Forget the Kova Tembel: Are Hats Israel's Next Fashion Trend?

The debut collection of milliner Tami Bar-Lev blends the Mad Hatter's tea party with a summer vacation on an exotic beach.

"I look like a cocktail,” laughs Tami Bar-Lev as she tries on a half turban resembling a silk pineapple. It’s a sunny afternoon, and Bar-Lev is presenting her first hat collection.

There are 24 in total, including colorful straw hats adorned with fruits; turbans with three-dimensional elements made of felt or beaded embroidery; and sculptured hats, like the one shaped like a big hairpin with images of sequined shrimps.

Bar-Lev named her first collection “If you like pina coladas,” after a song she heard. She feels the song expresses the atmosphere she is trying to convey – that of a distant summer vacation. But her hats are not merely reflections of naive ideas of a holiday; they are also a personal comment on the concept of vacations in exotic locales, an examination of myths via an unusual accessory.

“I imagine myself at a bar, drinking cocktails from glasses decorated with parasols and coconuts,” she says. “There’s no question that the atmosphere is of a vacation in Hawaii. It’s not a real vacation, but a dream holiday with all the attendant clichés. Even I have memories of a Hawaiian vacation, although I’ve never been there. I like everything that such a vacation means, and try to convey that through my hats.”

Bar-Lev is fascinated by dreams, imaginary memories and the world of pop. She completed her studies in fashion design at the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, Ramat Gan, in 2009. “I love clichés,” she confesses, “and if literalness is a dirty word in fashion design, I think that hats are the perfect place for engaging in it. They are a convenient means for distilling the idea that designers are trying to convey, something that in clothes is transmitted more implicitly.”

She credits her interest in hats to an exhibition she saw in London during her last year of studies. “It was an exhibition [at the V&A] curated by Stephen Jones, the veteran British milliner, which was called ‘Hats: An Anthology,’” she recalls. “Until then I thought hats had no legitimacy. I didn’t understand who even wears hats. But the exhibition ignited something in me. I returned to Israel and started to teach myself how to design, sew and create hats. There isn’t much information about this field, especially in Israel, and I actually invented my own personal techniques. I designed a mini-collection for the ITS Fashion Competition [held in Italy and sponsored by Diesel]. Although I didn’t win, I received recognition and felt it was what I wanted to do.”

Bar-Lev started to work in styling and joined the crew of the Internet video series “Shenkin Witches.” She created hats for the series’ characters, designed hats for fashion productions in Israeli magazines, and for a project by stylist Maayan Goldman at the Holon Fashion Week, about a year and a half ago.

She also designed modest hat collections for Lee Grebenau and for Dorit Bar Or’s first exhibition at Tel Aviv Fashion Week in 2011. These were accessories full of humor, hats that did not apologize for using clichéd images such as wreaths of shiny silk flowers (for Grebenau) or turbans adorned with sequins that were reminiscent of a Saint Tropez vacation in the 1960s (for Bar Or).

Her frenetic activity put her on the list of “The most influential people in the Israeli fashion world” in At, a monthly magazine for women. “I was alarmed,” she says now about the attention, adding that it served as an incentive to travel to London – the hat capital – in order to study the field there.

Bar-Lev stayed in London for six months and didn’t waste time. She contacted noted milliners such as Philip Treacy and Piers Atkinson, who designs hats for fashion icons such as Anna Dello Russo, Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey. She was also accepted for an apprenticeship with Atkinson. She started working there one day a week, but was soon asked to come in every day. In her free time she took professional courses and received private lessons from veteran milliners.

“London has a long tradition of wearing hats,” she says. “At [horse] races such as Ascot, there’s a strict dress code, which is becoming even stricter with the years. A headband or a small hat don’t meet their strict standards, which today include a minimum diameter for a hat, and clothes that are not too revealing. The idea is to return to tradition, whether it’s women − who are required to wear large, fancy hats, with feathers for example − or men, who have to wear a top hat and tuxedo.

“Besides, it’s very common to arrive at a wedding wearing a hat. If you’re the mother of the bride, you’ll usually wear a hat on the side of your head, which will allow you to kiss the guests. And for any event attended by the Queen, of course you have to come in a hat. It seems strange from an Israeli perspective, but even the hat worn by Sara Netanyahu at [former Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher’s funeral in April was actually a part of the dress code. There, it’s part of the culture − young people will wear hats to openings, events and weddings − and you discover that people really like hats there. People are engaged by them, it’s an item that interests them, and even if they don’t have the courage to wear them, they like to see them.”

In spite of that, Bar-Lev decided not to extend her stay in England and returned to Israel about a year ago. “They have a language of hats, but they’re very square and old-fashioned, and I wanted to do something new of my own,” she says. “I came back and opened my studio, with unique materials and devices for designing handmade hats.”

Bar-Lev makes her hats using dummies, stretching, heat and steam – like a shoemaker. She doesn’t braid the straw herself, but she says that “a thimble, needle and thread are the main tools I work with.” A few months ago, she decided for the first time to design a collection in the tradition of “model millinery” − custom-made designs, like a haute couture of unique, avant-garde hats, along with ready-to-wear hats, which are more commercial and easy to digest.

“It’s like individual tailoring,” she explains. “Everyone has a hat that suits him, in terms both of size and facial structure. The hat has to be flattering. After all, it’s adorning your face, and if you wear something like that, it should be perfect.”

“If you like pina coladas,” the collection that emerged from that decision, looks theatrical. It includes classics like the boater − a flat straw hat to which she adds ribbons and elements like plastic grapes and silk leaves. One hat sports a silk hibiscus flower with painted beads resembling pollen; another is made from a small piece of straw attached to the head with a headband, with a frangipani flower made of silk, felt and embroidered beads and sequins. And there are also the turbans − a silk turban with several large flowers, or a heap of oranges and lemons made of embroidered beads and sequins. There are some with amusing elements like a coconut palm, a pineapple and shrimp.

These humorous hats are easy to understand, and the painstaking work invested in their design is evident: the knots, the ribbons, the embroidery, the embellishment that is always sewn and never glued. “I like to use classical shapes that have a context,” she says, “and from there I take it to my own place. Even if my images are light and like pop art, the technique and work are very traditional. I must use natural materials − only they respond properly to stretching and heating − and even if it seems funny, behind it all is a long-standing tradition.”

In the absence of a parallel tradition in Israel, her clients are brides, religious women, and people from the fashion world who use hats in fashion spreads in local magazines. “We live in an ultra-casual culture,” she says, “but that’s exactly why hats are our opportunity to dress up or externalize the casual look with a glitzy head accessory that does the work. It’s an object that’s so easy to place on your head and that’s that, it’s there. It says exactly what you wanted to convey about yourself. In a sense, I think it’s very suitable to the general atmosphere here.”

Afterward, when she places the hats in their classical round, deep boxes, one can’t help recalling something she said − that if fashion design is like baking a cake, then she likes to deal with the whipped cream and cherries. And even if you don’t like cocktails, a pina colada always tastes delicious.

Prices: NIS 500-NIS 5,000.  Available at Razili Ramat Aviv Mall or Bar-Lev’s studio: 054-554-9131; tamibarlev.com

Noa Yaffe