‘Shmattes’ to riches

A far cry from the sweatshops of Eastern Europe, an exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot chronicles how Jews have made it to the top of the fashion industry.

Design by Alber Elbaz (photo credit: YAKI HALPERIN)
Design by Alber Elbaz
(photo credit: YAKI HALPERIN)
Anyone who knows anything at all about the history of the Diaspora will be cognizant of the fact that, time and again, Jews have upped stakes and started from scratch in a new country or even continent.
That was certainly the case with those who made it across the Atlantic from Europe to the New World, from the mid-19th century, initially largely settling in New York’s Lower East Side.
As has been our wont – like other immigrant waves – the new American Jews gradually bettered their lot, with a portion even rising to prominence.
Some did so on the wrong side of the law, some became leading political activists, while others clawed their way up the socioeconomic ladder and became trailblazers in their chosen profession or industry.
These latter include some of the leaders of the fashion sector, such as Ralph Lauren (né Lifshitz), Canadian-born Arnold Scaasi (formerly Isaacs) and Diane von Fürstenberg, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who was born in Belgium as Diane Halfin. The Israeli-born, or longtime Israeli-resident, contingent in the “Dream Weavers” lineup includes currently Paris-based designer Alber Elbaz, multidisciplinary artist Ilana Goor, Yigal Azrouël , Kobi Halperin and Avi Tenzer.
The achievements of the above and others who made it through the ranks in the US, including some who originate from here, are lauded and displayed in the Dream Weavers exhibition currently running at Beit Hatfutsot – Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. Curator Shelly Verthime says the show “invites viewers to embark on a journey through a landscape of dream dresses and accessories, celebrating the artistry, creativity and mastery of visionary individuals united by their quest for sublime beauty and luxury.”
Verthime has done Lauren et al. proud. The exhibition is a sumptuous affair in terms of the creations on show, the complementary aesthetics and the ambiance she has generated, along with video artist Ran Slavin and the design team from the Tucan Design Studio.
Fittingly, the exhibition starts at the beginning – with outsized images and texts that evoke the era of the sweatshops of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from both ends of the Diaspora trail in Eastern Europe and New York. The entrance area to the show also features a salute to one of the most successful Jewish clothes entrepreneurs ever, German- born Levi Strauss, who made the most of California’s Gold Rush by providing the prospectors with eminently durable clothing. In the process, Strauss introduced the world to jeans.
The London-based Verthime notes that the Jewish residents of the Lower East Side were not exactly new to the business of making clothes, and it wasn’t just Ashkenazim from Eastern and Central Europe.
“It began long before the Jews moved to places like New York, and to the East End of London. All the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe had tailors, but there were also many villages in Yemen full of tailors, as well as jewelry makers.”
In addition to some gorgeous gowns, Dream Weavers sports some very fancy fashion accessories – such as Nest, a surprisingly tasteful synthesis of wire hangers, pearls, cans, glass, silver, porcelain and semi-precious stones concocted by British- based, Israeli-born designer Avshalom Gur.
Nest clearly feeds off Middle Eastern sensibilities and aesthetics.
Shoes have always been an indispensable item of haute couture fare, and there is a particularly striking pair in the introductory area of the exhibition.
The white silk, satin and organza footwear was created by the New York-based threeASFOUR fashion design collective of Lebanon-born Gabi Asfour; Angela Donhauser, who was born in Tajikistan; and Adi Gil from Israel. Since its establishment in 2005, the team has become known for combining technology with craftsmanship and for the use of aesthetic principles based on geometry, science, and ritual. The filigree-like shoe design is echoed in the triad’s dress on show in the main display room.
The full weight of the exhibition hits you when you make it into the central show area, which houses a dazzling and somewhat surreal display of wedding dresses. Verthime and her team have made good use of the reflective qualities of the shiny black-tiled floor, enhanced by cleverly arranged lighting. Slavin’s subtle yet impressive video art augments the fashion offerings, to induce a sense of the glittering world of the catwalk and the fashion industry. The contemporary images featured in Dream Weavers were provided by French-born Jewish model-turned-fashion photographer Sarah Moon.
The well-chosen title of the show, really, says it all and successfully conveys the developmental path traversed by the early Jewish clothes manufacturers, who eventually stepped up a social rung or two and took their place in the world’s fashion hierarchy.
“My central aim was to communicate a sense of the interplay between the world of reality, the imagination and dreams which are reflected in one another,” notes Verthime. “Perhaps more than any other man-made artifact, clothing brings together necessity and luxury, art and commerce, form and function, beauty and practicality, dream and reality.”
The early Jewish fashion designers clearly came a long way from their humble beginnings, often as refugees, to generate a new world of aesthetics and fantasy, realizing their own American dream of prosperity in the process. “The term ‘Dream Weavers’ represents a reality that lies beyond the realm of the everyday,” says Verthime. “It reflects an ability to find freedom within a world filled with obstacles while reshaping challenges into hope-filled reveries.”
The curator feels this is an element previously imparted in the surreal works of Marc Chagall. “I would like to argue that the participating designers [in Dream Weavers] may be viewed as following in his footsteps, in terms of their creative boldness and innovation.”
Beit Hatfutsot chief curator Dr. Orit Shaham-Gover says the exhibition is an eye-opener for her, too.
“Dream Weavers provided me with an unprecedented opportunity to learn about the fashion world and to better understand the ways in which it impacts our lives and shapes our perception.”
Shaham-Gover also notes that the show left her with plenty of food for thought – about the fashion sector as a whole, individual identity and the cultural baggage the creators bring to their work. “This process also raised numerous questions: What do these clothes say about us as a society? Do clothes truly define their wearer? And to what extent can one detect the Jewish origins of these designers in their works? “The answers are in the eyes of the beholder.”
As Lauren once famously declared: “I don’t design clothes, I design dreams.”
For more information about Dream Weavers: (03) 745-7808 and www.bh.org.il. The exhibition closes on May 17, 2015.