Lady of the daisies

The Israeli Design Museum Holon is holding an exhibition celebrating Lea Gottlieb's influence on the international fashion scene.

Israeli Design Museum Holon (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli Design Museum Holon
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Her swimsuits and beachwear have been sought after and worn by the world’s most famous celebrities for decades.
Now, Lea Gottlieb, the woman behind the famous Gottex brand, is being honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Israeli Design Museum Holon. “Lady of the Daisies” is a homage to the late designer and entrepreneur’s life achievements.
Lea Gottlieb survived the Holocaust and immigrated to Israel from Hungary in 1949 with her husband, Armin, their two daughters and her mother, and settled in Jaffa.
Armin, who owned a raincoat factory in Hungary, decided to recruit some unemployed women from the neighborhood who had sewing machines. Lea designed and styled new models and soon the couple started to receive orders from local raincoat manufacturers.
A year later, the family moved to Tel Aviv, where Lea became an independent raincoat manufacturer. However, she immediately understood that raincoats were not that appropriate for the Middle East climate and started to design and sew swimsuits, which were launched in 1956 and became a huge success.
Soon enough, their apartment became too small for the commercial activity and the couple opened a small factory, and thus Gottex was established.
Within a decade Lea Gottlieb had achieved worldwide fame and in 1972 she received first prize at the Cannes International Fashion Show, becoming a key figure in the international beachwear fashion scene. In 1981 she received the International Press Award as the world’s top beachwear designer. Her name was mentioned together with Paris’s famous haute couture designers and Time magazine even called her “the world’s leading swimsuits manufacturer.”
The company’s turning point came in 1975, when the top managers at Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent came to Gottlieb and offered to manufacture her swimwear under their label. “It was then that I realized how famous I was, and decided that my designs are far too beautiful to be given away,” she said in one interview. “I’ve decided to market them worldwide by myself.”
During the 1980s, which was considered Gottex’s golden era, the company’s turnover was $40 million, and buyers from the world’s leading clothing chains, such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s of New York and Harrods of London came regularly to Israel to order the next season’s merchandise.
GOTTEX REPRESENTED Israeli fashion at international fashion shows and fairs in Paris, London, Cannes, Düsseldorf, New York, Los Angeles and Singapore. Over the years, Gottlieb’s designs were featured on the covers of the world’s most prestigious fashion magazines. Prominent figures who have worn her designs over the years include Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Diana, Queen Noor, Nancy Kissinger and movie stars Elizabeth Taylor, Brooke Shields and Madonna.
When asked what the secret of her success was, Gottlieb used to say, “Maybe it is my good sense of choice.
I always knew which fabrics and colors would become fashionable, attractive and commercial.”
According to her, a major contributor to the brand’s success was her husband, Armin.
“He is my best friend. Thanks to his constant encouragement and the harmony in our marriage, I’ve become what I am,” she said.
The couple’s spacious penthouse in northern Tel Aviv was designed with a huge roof that resembled a the deck of a ship, decorated with street lanterns depicting Paris boulevards, sunshades and tropical plants. Lea Gottlieb loved the good life and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. She used to fly on the Concorde regularly and kept an apartment in Milan, which she visited quite often to stay up to date on the latest in fashion.
“I love to fly the Concorde,” she said in an interview.
“Three and a half hours from Paris to New York and you can start the day in New York. In the morning I love to drink papaya juice with ice, served with an orchid like in Hawaii. I love the Parisian atmosphere and the London theater. My travels are a source of inspiration for a new collection each year.”
She was also an art collector, and her 1986 springsummer collection was inspired by the Van Gogh exhibition she saw in New York, the Impressionists’ exhibition shown in Paris and the musical Ragtime, which played in London.
Gottlieb’s personality and lifestyle were filled with contradictions, which had a great effect on the brand’s uniqueness. Some people wondered how a religiously traditional woman could be so involved with the bare female body, but Gottlieb answered that saying, “I don’t like women who show too much. In my opinion my swimsuits are not too sexy. I like to wrap a woman in a beach dress, a caftan or a light jacket.”
She did not see herself necessarily as a religious woman, but rather had her own set of laws by which she lived. One of them was not to drive on Shabbat, something which she took upon herself when her mother became ill in 1969.
In the book Gottex Swimwear Haute Couture by Hélène Schoumann, which was published in honor of the company’s 50th anniversary, the author explains that Gottlieb absorbed the rhythm of the new and vibrant city of Tel Aviv and its Bauhaus architecture and decided to create a swimwear brand that will fit the women of the young and sunny country.
Gottex designs, she decided, would be inspired by the light and by Israel’s color contradictions: the Mediterranean’s turquoise, the desert’s yellow sands, Lake Kinneret’s blue, Jerusalem’s pink stones and the many greens of the Galilee.
She had come up with a notion no one had thought of before: to put glamour into women’s beach and swimwear.
Throughout her career Gottlieb developed a unique personal signature based on inspiration drawn from various fields such as ethnic sources, works of art, places she visited, opera, theater and landscapes. Each collection she designed was preceded by extensive research of materials, prints, sewing techniques and developing pattern cuts, as a result of which collaborations were established with leading world manufacturers and the most advanced technologies were introduced.
THE EXHIBITION’S title itself, “Lady of the Daisies,” is connected strongly to Gottlieb’s life story. Flowers helped her to disguise herself from the Nazis in Hungary and thus saved her life.
Out in the street, she often held a bouquet of flowers up to her face to hide her Jewish appearance.
The flowers are a recurrent motif in all her designs. She surrounded herself with flowers, whether in vases in her office, in paintings hung in her home or in the giant planters that decorated her roof, and of course the flowers that were always present in her collections.
The death of Armin in 1995 marked the beginning of the end of the brand.
In 1997 Lea Gottlieb was faced with another tragedy, as her daughter Judith Gottfried died of cancer. Gottfried, chief designer of the company, designed the company’s young line, called “Smash,” and also developed lines of ski wear and evening gowns.
In 1997 Gottex was acquired by Lev Leviev, the chief shareholder in the Africa Israel Group. Disagreements between the two parties soon surfaced, mainly regarding Lea Gottlieb’s lavish lifestyle. In February 2001 Gottlieb resigned from the company and was replaced by famous fashion designer Gideon Oberson.
Gottlieb herself opened in new brand in 2005 called LEA, which failed to create the buzz and international glamor that were Gottex’s.
Gottex is currently under the creative direction of Molly Grad, who prior to Gottex was designing for international fashion houses.
Lea Gottlieb died in November 2012, at the age of 94, in Tel Aviv.
The exhibition at the Israeli Design Museum Holon will showcase the history of Gottex swimwear through costumes, inspirational photographs, films and catalogues. The Upper Gallery will include 100 swimwear and beachwear designs in addition to works of art that acted as original inspiration. Curated by fashion researcher Ayala Raz, this aspect of the exhibition is a direct homage to the life and work of Lea Gottlieb.
Galit Gaon, chief curator at the museum, says, “This homage to the work of a trailblazing woman who led a vision of design and industry in Israel is an important evolutionary step in the life of the museum. Lea Gottlieb put Israeli fashion on the map with her elegant and flattering designs that have sold to over 80 countries.”
Work on the exhibition began over six months ago with the process of sorting and selecting pieces from Lea Gottlieb’s archives. Prior to her death in 2012, Gottlieb visited the museum herself to assist in determining the content.
The Lower Gallery focuses on contemporary design, and creative director Molly Grad’s transformation of the Gottex brand in recent years. A model will be presented, accompanied by Grad’s sketches and drawings, to illustrate the process of creating iconic swimwear pieces. Grad will be presenting a design created especially for the exhibition which expresses her ongoing vision. This unique piece will be accompanied by Grad’s sketches and illustrations, as well as quotes representing her world of inspiration.
She explains, “The illustrations in the exhibition are like my fingerprints, a representation of my personal process and primary experience as an artist and creator.
They are not indicative of a specific moment or time, but rather an ongoing approach. I have always drawn, ever since I was about three years old. Wherever I go, I always bring a pencil.”
The exhibition will be supplemented by research from designer and researcher Yael Targan. Dozens of women, from Israel and abroad, have provided perspectives on the swimsuit as a fashionable, materialistic, technological, innovative, historical, cultural and gender-oriented item.
The exhibition is opening during Holon Design Week and will run until May 4. It is part of the wider vision of Design Museum Holon and the Municipality of Holon to promote Israeli designers and industry. The museum courtyard will be devoted to an active design experience for the general public, with exhibitions also showing in many of the city’s other galleries.