Breathing New Life Into Legendary Israeli Fashion Brand Maskit

Some designs by Sharon Tal feature the ethnic handiwork that embodied the company’s vision in the past, but will they be as well received today?

Contemporary Israeli fashion can’t be considered overly extravagant or sophisticated. This was evident in the amateurish Israeli Fashion Awards ceremony held last month in Holon, and also in the proximity of two fashion weeks to be held next March (in this case, quantity is not proof of creative quality, but rather of bickering between the organizing groups).

But when the name “Maskit” is uttered − it’s another story: Then, all eyes in the room light up with a spark of recognition, and even those unversed in the annals of local fashion can explain the importance of the veteran government-owned enterprise, founded by Ruth Dayan in the middle of the last century, in creating jobs for new immigrants of different ethnic origins.

It is hard to say what Maskit is best remembered for: being a company manufacturing textiles, clothes, objets d’art and jewelry in a local ethnic style, or being a public enterprise that saw such products primarily as a means of creating a positive image for the then-nascent state. But one thing is certain: Maskit is indeed cherished in the history of Israeli fashion as a national treasure.

In the haute couture industry, it’s become a matter of routine to witness the revival of such fashion houses, which once were famous worldwide but vanished. Already back in the 1990s, American fashion designer Tom Ford was hired to recreate Italian Gucci as a global fashion brand, and since then, such revivals have become something of a pastime among CEOs of certain companies in the field.

It is no surprise, then, that when 31-year-old designer Sharon Tal returned from Europe intent on creating an independent high-quality brand, she looked for inspiration to Maskit. That was in 2011, when Tal returned to Israel after a long stay abroad, where she worked, among other places, at Lanvin in Paris and at the Alexander McQueen fashion house in London. Articles she read in the Israeli press about Ruth Dayan and about an exhibition that August on the work of Fini Leitersdorf, Maskit’s head designer, awakened Tal’s curiosity about the brand, which she had first heard about while studying at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design.

“I knew I wanted to do something that would be local but also international, and when I started reading about Maskit, I realized it had everything I was looking for,” says Tal. She set an appointment with Dayan to hear more about the brand and the ideology it represented, but what was planned as a short encounter stretched out to a conversaton of eight hours, after which he two began to meet frequently.

Nevertheless, when Tal first got the idea of reviving the legendary brand, which closed down in 1994 after 40 years of activity, she still had to pluck up her courage before she could share her vision with Ruth Dayan. And indeed, at first, Dayan reacted skeptically; this wasn’t the first time she had received a similar proposition.

Gradually, however, Tal succeeded in winning her trust and in convincing Dayan that her intentions were serious − and Maskit began to shake off its cobwebs.

Now, new premises have been found for the fashion house on Auerbach Street in south Tel Aviv: in a renovated wooden house in the American-German colony. Visitors to the structure, which was until a decade ago a restaurant, are greeted by a large black-and-white photograph of 97-year-old Ruth Dayan, alongside pictures of six original Maskit designs, one of them the famous desert coat designed by Leitersdorf in 1955 ‏(the original was owned by Dayan’s mother‏), and another of a pure-white embroidered cotton dress with a folk design on the front, designed by Tamara Yuval Jones. There are also black-and-white photos documenting Maskit’s history and original sketches by Leitersdorf, who died in 1986. “This is a kind of gallery commemorating the Maskit legacy,” says Tal, now the company’s co-owner and head designer.

In the main space in the building, whose balcony looks out on a neatly maintained courtyard and a historic structure that once housed a hotel, designs from a collection designed by Tal herself are now on display. She calls this her “pre-debut collection”: an entire wardrobe intended as a tribute to Maskit’s many years of activity, including labels with the brand’s familiar trademark, with Dayan signing each label herself‏.

Tal: “I drew inspiration from Maskit designs that I rediscovered, from stories I had heard and from people who had worked with Maskit in the past. And, of course, from Eretz Israel’s landscapes and religions, and from our unique local culture which, despite many changes over the years, is still a melting pot.”

Tal sifted through the Maskit archives and pulled out three patterns to redesign, with slight adaptations. One is the desert coat, which the designer says will now be part of every future collection, each time in a slightly different version. The underlying concept is that the coat’s cut is based on one piece of fabric, to which others are attached by hand-done, cross-stitched embroidery. The current version of the coat was cut from a light straw-colored linen fabric, as was a marsh coat. The latter was based on a design cut from two layers of airy, woven linen in various shades of gray. The third design is the toga dress, its straight silhouette gathered in front with a cord and its hem dotted with an embroidered pattern of metallic silver and gold thread.

The other designs in Tal’s collection also draw on the brand’s colorful legacy and are aesthetically indebted to it. They include a long, narrow dress with a damask silk front, featuring a pattern with brown and gold stripes, a back made of black silk and short sleeves draping the arm like flower petals. The refined cut of this dress combines a local ethnic style with the sophistication and high quality of European haute couture; the necklace shown with it, made of black pearls and hammered silver tablets, was made in collaboration with Yemenite silversmiths who worked with Maskit in the past, as were all the other pieces of jewelry and accessories in the new collection.

Traditional, ancient embroidering techniques were an important component of Maskit’s design idiom and an intrinsic part of Dayan’s

vision of providing employing to new Israelis, and they naturally appear in diverse ways in Tal’s collection − whether in the form of fabrics embroidered with curled patterns in silver thread, like those decorating Jewish religious objects, or in the inclusion of buttons and coins in an Islamic style.

A different era

“I made this after a frustrating visit to Bethlehem,” says Tal, displaying a long dress made of black silk, its front embroidered with flowers and leaves in gold and silver thread. “Unfortunately, today there are virtually no more women doing the Bethlehem style of embroidery” − an exclusive style developed mostly by local Christian women, who would carefully lay gilded silver threads on top of the fabric in varying patterns. “That generation has become extinct and there’s no continuation of it, which is why I studied the method from those who still had knowledge of it, and taught it to the girls here in the studio.”

Metallic thread was chosen for two reasons: to lend the dress a more contemporary and luxurious look, but also as an homage to industrialist Stef Wertheimer, whose former company Iscar manufacters precision blades, and is one of the investors in the new enterprise.

Bethlehem was not Tal’s only stop. She and Dayan toured the countryside looking for craftswomen who had once worked with Maskit, and in the course of their journeys, they reached Nazareth. There, they discovered a workshop producing wooden furniture inlaid with seashells.

“I was thrilled by it, and I asked them to pierce the little shell I had so I could embroider it myself,” she now points at a grayish coat dress with a diagonal cut in the front, with a petal design made from a shell that is affixed to the fabric with gold beads.

“The design is called ‘Nasser,’ named after the craftsman,” Tal explains, adding that she wouldn’t have been able to create such pieces were it not for her exacting training at the McQueen fashion house.

Displaying a linen dress embellished with traditional Palestinian embroidery − featuring dense, cross-stitched pattern − Tal recalls how she instructed the craftswomen, a group of Arab women from Jaffa, to adapt their skills to achieve a modern-day look. “We took elements from traditional embroidery, enlarged them, incorporated metallic and silk threads and actually taught them how to use our embroidery style.”

I suppose you’re aware of the sensitivity of what you’re doing. Politically, socially. In the past, as well, some people saw Maskit’s method as exploiting the labor of disempowered populations. Did that come up in your discussions with Ruth Dayan?

“No, not really. I’m aware of the sensitivity, but to tell you the truth, I’m not concerned with it at all. I prefer just giving people work, and working myself. I don’t think about politics. The Arab women who work with us enjoy it so much, and of course everything is done in full cooperation with them. So far, I haven’t encountered anyone who refused to work with me for political reasons of any kind, neither in Herbata [west of Ramallah, in the West Bank] nor in Bethlehem, and our intention is to train as many people as possible to work in these handicrafts.”

In the future, Tal says she hopes to broaden the Maskit brand to include pottery and to go back to making objets d’art, as per Maskit’s original format, as well as to manufacture original textiles in Israel. “I contacted Naora Varshawsky, a weaving artist who created many fabrics for Maskit − some, by the way, were later sold to fashion houses abroad, including Dior. I asked her to collaborate with us, but unfortunately, it didn’t work out. I’ve already met with one local textile designer, and there are plenty of other young and talented ones here, who unfortunately are unable to find work in the local industry.

“Part of my vision is to shake up the local manufacturing industry and reinstate the Maskit factory. We have a detailed business plan for that. Though we won’t be able to open a plant within five years that will hire thousands of workers, as Maskit did at the time, we do hope to restore this local industry. Stef was very excited about the idea of establishing a local production facility. By the way, the factory will operate not only for Maskit, but will be open for other designers as well. I personally know plenty of designers who would be glad to receive such high quality services.”

Until that happens, in one of the corners of Sharon Tal’s office are envelopes that contain fabric samples that she ordered from Europe. “I haven’t opened them yet, and I guess I’ll only get around to it next week, when I begin working on the next collection, which will actually officially launch the brand’s operations,” she says.

That collection will probably be presented next summer, and will be intended for the spring 2015 season, in an attempt to adjust to the schedule of the international fashion industry.

“Next year, we’d like to be abroad already. Maskit items were sold in prestigious department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, and there’s no reason we can’t be there again,” adds Tal.

Objectively speaking, one can imagine at least one reason for some hesitation on the part of buyers from department stores abroad. Various sociopolitical conditions enabled the existence of this Zionist enterprise in the mid-20th century − and Maskit was, above all, an economic-political enterprise which fused together traditions of different ethnic groups to create an original Israeli visual identity. Those conditions have changed almost beyond recognition, and so has the worldwide attitude to Israel: The respect and affection once felt for the young country have been replaced in large part over the years by feelings of aversion, hostility and repulsion due to its conduct vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Under these conditions, it will be difficult to market Palestinian-Israeli folklore in this idyllic version.

In the meantime, in the hallways leading to the company’s offices, and in design and sewing rooms on the top floor of the Tel Aviv building, one can see photographs documenting the brand’s clothes on display in the windows of those department stores, alongside pictures that testify to what once appeared to be a different reality of Israeli-Arab coexistence.

The workers in the studio seem not to attribute special importance to the history surrounding them. They’re busy working, wearing white coats embroidered with the Maskit logo. “We wanted them to feel proud of their work, a bit like the haute couture sewers in Paris,” says Tal, explaining their uniforms.

If everything works as planned, and Tal’s vision is realized, this step of hers − and of her husband, Nir Tal, the company’s co-CEO − will not only bring back to life one of the outstanding former players in the history of Israeli fashion. It could also mark a new, optimistic chapter in the history of local fashion, and perhaps encourage young entrepreneurs to revive other Israeli brands that won international followings, such as Rozi Ben-Yosef’s Rikma or Beged Or.

For now, it is hard to foresee what the Israel’s fashion scene will look like 10 years down the line if for example, a new generation of fashionistas is offered a choice between brand-new lines of knitted tops in a revived Niva line, or quality cotton garments made by a reborn Ata, and what the influence of such a trend might be on a new generation of designers: Will they prefer the warm safety of an established brand with a glorious past to venturing out unarmed into the market?

At least for Sharon Tal, not seeing her own name on the logo isn’t a problem. “Many people who have accompanied me throughout this process have asked me why I don’t want to establish my own brand, and my answer is simple: I wanted to do something that is a life project and larger than life, and Maskit is exactly that.” 

Dudi Hasson
Daniel Tchetchik
Dudi Hasson