Feminist Fashion Show - With Pole-dancers

Whiteface, bright colors, lofty concepts and high prices at comme il faut's fall collection show

Lots of women gathered for the comme il faut fashion house's fall collection show held last week in Jaffa. That is nothing extraordinary, since the brand is intended for women. However, that evening the show was held on the new premises of the non-profit organization Peila, which links art and the community, and it seemed that this was an especially good definition of the kind of women the directors of comme il faut extol. After all, a feminist political agenda is an important aspect of the agenda of the company, founded in 1987. Over the years there have been those who viewed this positively and others who see it as an irritant or worse.

At the fashion show, the brand and its agenda celebrated 25 years of activity. Fittingly, upon entering the hall every guest received a white envelope on which was printed the question: "Fashion or agenda?" The walls were covered with colorful postcards - mementos from catalogs and advertising campaigns over the past two decades, some of which aroused public debate and anyone who wanted to could pick some out and put them in the envelope.

The postcards were hung in chronological sequence, which enabled a comprehensive view of the impressive, daring and at times intellectually provocative body of images put together by the women of the brand over the years, in cooperation with top local photographers and artists, all of them women. Among other images, there was the catalog photographed in 2004 on the backdrop of the separation fence going up in East Jerusalem.

There were also postcards that immortalized posters bearing slogans like "Blessed be He for making me a woman," "I believe in myself" and others that are too embarrassing to recount yet again. And that was the first sign - right at the entrance - of the gap that existed and still does between the brand's crystallized visual aspect and its naive expression of an assertive feminist agenda.

Of course, as a man, I was in a trap: Any objection to manifestations of empowerment or liberation of women could have been interpreted as another instance of the oppression of women. Therefore I decided to ask the opinion of women present at the event. A former senior editor and a prominent figure in the world of journalism, an especially intelligent and sharp woman of the sort the directors of the brand would call an "empowered women," explained that it was "complicated" - the intentions were good but the implementation is problematic. She added that the directors are aware of the darts of criticism frequently aimed at them for their defiantly explicit agenda. "Make no mistake," the woman said, summing it all up, "everything here is terribly self-aware."

A little later, when I took my seat for the start of the show and out of the corner of my eye identified a silvery metal pole sticking up at the end of the runway, the first scenario that crossed my mind was that of an erotic dancer in a strip club. I shrank into my seat in embarrassment at the devilish thought. A hater and belittler of women, that's who I am, I shuddered. It's probably there to be used as a stand for displaying the clothes or something like that, I corrected myself immediately and felt better. But then a dancer came out on the runway wearing a flesh-colored bra and panties, and began twining herself around the silvery pole with demonstrative, wild sensuality, and what my interlocutor had said about the high self-awareness echoed in my ears.

After the first model came the others. Their faces were painted white, their lips blood red and their features emphasized with black lines like with characters in a Kabuki play, each of the models approaching the pole and photographing herself by means of an automatic switch. The camera was located on a concrete column opposite them, and some of the models leaned over in provocative poses and some smiled at it with forced seductiveness. There were also those who stuck their tongue out or gave it the finger. The message was clear: These are women who take matters into their own hands and do not abandon themselves to the male gaze.

When Lana Del Ray's languid singing voice came over the speakers in the hall, the reference in the model's coiffures - hair combed to one side - became clear. And not just their hairdos, but also something in their pretense throughout the show reverberated with the American pop star's self-aware, affected drama and exaggerated pathos. It is not clear how intentional this move was and whether the designers of the show wanted to annex this extreme, self-negating form of presentation to strengthen the false representation of wriggling femininity. But apparently that's the risk taken by people who are over-sophisticated about meanings - in the end the image works against itself, and it is a little hard to understand what the original intention was.

Now for the clothes

And the clothes themselves - that is to say, the main thing? Well, they were for the most part wonderful. And more than that - overall the show was a terrific fashion performance, well edited and executed even if not without its failures. The dancer flung herself on the pole to the strains of Garbage's "I'm Only Happy When it Rains," and an atmosphere of sensuous and licentious sexuality set the tone for a show of easy and colorful clothes tied up in narrow leather reins: airy tailored suits, blouses and long flowing skirts in complex cuts combining sharp or rounded cuts of fabrics (plisse, chiffon, prints and more ) or short, fluid dresses that widened at the hem.

The strength of the designs derived, in part, from the fantastic combinations of shades of pink and turquoise, which had presence but were not loud. In a shirtdress cut on straight lines with a charming print of birds on the front, for example, the vitality of the colors pink, purple and green stood out without any loud dimension. This was also the case in another shirtdress cut with two triangles (on the chest and at the hips ) and fans of pleats spreading from them.

However, after a strong opening the clothes were shown in descending order of the strength of the reaction they aroused. Silvery metallic suits and dresses were less successful, though it was possible to be impressed by the structure of the transparent organza skirts that hovered above the knees as though held up by invisible crinolines. In effect, they looked like clothes designed especially for the purpose of making an impression at the show.

The black section, which came next on the runway, was impressive in the complex cuts of the garments and the manner of the construction of jackets, with quilted seaming and rectangular strips of Lurex in muted shades of turquoise or pink. However, the rocker appeal of tight pants in colorful Lurex and tough black jackets, which were worn together, looked dated and without much energy. Overall, this section was a more solid offering of designs seen at the opening of the show.

A motif in the collection was the complex, sharp or winding slashes. According to the program notes for the show, these relate to the work of architect Zaha Hadid. In retrospect, it is indeed possible to find things in common between the digital structures Hadid has designed and the dynamism of the clothes, but the connection is fairly loose. In general, successful design does not need too many explanations.

Though it was too epic, the collection provided additional proof that the brand's design team, Ira Goldman and Efrat Ziv, are the most talented designers active on the local scene (and this is the place to award a badge of merit to stylist Maayan Goldman as well ). It seems they have managed to find the right balance that allows them to create elegant designs in relaxed silhouettes, in cuts that include assertive lines and small, pleasant details that do not interfere with the cool, easy look. One can regret, though, that in light of the high prices, only few women will be able to enjoy the clothes they design.

A quarter-century and an agenda

On the way out the remaining postcards still caught the eye and with them, the question on the wall - fashion or agenda? The dilemma was at the basis of the show along with the complex relations between the brand's directors and media representatives and their clients, some of whom have developed a certain antagonism toward their self-righteous preaching. "It's been 25 years and they are still stuck in the same place?!" exclaimed one of the invited guests at the sight of the slogan on the wall. "It's as though they haven't moved a millimeter."

Possibly the directors of comme il faut feared that if they were now to give up the agenda that has accompanied them all these years, it could diminish their dignity. Possibly they felt a retreat from the stance they have assumed for a quarter-century is liable to signal defeat.

The opposite is the case: As they proved in the shows they put on in recent seasons, the gradual decline in the political messages and the focus on the design of successful clothes has only done them good. After all, it is difficult to see anything clearly through a cloud of assertive declarations and slogans about women's empowerment, slow fashion or any other worthy cause. And as directors of a fashion brand, they should know that the clothes are the main thing and it is only through them that messages should be conveyed. No one, after all, imagines that a painter would accompany his work with stickers citing the ideals or principles he sanctifies. Sometimes I feel like going into the mind of Sybil Goldfiner, the founder and CEO of the brand, in order to understand what is going on there. But on second thought, maybe that isn't such a good idea. It is enough to make one dizzy, reading what is written on the white envelope distributed at the entrance to the show - about the other female role model she and her colleagues have tried to establish opposite the "collection of assumptions about everything that is considered beautiful, sexy and desirable," and then seeing how they devote themselves to all the signs and props of the fashion world (stiletto heels, exaggerated makeup, restraining corsets ) in order to express their personal protest.

Indeed, the show was full of momentum and included very successful elements on the visual, experiential and fashion levels. It is just a pity that the reflexive feminist acrobatics cast a shadow on all the rest and at times even caused the spectacular moves of the pole dancer, Neta Lee Levy, to pale a bit (and this is not being said to belittle her, heaven forfend. She was wonderful ). In principle the role of the enactments and the accompanying props is to serve the presentation of the collection and not to distract attention from the clothes themselves.

And a propos the dancer, she climbed onto the runway and the pole again to end the show. After her, the models came out holding in their hands slices of a rosy pink cake decorated with lit sparklers. When they grouped together at the top of the runway they began biting into the slices, trying to prove in their actions that even professional models enjoy eating carbs. One of the guests, also an intelligent woman with political views that would please the brand's directors, scowled. "Thanks, but I don't need their permission to put on high heels, make up my face or eat cake," she said. As a woman, she added immediately, this display only angers her greatly.

Prices - shirts: NIS 390-1890; pants: NIS 890-1,390; jackets and coats: NIS 1,490-3,200; skirts and dresses: NIS 1,290-2,500. A detailed list of stores can be found at www.comme-il-faut.com