Of torn threads and new ties
Increasingly Israeli fashion designers are setting their hopes on Berlin. Are they attracted just by the creative atmosphere – or also their own history?
Gold mirrors, moss-green curtains and crystal carafes – a Hollywood-style dressing room for made-to-measure men’s clothing. Dandy of the Grotesque was the name Itamar Zechoval, 39, gave his salon in Berlin. It was designed by his German wife Nora von Nordenskjöld, who is an interior decorator. It looks as if it dates from an era when men wore tails, top hats and cummerbunds. It is well located, near Torstrasse, in Berlin-Mitte, which draws a lot of tourists. This used to be run-down East Berlin district, now it is the heart of the new Berlin’s bohème, with cafés, galleries and boutiques. Zechoval’s dark, romantic fashions are worn by Marilyn Manson and Bela B., singer of the German punk band Die Ärzte, but also by employees of the new boutique hotel Stue am Tiergarten – from the cleaner to the manager. “My clothes always have an ironic-theatrical touch, I’m attracted to costume design,” says Zechoval, son of an Israeli artist mother and film director father.
Zechoval grew up in Ramat-Hasharon. At the age of 21, he studied fashion design in Milan, worked with Dolce & Gabbana, then lived in Shanghai. Now he does his designing in Berlin. What drew an Israeli designer to a city where the National Socialists decided on the Final Solution, which cost six million Jews their lives? “Berlin absorbs you right away, it’s casual, cheap, full of ideas, and has this hint of decay. What I experience here is the new Twenties,” Zechoval enthuses. “I may not say forever,” he says, “but at the moment it feels just right.” That sounds quite blithe. “Of course my first time in a café in an old building felt strange. I would not have sat here 75 years ago,” he admits. “But I don’t think about being an Israeli all the time.” The one difficult thing at the beginning was “finding someone who was able to sew my designs”.
In 1930 he would not have had to look very far. Berlin was an international fashion city – and a very Jewish one at that. It had 2,000 textile businesses. Half of them belonged to German Jews, as did three of the largest department stores, Manheimer, Gerson and Nathan Israel, which was as marvellous as Harrods in London at the time. Then the Nazis brought that business sector into line, destroying anything they could not take over. The threads to the past have been torn. Anyone coming here from Israel today has to start anew. Since 2004 no fewer than seven Israeli fashion designers have been selling their designs in Berlin.
“I don’t want to know about the past,” says Maya Bash, 34, “I prefer to believe that things are different today.” Like shoe designer Shani Bar, she too does her designing in Tel Aviv, but the two women have a boutique in Berlin. Some of the buildings here remind Maya Bash of her childhood in Novosibirsk. “I was 12 when I went to Israel.” Now she sells in Moscow, Tokyo and New York. But she always dreamed of a shop in Berlin. Why? Nostalgia, a late victory over history? Perhaps that as well. She only cried once, at the Soviet War Memorial: “My grandfather was in the Red Army, fought against Hitler and died in the war.” When she showed the photographs to her grandmother in Jerusalem, instead of being bitter, she was curious about Berlin today. “Who would have thought that my granddaughter would have a shop there someday,” she said.
Bash does not want to live in Berlin, but she is still proud: “Here I can show another side of Israel. Fashion shows how you feel, how you would like to be.” Her designs are unfinished, playful, ironic, the fabrics fine, comfortable: silk and Japanese cotton. Jackets cost 1,000 euros, dresses 160. Who shops in her boutique on Kollwitzplatz, where young families, many of them high earners, live? “Women aged around 45, men too, mostly from the architecture and art scenes,” she says. “They are curious about Israeli fashion.”
Many Israeli designers don’t, or don’t wish to, talk about where they come from. They don’t want to have a special role. But some are more open, like Einat Zinger Feiler, from Haifa, 34: “For me Berlin is home from home. I believe that knowing people on the other side of the trauma makes it easier to deal with it.” She worked as a photographer in New York, studied in Berlin. She came to fashion via textile prints. Her label is called Hazelnut and the clothes are made in Bernau and in the Erzgebirge mountains. Her elegant designs made of a dark woollen fabric are hanging in Flagshipstore in Oderberger Strasse. “They are much too warm for Israel,” Zinger explains.
According to Roey Vollman, 36, Israelis have no tradition of dressing fashionably. He used to be a journalist with Globes and Maariv. In 2008, his wife Nait Rosenfelder gave up her label, Nait, in Tel Aviv, and moved with him and their six-month-old son to Berlin-Kreuzberg. “We needed a break from Israel, wanted to start anew, as a brand name and as a family,” says Roey. Their label is called Eva & Bernard. It was to sound deliberately German – and good. Of course the fact that his wife’s grandparents came from Bavaria and the Black Forest played a role. “My grandmother’s father had a leather and bag factory in Lahr,” says the 42-year-old. She wanted to come to Germany when she was 18. “My grandparents spoke German, lived like they used to live in Germany, and also dressed like that,” she says. “My grandmother almost always wore dresses. I think often I design for her.” She had to flee Germany in 1936.
Her husband says: “Today Berlin gives designers what they need most urgently, time. Paris is too expensive. Berlin is ideal, safe, a haven, not a sick city.” So it is a place of longing? There’s no room for false romanticism. The business location is what counts for the designers from Tel Aviv: “If you stay in Israel, you only sell there. We wanted to get out of that niche.” Berlin also has its disadvantages. “We don’t speak the language. We design here, but produce in Italy,” says Rosenfelder. It was there that she discovered the colour for the new collection, neon pink jellyfish printed on white silk, ordered fabrics in beige, bluish-green and desert red. “In the grey Berlin winter I need shades that remind me of the coast of Eilat and the Dead Sea. Fashion is just like our life, a big mishmash.” ▪