An Israeli Designer With Her Eye on the World

Daughter to a design icon and an Israeli beauty queen, Elle Sasson has exploded onto the world fashion scene, thanks to bold vision and a few connections.

Daniel Bar-On

Young Israeli designer Elle Sasson has been flying high for months: flattering mentions in magazines like Teen Vogue and Nylon, pictures of her designs in Bergdorf Goodman's high-end fashion catalogue, celebrities spotted wearing her clothes and a profile in Women’s Wear Daily, the most important fashion newspaper in the United States.

When Sasson, 26, decided a year ago to start her eponymous fashion line, she went about it differently than most young designers in Israel. Sasson, who was born in New York, grew up in Israel and studied in the department of fashion design at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan, never intended to be part of the Israeli fashion scene. So at the suggestion of her father, Mauric Sasson, who works as a production coordinator for fashion companies, she joined him on a business trip to Hong Kong and launched the company from there.

It wasn’t Elle Sasson's first time in the Chinese city-state. “When I was a child we moved to Hong Kong because of Dad’s work, before settling in Israel,” she says. “Hong Kong is full of smells that brought me back to my childhood. For example, there’s this ferry that travels among the islands, and the particular smell of its fuel reminds me of the trips to school every morning. As a child, incidentally, I spoke fluent Chinese. I have family videos in which I’m singing and speaking Chinese. Now, I’ve already forgotten, and I have to learn the language again, but it’s better for me to study Mandarin, because that’s the language spoken in the factories.”

Maurice Sasson, 63, had experience to share regarding designing and building a fashion brand. In the mid-1970s, he started Sasson Jeans, and successfully introduced the idea of designer jeans to the world, long before Calvin Klein based his lifestyle empire on them. Later, he worked behind the scenes, manufacturing for fashion houses. In Israel, he worked with companies such as Fox, Golf and Castro. He now overseas big brands, like Alice and Olivia, American Eagle and The Row, established by celebrity twin billionaires Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Elle's mother, Nilly Drucker, was Miss Israel in 1986.

From Bergdorf Goodman to Kuwait

Elle Sasson wanted to design sophisticated daytime wear. She was inspired by the clothing she saw when she interned at Alice + Olivia at the end of her third year at Shenkar. From the studio of the New York brand, she went on to another internship, this time with American designer Derek Lam.

“With Lam, I worked mainly as an assistant in producing the collection, and although that wasn’t my dream job, I decided to go with it. In hindsight, I’m very pleased about that decision, because I got a lot out of it. I learned about work processes and about what you need to produce a collection, and I became familiar with factories and plants in the United States.”

One of the most important doors opened to Sasson was that of the veteran display room 10eleven, which represents Diane Von Furstenberg, among other designers, and is owned by fashion mogul Betsee Isenberg. “After completing work on the first collection of daytime wear, we contacted Betsee and went to meet her in Los Angeles. I remember that at the time, she was trying to decide between us and the Italian brand MSGM, which is a huge brand that is sold worldwide. I admit that I was somewhat in shock that she chose us, because she was supposed to represent them exclusively in the United States, but she believed in us from the start.”

At the moment, Sasson's collection is on sale in trendy department stores, like Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, and major boutiques, like Intermix on New York’s Fifth Avenue. In addition, her designs are on sale at Stylebop in Germany, Boon in South Korea and even ALOthman in Kuwait. “My father and I are quite shocked by the fast progress. We didn’t expect it,” she says.

In the past year, Sasson has been dividing her life between Hong Kong, New York and Tel Aviv. Her office is in Hong Kong, and she goes to New York several times a year to meet buyers and other people in the industry and to study the market and figure out what to improve for future collections.

A ruthless industry

Sasson's first collection, for Spring-Summer 2014, was inspired by the 1971 book by American artist Ed Ruscha, “A Few Palm Trees.” She says the decade, and the style of clothing identified with it, inspired her choices of styles, colors and types of embroidery. A colorful beaded palm tree that adorns some of her clothes — showing up on the hem of a tailored dress with a narrow silhouette and the front of tailored blouses in an airy linen fabric — is based on the drawings of an Israeli artist.

Dense embroideries of plump cats adorn short cloche skirts, light cocktail dresses and crisp button-down cotton shirts. Sasson borrowed the cats from a 1970s painting she found. She also developed all the prints in the collection, the most outstanding of them an intensive print of green tropical foliage, which looks like a combination of wallpaper from a 1970s California vacation home and military camouflage. Sasson created a suit from it that is composed of a wide linen T-shirt with a pocket on the chest and slim pants from very thin silk. “It actually began with a trip to Los Angeles,” she says, remarking that she borrowed the cut of the military coat that accompanies the suit from a jacket designed by her father in the 1970s.

While her father has contributed to her sudden success, Elle Sasson says it took him a while to adapt to today's fashion industry, which has changed since his glory days. “Slowly but surely, he internalized that the fashion industry has become bigger, and that today people no longer pick up the phone, and everything is done by email,” she says. “Even when we wanted models for the catalogue photos, we encountered a wall of inflexibility. No agency will send you a model for photos if you aren’t a famous name. Fortunately there are still people in the industry who remember my father, otherwise I don’t think I would have been able to do it on my own. Doors don’t just open on their own. It’s a tough business.”