When a Tel Aviv Fashion House Meets Women of the Wall

Comme Il Faut came up with a fall/winter collection of women's clothing that makes both an aesthetic and political statement.

Last fall, shortly after she joined the design team at the Tel Aviv-based Comme Il Faut fashion house, Sharon Daube was sent to a fabric exhibition in Paris. Stashed in her handbag was a notebook with detailed instructions she had received from Ira Goldman, the lead designer for the brand over the past eight years, who was preparing to go on maternity leave. Goldman’s advice made it easier for Daube as she wandered among the stands, but no less helpful was the fact that the new designer knew precisely what sort of fabrics she wanted: Among them was a crisp white cotton, from which she and fellow designer Karin Leikovich would go on to create a series of tailored shirts. Their line was launched this past summer at a sneak preview of Comme Il Faut’s fall/winter collection for 2013-14.

Comme Il Faut is an established fashion enterprise which owns several women’s clothing stores around the country. Its flagship store is a spa-restaurant-shopping complex in the Tel Aviv Port.

The choice of the white cotton was not accidental. “It was like a thought on a blank page,” confirm Daube and Leikovich, aged 33 and 28, respectively. They are referring to the new chapter being written in the history of Comme Il Faut following their recent parallel appointments, after predecessors Goldman and Efrat Ziv officially wrapped up their work in the spring. But the page is not entirely blank, and the white has another association: While Comme Il Faut’s summer 2013 collection was designed with a nod to Islam, the line they recently finished working on is devoted to Judaism, in keeping with the decision of the company’s management to use “religions” as a guiding theme this year.

“There is none other besides her” − so the new Jewish collection is called, and as is hinted by its name, too, the two designers dedicated a good share of
their time to reworking − for women − items of men’s apparel from the Haredi wardrobe. Leikovich herself, for example, wears a shirt whose clean lines play down the pocket over the heart, with long and narrow cuffs, similar to a Haredi garment, when we meet. She dubs it “Rachel”; indeed, all the pieces in the collection by her and Daube bear biblical names.

Among the things pinned to the corkboard in their studio are photographs of Anat Hoffman and Leslie Sachs, the chairwoman and director, respectively, of the Women of the Wall organization, whose campaign to allow women to pray in a minyan at the Western Wall has been making headlines. In fact, Comme Il Faut Managing Director Sybil Goldfiner and a delegation of executives and designers attended the special prayer session this week at the Wall, marking WOW’s 25th anniversary − “to express solidarity” with the organization, according to Goldfiner.

For their part, Daube and Leikovich say they were naturally drawn to and inspired by Women of the Wall’s struggle for equal standing at the site, a prominent manifestation of which is the tallit ‏(prayer shawl‏) that some group members wear while praying there. Some items in their new line are inspired by the tallit and feature rectangular strips of fabric that swoop down the front and back, or sail over the shoulders, in white; there are also designs reminiscent of Hasidic coats.

“In Judaism, clothes are also a vehicle for religious ritual − for men of course. From there it naturally flowed over to WOW and their struggle against the prohibition on using these ritual means − sacred fringed garments, tallitot, etc.,” Daube explains, but adds that she and Leikovich have been careful not to create an overly modest look.

At this point, the conversation naturally shifts to what executives of the brand have considered to be the agenda of Comme Il Faut since it was founded 25 years ago. The company promotes vis-a-vis its clientele and in the management of its assets a vision of social and environmental responsibility, egalitarianism, empowerment of women, and a pluralistic political approach. Although the brand has its loyal customers and supporters, there have also been quite a few members of the general public who have expressed sharp criticism about the firm’s agenda. Some of these sense a patronizing tone at Comme Il Faut, others an aura of self-righteousness. One prevalent complaint among the public, for example, has been that the ongoing messages the brand tries to convey cannot be reconciled with the high prices of its merchandise, which only a handful of women can afford.

In any event, public discourse has sometimes clouded the effort to get a real
impression of the clothes themselves − and most of the time there have been good reasons to be impressed by them. The brand’s previous design duo worked hard to put the focus back on the clothing collection: Goldman established a tradition of tailored apparel of a quality and level of complexity not commonly seen on the local landscape, and in general she and Ziv spearheaded challenging, highly creative designs.

‘Eye of the storm’

Comme Il Faut’s recent decision to base a collection on the charged and potentially explosive theme of religion suggests the management is determined to re-enter the “eye of the storm” − like a decade ago, when they photographed models against the backdrop of the separation barrier in East Jerusalem as part of their “Women Crossing Borders” campaign.

But if it seems there had been a retreat from such a controversial approach in recent years, the current collection clarifies that a change in emphasis is now afoot. Whereas Daube and Leikovich explain that the general public simply needed time to take in Comme Il Faut’s innovations over the years, the women behind the brand itself also apparently needed time to learn how to inculcate their messages more organically, and not impose an agenda on a product at any price, as they put it.

Undoubtedly the spirit of the whole enterprise has mellowed slightly over the years, but not necessarily in terms of the content of its messages but rather in the ways they are conveyed. This realization − that political campaigns are a good means to draw public attention, but also a provocation that is not necessarily to the brand’s benefit − attests to a process of healthy maturation at Comme Il Faut.

In this respect, the collection Daube and Leikovich have now designed can be seen as a continuation of their predecessors’ line. One of its outstanding achievements is the duality it maintains: on the one hand, an emphasis on certain, select inspirational elements from the ultra-Orthodox wardrobe; on the other hand, the introduction of an original aesthetic, born of careful attention to the demands of contemporary fashion. The designers’ tailored shirts − now returning to the forefront of the women’s wardrobe − are an excellent example of this.

An equally good example is the collection’s tailored three-piece suits in black or white. These were likewise created in keeping with that logic of being both trendy and in close relation to their point of reference − just like the white shirts − except that here the designers added a smidgen of sensuality − in the collarless jackets, which close with hooks at the front and are adorned with shiny fabric ribbons, in slits in the backs of elongated vests, in the soft pants or sharp wraparound skirts. And in another series of suits, the type of fabric − whose weave changes hue from black to navy blue and to light gray, depending on the different threads and weave techniques − emphasizes the sheen of the sharply cut garments, as well as the advantage of importing original fabrics from abroad. Obviously, this also makes the manufacturing process and its final product more expensive.

To help create a balance between local and global, Daube and Leikovich collaborated with the Israeli entrepreneurial duo Ziva Epstein and Diana Broitman, of the brand Nulah, who launched their own debut collection this year, centering fabrics they designed and produced together with local Druze women.

At a recent press conference, the four of them showed two pinafore-like dresses − one black and the other light gray − based on a similar structural principle: The upper part was woven tightly with thick viscose threads, which were frayed to create a long skirt below the waistline. The commercial collection, including the Nulah designs and part of the Comme Il Faut religions line, features two pieces in black, the first resembles a breastplate and is worn like jewelry around the neck, and the other was designed in the shape of a sweater with a wavy cowl.

The maneuvering room that Daube and Leikovich gave themselves within the ideological confines selected for them suggests that the delicacy of the overall religious theme did not scare them.

“It is undoubtedly challenging, and obviously we put a lot of thought into the question of how to do this right,” Leikovich says. “For both of us, this was the first collection we were designing together from scratch; we wondered how we should even go about approaching it. We began with the very masculine Haredi outfit, and the deeper we delved into the subject the more we understood the uniqueness it contained, from our standpoint. And it proved itself once again: When you do a thing from an authentic and sincere place, everything falls into place. And when you try to impose something by force, it just doesn’t work.”

And generally, they add, instead of making categorical statements, they prefer to raise questions for discussion. This thinking also guided the production of the elegant catalog that accompanied the collection’s launch. Aside from the lovely nighttime photographs by Anna Yam, it includes a brief conversation with Yam and essays by writers Sarah Blau and Julia Fermentto. One question posed to Yam relates to the connection between art and fashion, and indeed the new catalog itself also addresses this matter and, more precisely, the role that reputable writers from the fields of philosophy and literature play in broadening the spiritual contexts in which consumer goods are produced − in this case, clothes.

But the new line of clothing Daube and Leikovich designed has no need of artificial broadening of contexts: They broadened the contexts themselves, as can be seen, for example, in a cape-like jacket in black and gray striped knit, interwoven with golden Lurex threads and cut wide, including elbow-length sleeves. In its overall look, and its silhouette, this jacket resonates with Israeli designer Rozi Ben Yosef’s work: both her 1970s collection inspired by prayer shawls, and the texture of the Molidor fabric she produced a decade earlier by turning terry cloth into a unique medium. And there is also a long skirt in the Comme Il Faut collection from the same cloth, whose bell-shaped silhouette is underscored by the combination of vertical stripes ‏(down to the knee‏) and horizontal ‏(below it‏).

Sometimes, the pieces in the collection require careful interpretation. In a thin long-sleeved shirt from a fabric with a hexagon pattern on a grayish background, for example, a psychedelic pattern is evident on first glance. Is this an attempt by the design duo to say something about the sheer Haredi existence and the irrational foundations of religious faith? Of course not. Second and third glances suddenly reveal the triangles that surround the hexagons look like a crowded formation of Stars of David.

“Everything is by design,” Daube says, and then she and Leikovich burst out laughing. God’s design, of course.

Noa Yafe
Noa Yafe
Noa Yafe
Noa Yafe
Noa Yafe