All you need is love

Michal Negrin credits her passion for her craft - and her husband - with her meteoric leap from anonymity to international acclaim.

michal negrin 88 (photo credit: )
michal negrin 88
(photo credit: )
A series on women in Israel making it on their terms 'Idon't see myself as a businesswoman," says Michal Negrin, over coffee and cigarettes in a cluttered corner of her massive factory in Bat Yam. Here, 200 workers, mainly from the Former Soviet Union, are busy gluing, drilling, sewing, moulding and painting her creations, a process she personally oversees on a daily basis. ] "I'm just a girl from a kibbutz who hasn't grown up yet." If so, this particular 49-year-old kibbutznikit - whose rags-to-riches resume is the stuff fairy tales are made of - is wise beyond her years. Judging by her bio, the modest mogul has always known a secret about life the rest of us would do well to learn. And she seems perfectly happy to share it. "Doing what I love; only that which excites and invigorates me," she says, pausing occasionally during our interview to give warm greetings to employees and her husband, Meir, the general manager of the company, without whom, she stresses, "none of this would have been possible." The "this" she is referring to is a virtual empire of hand-made, Victorian-style jewelry, accessories, clothing, home decor and religious objets d'art that has taken the world by storm in a few short years. Indeed, since the couple opened their first shop on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv less than a decade ago, the Michal Negrin chain has grown, so far, to a total of 43 stores in Israel and abroad, with a staff of more than 200. Not to mention a crown sold to the Queen of England from her store in Windsor. What some might call the "gimmick" of these glittery boutiques - each of which looks like a cross between a sultry boudoir and luxurious salon of yore with purposely dim lighting and specially-selected background music - Negrin considers to be a "concept," not a marketing magnet. The concept is one she says she has stuck to since she began peddling her wares at home and at street bazaars. Rather than attempting to adapt to the mindset of potential customers, she explains, she remains steadfastly loyal to her personal taste. "I don't design things for show or to attract others," says Negrin, who is decked out from head to toe in her own creations. "there is not a single item in my collection that I wouldn't wear myself or have in my own house." One need not take Negrin's word for it. Her home in the trendy Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neveh Tzedek is the professed prototype for her shops, lined wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with her signature bric-a-brac - an ambiance, she claims, "which makes people feel relaxed and happy, like entering a fantasy land or bubble, away from the outside world." Anyone who has visited one of Negrin's "bubbles" - whether in Jerusalem, Paris, Tokyo or New York - can attest to its immediate effect on the nervous system. Either it hypnotizes you with its glamor and kind of kitschy charm, or causes you to experience a touch of claustrophobia. Anyone in the former category knows instinctively that Negrin really does only design and distribute items made of materials and color schemes suited to herself. Try buying a certain shade of blue earrings, for example, or a leather belt, and you will come up emptyhanded. "That's true," Negrin acknowledges, smiling almost mischievously. "There are certain textures and hues I simply don't connect with." What she does "connect with" is her ambition. This she asserts is "to continue to have fun at coming up with new and different ideas," something she says she owes to her financial success. Expensive materials that in the past would have been beyond her budget to "play around with until coming up with just the right look" are now affordable and literally at her fingertips - such as porcelain. NEGRIN WAS born and raised on Kibbutz Naan in 1957 ("I was born 'Green,' then married 'Negrin,'" she quips.) Her father, who died when she was nine, was David Ben-Gurion's nephew. Her mother, the kibbutz cook, was considered very bohemian by her peers. A dancer and choreographer, she had many friends in the Tel Aviv dance world. Whenever they visited her mother, Negrin says wistfully, "they brought the taste of the city to our house." "After my father's death, my mother began to shut herself off [from society] more and more," she recounts. As a result, she says, she herself rarely ate in the kibbutz dining room or attended the social activities of her peers. During that period, her favorite escape was to Tel Aviv. "I needed the city like oxygen," she says, describing how she would spend the day looking in shops and rummaging through flea-market bins to see what was out there. At home, she spent most of her time making herself jewelry and embroidering her clothes. She often even skipped school for this purpose. Remembering what it was like "to be a pupil who had difficulty studying," Negrin says her factory will open its doors this year to a classroom for local l e a r n i n g - d i s a b l e d children, in conjunction with the Bat Yam Municipality. After completing her army service and meeting husband Meir, Negrin left the kibbutz for a few years. But when she gave birth to Yasmin - now 21 - she felt she needed the comfort of home. She persuaded Meir to give kibbutz life a try. He agreed. For the next two-and-a-half years, the couple enjoyed raising their daughter in the pastoral environment of Naan. But then Meir grew restless. Rehovot, the city closest to Naan, was the family's next stop. But no longer in the bosom of communal living, they were completely broke. Meir urged her to get a job. "I put my foot down," recalls Negrin, as Meir walks by and she stretches her hand out lovingly to him. "I said, 'I didn't want to leave the kibbutz, but I did it for you - on condition that I continue fulfilling my own dream of working at what makes me happy.'" It is thus that when her brother lent the penniless couple NIS 1,000, Negrin promptly spent it on materials with which to indulge in her craft. Meir might have been more perturbed by his wife's budgetary priorities had they not panned out so nicely. "For an entire month, I sat at home making jewelry, while Meir tended to Yasmin," she says, praising her husband's ability to withstand disapproving glances from his family, who thought that he should be out making a living, not being a housekeeper. "Then one Shabbat I had a sale at my house, and every single piece I had made that month was sold." This enabled Negrin immediately to repay her debt to her brother, which o n l y added to the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that she insists accompanies her work to this day. It was also the spark that ignited the fire of all that followed, beginning with her setting up a stall at the then brand-new Nahalat Binyamin outdoor crafts market, continuing with the opening of her tiny shop on Sheinkin (in 1988), and with her everexpanding operation in Bat Yam, where she provides employment for many unskilled immigrants, whom she says she selects for their patience to perform the delicate and painstaking tasks her creations require. If, initially, it was hard for her to leave the cozy atmosphere of the kibbutz life, she has copied some of it to her company. "I don't think there's another firm with such an amazing group of dedicated, loyal employees," she raves. "It's like a family business. Every worker treats the merchandise as if it were his or her own." To maintain this state of affairs, she throws an annual office gala. This, she says, enhances the sense of togetherness and familiarity that characterize her whole endeavor. Touring the factory - rooms upon rooms of laborers, mostly women, handling every detail of each piece of jewelry and swath of cloth with the TLC of mother hens - one gets the impression that the only things Negrin isn't embellishing on are her stories. One also might view the factory's absorption of so many immigrants as a Zionist enterprise, an inadvertent legacy, perhaps, of great-uncle Ben-Gurion, for whom the country's international airport - in which there are now two Michal Negrin shops - is named. DOES HER relatively recent rise to fame and fortune come with as steep a price tag as the fruits of her labor? Has she joined the ranks of the country's VIPs incessantly approached for charitable donations and investments? "Sure, I receive requests from all kinds of people," she says shrugging. "But it's not necessary, because I initiate contributions to projects I believe in." Among these is the Concerned Friends of Cystic Fibrosis in Israel. For the organization, Negrin created a set of 550 rose-decorated pins, which quickly sold out. Its design was born out of a CF child's mispronouncing of the disease as "Fifty-five roses." Another, more recent example, was the distribution of jewelry to the girlfriends and wives of soldiers wounded in Lebanon who are being treated at Rambam Hospital in Haifa. "The response was phenomenal," says Negrin. "All the women said how excited they were at the sight of the colorful pieces and touched by the gift."