Still doing her own thing

After a career spanning four decades, Dorin Frankfurt, the grande dame of Israeli fashion design, remains uncompromising.

Dorin Frankfurt 521 (photo credit: COURTESY / DORIN FRANKFURT)
Dorin Frankfurt 521
ONE OF the Israeli fashion industry’s veteran designers, Dorin Frankfurt, is also one of the industry’s iconoclastic figures. She believes that clothes should not merely look good, but should be comfortable to wear too. She eschews conventional wisdom that fashion designers should go for a “look”; instead, she seeks to design clothes for individuals, often her close friends or pop artists.
She refuses to limit a woman to a certain color or length just because that is the current fashion rage. She does not object to clients who wear the same dress for 10 years, as long as they change the simple accessories often.
“I believe in comfort first and aesthetics second,” she insists.
Putting comfort first is hardly a key strategy for fashion designers, but Dorin Frankfurt likes to be practical. She agrees to design a wedding dress only if the future bride promises to let Frankfurt turn it into a post-wedding cocktail dress. In her boldest policy, which differs from the routine practices of Israeli fashion designers, she avoids outsourcing the manufacturing of her clothes overseas; all the clothes she designs are made in Israel.
Aged 62 today, and known as the “grande dame of Israeli fashion design,” Frankfurt believes that her assault on the standard practices of Israeli fashion design gives her clothes a more authentic Israeliness. “The unique experience of life in Israel is her [Frankfurt’s] source of inspiration,” states her website; although it is hard for her to define the specific ingredients of that experience.
“Designing and manufacturing my clothes in my own country is essential if I am going to flourish because design speaks its own special language,” Frankfurt tells The Jerusalem Report.
She finds it amusing that so many put her among the founding generation of Israeli fashion designers. “It took 30 years for people to catch on to me and my work,” she remarks.
Frankfurt is still designing from behind her desk in a south Tel Aviv loft, proud that her entire design and manufacturing operation is self-contained within that loft. She can interact personally with every employee in less than 10 minutes. For our interview, she wears black pants and a blouse. Her black and gray hair is pulled back into a bun. And she is wearing dark, horn-rimmed glasses.
The Tel Aviv loft where Frankfurt works also houses her “factory,” which has well over 100 employees, roughly 10 percent men, as well as her sales division, a yoga room, storage space and a steaming room. The place has the feel of a “mom and pop” store, though Frankfurt distributes her clothes all over Israel and around the world as well.
Every morning, Frankfurt sends out cars – one to the north and one to the south – with finished goods for stores to sell. The cars reach every one of her 17 stores at least once a week with new outfits. She does not produce clothes on demand. “We don’t go on the basis of what is ordered. I decide what the order is.
We do limited editions,” she explains.
At times, her self-confidence and calm give way to an urgent tone in her voice, as she talks about getting her designs ready for the next few years. When I saw her, she was preparing for the summer of 2013, and also finishing off designs for the summer of 2014 and the winter of 2015. Working on three years at a time, she admits, “sometimes I get really mixed up.”
FRANKFURT’S PATH, from her birth in 1951 in Petah Tikva to her designing successes, was long and uncertain. Her mother, Nava, was an English teacher, while her father, Edward, managed the TWA office in Israel.
Her father’s brother was the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. Though her father was not observant, the brothers remained lifelong friends.
While studying in Kiryat Matalon and Savyon, Frankfurt had a definite career choice in mind, but it was not fashion design.
She thought she might become a graphic designer or an illustrator. She was also drawn to photography. “I got into fashion because I was not that good as a graphic designer,” she observes.
“Fashion was my second choice.”
After school, she served in the Israel Defense Forces, in 1969 and 1970, working in air force intelligence, which sounded good on her résumé, particularly because she was the first Israeli woman to serve in the unit. But those were not happy days for her.
“What did I know about airplanes and intelligence?” she laughs. “To me, all airplanes look the same. I did a job that was far above my understanding.”
Against the backdrop of Israel’s war of attrition with Egypt in the early 1970s, she felt unprepared for the strains of serving a country at war. “We were not trained to deal with incredibly stressful situations,” she says. “It was really brutal.”
During those 18 months of military service, when “bored stiff,” Frankfurt began drawing; she also studied French.
For Frankfurt, there was no special epiphany that set her in the direction of fashion designing. “It was just getting a needle and thread and learning how to sew,” she recalls.
Once out of the IDF, she left for England to study graphic design at the Sir John Cass School. Distressed that she lacked the talent for graphic design, she switched after only two months at Cass to a polytechnic school in Paris, where she studied the practical side of fashion, sewing and cutting patterns. Her studies were difficult but she grew confident that she could work in the field professionally.
After three years, she earned her diploma.
In 1975, after Paris, Frankfurt, aged 24, returned to Israel. Knocking down the doors of every fashion designer in the country, she could not land a job. Designers told her she lacked the right skills. The one bright spot for her was the helping hand lent by Ruth Dayan, the former wife of Moshe Dayan, who put her in touch with designers; but for the most part, Frankfurt freelanced.
Cognizant of women’s fashion dating back to her childhood, what she saw did not especially appeal to her. Frankfurt suggests that women of means dressed back then “amazingly well”; but for those women on a budget (her eventual target group), the fashion choices were “minimal.”
Among her freelance jobs were the uniforms she designed for the Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel lobby hostesses and for the staff of Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium. She also made sweatshirts for Delta. Then, in 1976, she opened a small store in the Shalom Tower, where she sold clothing that she designed and made.
She was determined to create a wholly local operation.
Eager to succeed in fashion design, she made sacrifices. “I am a vegetarian and I worked in leather,” she says half-jokingly.
And she took on other jobs, too. “The only thing I didn’t do was work in restaurants.”
Her career was too precarious for her to take the risk of focusing on only one kind of fashion design.
Fortunately for her, Israeli celebrities flocked to her to design their clothes. Becoming a “fashion designer to the stars,” Frankfurt designed clothes that were as likely to be worn by members of Israeli pop bands as they were to be worn by walk-in customers to her stores. Until she came along, those pop artists cared only about their music, not the clothes they would wear on stage. When she began designing clothes for Israeli contestants in the Eurovision song contests in the late 1970s and early 1980s, her career blossomed.
IN 1978, Frankfurt designed the clothes worn by Israeli pop star Izhar Cohen when he won the Eurovision contest with A-Ba-Ni-Bi.
Striving to convey “something very Israeli,” she hoped to remind the audience of the kibbutz, its sunshine, something that would make people smile. She shunned a glamorous look.
Cohen’s shirt was “all white crepe lined with little gold lines.” A year later, Gali Atari wore Frankfurt-designed clothes when she won the Eurovision with her song, Hallelujah.
Frankfurt has been married three times, and for the past 13 years has been living with her partner, Miki Kratsman, a photographer and head of the photography department at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.
With her third husband, Darius Smith, a painter, she has twin daughters, Camea and Kianne, 22 today. On her office wall is a photo of Kianne modeling one of her mother’s designs.
How do her clothes differ from other Israeli fashion designers? “My designs are sort of relaxed – not uptight elegance,” she says. “We can do glitter without it being too glam. We can do funky clothes without trying too hard. All my fashion designs now have that relaxed elegance.”
Colors are not of great importance, she adds, but price is. “The whole idea is to make clothes for middle-range prices and to manufacture them in Israel.”
In describing her fashion designs, Frankfurt may seem vague or she may be exhibiting humility. “My clothes have a very casual elegance about them,” she says. “They are quite pure in their essence. They are collectibles, not running after trends; they have a certain Middle-Eastern Zen.
“There is a calmness about my clothes and a quality; part of the charm of my clothes is that they have a very definite signature. Either you like the signature or not. Certainly, Israelis can pick out my fashion designs. They are recognizable. There’s a very definite signature but what it is is not for me to say.”
What inspires her fashion design? “I get my ideas from living in this amusement park of absolute lunacy [she means Israel],” she says. “Usually my inspiration comes from my own origins. I am a very local person.”
She insists that she has no heroes or mentors in the fashion world? “Each time you would ask me who is first on my list, my answer would be different,” she comments.
But one person who did inspire her designs was Baruch Agadati, whom she calls “the first multimedia artist in Israel.” She loved his photographs, the way the light hit people, and the look of people in early Tel Aviv.
In the early days of statehood, she notes, Israeli leaders had their own personal fashion style. “It didn’t matter that it was an open white shirt like Ben-Gurion; they had style,” she says. “They were much more educated and well-spoken.”
Even Golda Meir had her own style. “I didn’t agree with it but it was a look, a ‘missy’ look. I disagreed with her politically but she had a look of no-nonsense. She was frumpy in a stylish way,” Frankfurt says.
What of Israeli fashions – for both men and women – today? “Men dress better today than the women among the younger generation,” she notes, “because the men are not that uptight about perfecting a look.”
Still, Frankfurt takes Israel’s current leaders – both men and women – to task for lacking style. “It’s unbelievable,” she says. “With all this money, the only one who looks the part and dresses the part is Shimon Peres.”
As for the current crop of Israeli women leaders, she credits Zehava Gal-On of Meretz with “looking quite good.” But then the bad marks flow. “Shelly Yacimovich unfortunately dresses terribly,” she adds.
From her “mom and pop” factory and office in Tel Aviv, Dorin Frankfurt is still churning out her self-designed clothes, is still an important name among Israeli fashion designers, and is still doing her own thing.