet Union. But today, they are now retiring, and fewer and fewer young people are interested in the hard labor and low income that being a cobbler often entails.
"Young people today don't want to make shoes. They want better careers that earn more money and they don't want to get their hands dirty," says Rozin. Another challenge is the lack of professional teachers. Most designers don't know how to make the shoes themselves, and shoemakers, as Rozin aptly points out, are rarely skilled teachers.
An additional problem is the lack of cooperation from the shoemaking industry, which keeps its techniques and technologies a secret for fear of competition. The government provides no support to young cobblers or designers, and the market is extremely cutthroat.
"We have a huge amount of talent and creativity here, but it's hard to survive because the stores here borrow your collection instead of buying it. If they sell your shoes, they give you the money months later. If they don't, you get them back at the end of the season," Rozin explains. "It doesn't work this way anywhere else in the world, and it makes it terribly difficult for young designers to enter the market and succeed. It's a deadly cycle that should change."
On the positive side, the renaissance in new designers who focus solely on shoes, such as Shani Bar, Shoemaker, Michal Miller, Liora Peres, Leibeling, Adi Kilab and Maya Levi, has prompted the opening of Imuma, a shoe store on Rehov Dizengoff that sells only locally-made shoes.
Yet, for many, handmade shoes are way too expensive. One of the reasons is because they are made by skilled laborers here, not in China, and the production lines are small. And according to Rozin, most designers here still have a long way to go before they can truly match international standards of quality and start selling abroad.
"One of the things that Israeli designers don't understand is quality," she notes. "When they try to sell abroad at these prices, no one buys because the stitching isn't good enough or the leather isn't high enough quality."
Today, Rozin and Shukroon-Ganon teach more than 100 students a week at The Guild, all of whom are free to use the workshop for their projects outside of classroom hours.
"I am so proud of all the young designers who are out there making their shoes," she says, "and Gal and I have achieved a lot of things that seemed impossible over this past year. We already see that even as two young women in this predominantly masculine industry, we can move mountains. We can make a change."
Nevertheless, although the school is thriving and many of the graduates are starting to make names for themselves, much work remains. In the future, The Guild is hoping to forge stronger connections with the industry and gain more support from the government to present their work at international exhibitions.
"Israeli shoe design is still searching for its identity," Rozin says. "It's still very raw, but we're hopeful that by joining together and becoming a true guild that shares its knowledge and cooperates, we'll have a greater chance of succeeding. It's not going to happen overnight, but the good news is that it can happen."
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