Designs on the shuk

Mahane Yehuda is going upmarket.

mahane yehuda shop 298.8 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
mahane yehuda shop 298.8
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
There's a new sound in Mahaneh Yehuda these days. Beneath the familiar bellows of vegetable sellers hawking the days' best buys are the quiet murmurings of fashion-conscious women shopping for designer clothing. The sound is barely perceptible. But the change it reflects symbolizes a vibrant new era in the history of the shuk. In the past year and a half, three new designer clothing shops have opened in the shuk - Egoz 30, Bordeaux and Alei Te'ena. All are shops owned and managed by women, and their client base consists of women who will spend upwards of NIS 300 on a pair of pants or NIS 400 on a pair of shoes. So what are these shops doing in a shuk known for low-priced fruit, vegetables and houseware? "Being in the shuk is something else," explains Egoz 30 co-owner Limor Tov. "The colors, the smells, the warmth of the people… it's not like in a mall. It's open. We feel at home here." Egoz 30, the first designer boutique in the shuk, opened in April 2005. The shop is a dream come true for owners Limor Tov and Rahel Skimoul, friends who met 15 years ago in a clothing shop. Professionally, they come from different worlds - Tov has been a costume designer for theater, opera and television, while Skimoul worked at police headquarters. When they decided to open a boutique selling their own designs, they wanted to find a place that reflected their style. "We thought, 'Where could we be in an environment where we can be in the center, but not in high society?'" recalls Tov. "And here, everybody loves their stuff. They choose what to sell and what to buy - even the vegetable [sellers], they don't take an apple if it's not good. And we thought this was more our way." The personal relationship between seller and buyer is also what attracted partners Shoshi Borenstein and Ronit Gilboa, owners of Alei Te'ena. Gilboa is an old friend of Eli Mizrachi, head of the committee of shuk shopowners. "I was sitting with Eli one day, and I told him I wanted to open a shop," says Gilboa. "Eli said, 'Come over here!' I said 'Who would come to the shuk?'" But later, talking about it with partner Borenstein, the two decided it was exactly what they wanted. "This was a very unique thing," she explains. "The mall is too artificial. Our concept was a different one - not just business." The co-owners of Alei Te'ena wanted to create something more personal, and they felt the market was just the place to do it. And they have. The shop has a "women's board" in the back, advertising therapists, artists, classes and shops all aimed at their clientele, women ranging in age from 30 to 70. Borenstein and Gilboa put this cooperative energy to work with their fellow business owners as well. When their next door neighbor, Caf Mizrachi, holds its Sunday tapas nights in the summer, the shop stays open late to capitalize on the potential new customers. And Borenstein and Gilboa are spearheading a joint event with all three of the shuk designer clothing shops. Bordeaux, located at Hatut 6, is the newest clothing shop in the shuk, and the only one to have existed before moving to the market. Owner Efrat Ben-Arza moved the shop from its previous location in Katamon four months ago. "I always loved the shuk," she says. "I thought it would be fun to work in that environment." Ben-Arza says it's been a shift moving into the market. For one thing, the space that is now her shop had been left unused for years, and her neighbors are a fish seller next door and a butcher across the road, not exactly the type of establishments that bring to mind the trendy Israeli designers she carries. But, her newest neighbor is Caf Emil, recently transplanted from trendy Emek Refaim, and, she says she's attracting new customers, while maintaining some of her old ones as well. "I'm new here, and slowly, slowly people are coming," relates Ben-Arza with a ready smile. "I see big potential here." By all accounts, the gentrification of the shuk has brought a variety of customers that probably would never have come five years ago. In addition to the coffee shops and designer boutiques there is an upscale wine and cheese shop, a bead shop, an ice cream shop, a few fashionable restaurants, and more is on the way. The driving force behind this change is shuk heavyweight Eli Mizrachi. "I have always thought that the market should also take a step forward," explains the 55-year-old Mizrachi. "We should have the market for fresh food but [we should also have] things that bring new people to the market." Mizrachi, who spent 20 years working in his family's dried fruit and nut shop, saw that reviving the market would require bringing in new types of businesses. He started the process by opening Caf Mizrachi five years ago. At the beginning, he says, some of the older shopkeepers said a coffee shop did not fit the 'style' of the shuk. "But," continues Mizrachi, "they understood very quickly that if the market stayed the same, it would vanish." "Most people who work in the shops in the market, they're looking after their income, and if it's bringing new people to the market, and the market is living and the market is in fashion, they know how to appreciate it," he explains. "They know they should help new initiatives become part of the market." The owners of all the fashion shops say they've felt welcomed by their neighbors. "It's a very warm relationship," says Egoz 30's Tov. "Like a very big and warm family." Shuk shoppers have varying reactions to the new boutiques. Natalie Gura, a first time shopper in Egoz 30, was thrilled to have stumbled across the shop while looking for vegetables. "I'm pleased," she said, "It's a very nice shop and I love a lot of things they have. This makes the shuk more interesting… not just a shuk for vegetables but also a shuk for clothes." "I hate malls," says Gura, who made aliya from France 15 years ago. "I prefer to buy in open stores, outside. It's more interesting." She loved the modern, monochromatic style of Egoz 30, and spent approximately NIS 1,000 in her first visit to the shop. Not all shoppers are quite as positive as Gura. A middle-aged shopper in Bordeaux, who preferred not to give her name, was more hesitant about the changes taking place in the market. "I don't know if I like [how the shuk is changing]," she said. Part of her resistance may be the prices that are accompanying the change. "I will shop here," she says, "if she [Ben Arza] brings what I like, and if it's not too expensive." She left the shop without making a purchase. Each shop has its own character. While Bordeaux and Alei Te'ena both bring most of their clothing from designer studios in Tel Aviv, they use their distinctive sense of style to choose what would be best for their clientele. Ben-Arza of Bordeaux defines her style as "classic but also romantic" and to fill out her collection she brings interesting items she find on her travels, such as pashmina scarves and unique textiles from a recent trip to Egypt. She "wanted something colorful, something unique" for the shop, she says, and she's found that these unusual items are very popular with her customers. At Egoz 30, all the clothing has been designed by owners Tov and Skimoul. It's a "very clean line," says Tov, "but always with surprises." The boutique also carries select shoes and gifts such as luxurious candles, colorful wallets, assorted ceramics, and other things that suit the owners' tastes. "The eclectic mix is like the market," remarks Tov. There is a very "Tel-Aviv-y" feeling to these designer boutiques in the shuk. But Mahaneh Yehuda is very much a Jerusalem institution - and has had its share of Jerusalem tragedy. Not surprisingly, none of the shopowners are eager to discuss terrorism and the years in which the shuk was a target of violence. "You try not to think about. When we decided to open the shop, we didn't want to think about it, and you hope that it won't come back," explains Alei Te'ena's Borenstein. "It's very fragile, that's the reality. That's life here." For now, the owners of all three boutiques are spending more time looking to the future than the past. "There is a change going on," says Borenstein, "and it's something that is growing. You can see especially on Fridays that the people who are coming are not the people who were coming three or five years ago. Not only are people coming to buy vegetables, they come to feel the experience of the shuk. And the shuk is something you can see… the colors, the smells, it's not like going to a mall and shopping, it's something else." Mizrachi explains his vision this way: "I want the shuk to be a place that will have all the best fresh foods in the country, with entertainment, with fashion shops that can sell good clothes. I don't think it should be too much. The market should remain in the same character - it's a market for fresh food, first. "To put the market in fashion, we had to do new things that complete the atmosphere and bring something new and fresh. I'm happy to say that in the past five years, it's working."