Death of Israel's High Priestess of Fashion

Lea Gottlieb, the founder of the legendary swimwear company Gottex, who has died aged 94, changed the way Israeli women dress.

Shachar Atwan
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Shachar Atwan

“A very real woman,” is how Gideon Oberson describes Lea Gottlieb, a founding partner and the animating spirit of Gottex, the legendary swimsuit company, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 94. Today, more than 50 years after the founding of Gottex, it is hard to tell truth from fiction in the mythology surrounding the company, but the veteran designer is referring to Gottlieb’s forthrightness.

The two met when Oberson was just starting his career, and they were bound, he says, by their shared Hungarian origins. “One fine morning, when I decided to make swimsuits, she just decided to rub me out. She asked shops not to sell my models and told people who chose to sell them they would have to choose between Gottex and Oberson.”

In hindsight, he says, she did him a great service, because everyone wanted to see the young designer who was causing Gottlieb, the high priestess of fashion, so much consternation.

“For most of our lives we were competitors, starting in 1976, when I decided to design swimsuits, and until 2001, when I stepped into her shoes at Gottex, but the competition between us was fruitful for both sides. When we met again in 2001, she surprised me with her generosity of spirit. She called me and told me in her broken Hebrew: ‘I’m very happy you’re the one designing for Gottex because you are a big talent.’ This was a tremendous compliment coming after so many years of competition, and it reminded me of her greatness as a person, not just as a designer. During the years we were in competition, she just didn’t want to see me around, but afterward she went the extra mile to support me.”

Oberson remembers her as an energetic person dedicated to her work, someone who totally submerged herself in it. “To the very end, she had exquisite taste, a talent for composing a complete vision, and great passion to create and promote her vision. She was among the first to create collections in a certain atmosphere, and a designer who took her vision to its conclusion.”

Gottlieb, the only daughter of a Jewish family from Miskolc, Hungary, was raised in poverty by an aunt. In her youth she made a living by giving private lesions, but was unable to continue higher studies in Budapest because of limitations on the number of Jews accepted to academic institutions. During this period she met Armin, and the two married.

Gottlieb started working as a bookkeeper at the raincoat factory owned by her husband’s family. “I walked through the cutting and sewing rooms every day but I never imagined these would be my own destiny,” she said in a 1981 interview with Haaretz.

From raincoats to swimsuits

After the outbreak of World War II, the couple wandered from Slovakia to Budapest, and in 1949 they immigrated to Israel with their two daughters and Lea’s mother. Three weeks after being placed in an immigrant home in Be’er Yaakov, they found an abandoned apartment in Jabaliya, Jaffa. Armin, who had made a living sewing raincoats in Hungary, tried to revive his trade in Jaffa, but while he had experience in manufacturing raincoats − a trade he learned from his parents − it was hard to produce anything without any economic resources or even sewing machines.

The recently founded state was full of new immigrants, recent survivors of the concentration camps, and Armin went out to find women who were looking for work. Some of them had sewing machines they’d brought with them from abroad. Soon enough they had orders from then-famous Tel Aviv raincoat labels. Lea cut the patterns, designed new models, and thereby brought the Armin Gottlieb raincoat subcontractor into the world.

After about a year, the family moved its residence and business to north Tel Aviv, where instead of being a subcontractor of nylon raincoats ‏(the style in those days‏) it became an independent manufacturer. The couple saved for five years, but Armin was wary of investing in raincoat manufacturing given the short Israeli winter; besides, gambling on a single item was risky in any case. And so, in 1956, they decided to try their luck with swimsuits. Lea was charged with the task of designing them, and to their surprise and delight the first series they made was snapped up.

Soon the apartment was too small to serve as a workshop. The move to a manufacturing plant on Hagdud Ha’ivri Street in Tel Aviv resulted in accelerated production for the local market and, later on, also for international destinations. Malta was first, followed by markets in the United States, Canada, Europe and the Far East.

After a decade, Gottlieb had earned an international reputation for swimsuits and beachwear. The unique raw materials were imported from Europe, and the fabric manufacturers were obligated to commit to exclusivity with the cloths they developed together. Afterward, she would design patterns and models together with a team of designers.

Armin used to say that she was the best designer of swimsuit designers in the world. According to him, the 300 new models she used to make every year ensured the success of Gottex, and Lea was the secret to the success. These weren’t just words of praise from a loving husband; there was ample evidence to back them up. In 1973, Gottlieb won her first international prize at the Fashion Festival in Cannes in the swimsuit category. In September 1981, at the age of 63, she received an international press prize as Designer of the Year of swimsuits and beachwear. The prize was awarded at the Igedo Fashion Fair in Dusseldorf, where 3,000 fashion manufacturers from all over the world present their wares annually.

A decade after winning international recognition and having her name mentioned in the same breath as those of the top fashion designers in Paris, Time magazine dedicated an article to her as one of the leading swimsuit makers in the world.

In the book “Great Jewish Women,” she appears alongside Anne Frank and Golda Meir. Gottlieb and Gottex’s past is no less distinguished than the style identified with her: Egyptian-inspired swimsuits and beachwear by Gottex were presented by Ofira Navon, the late wife of President Yitzhak Navon, to Jehan Sadan and her daughters, while an Indian-inspired set decorated with a mirrored print was displayed at the costume institute of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Gottlieb kept her letter of thanks from Diana, Princess of Wales, together with the catalogues starring international supermodels such as Elle MacPherson and Naomi Campbell alongside the late Tami Ben Ami, clippings from the international press, and models stored in cardboard boxes in her apartment.

Some weeks before her death, Diana met with Gottlieb at Harrods, the exclusive London department store. Gottlieb practiced curtsying before the princess, but when the moment came she forgot because of her excitement. A short time before her death, Diana was immortalized in paparazzi shots aboard Dodi Fayed’s yacht wearing a Gottex leopard print bathing suit.

For Nancy Kissinger, Gottlieb put together a personal fashion show at the King David Hotel, and even custom made her a special piece. She refused to cash the check she received in payment from Henry Kissinger and preferred to have it framed instead.

In the local press, the spirited Gottlieb was described as an Israeli designer of Hungarian extraction combining the talents of Coco Chanel with the looks of Edith Piaf: short of stature with a childlike smile, her head brimming with visions of birds, flowers and waves that would adorn her swimsuits and beachwear, with her feet firmly planted on the ground to help her calculate fabric and labor costs.

In the 1980s, Gottex’s heyday, the company’s annual turnover was $40 million, and the swimsuits and beachwear in Gottlieb’s designs were sold in 63 countries around the world. Buyers for New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s and London’s Harrods used to visit Israel every year to order swimsuits for the next season. Some would consult with Gottlieb about designing their window displays. There were dreams of launching a Gottex perfume, but that never happened.

The important turning point in international sales occurred in 1975 after the directors of Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Cardin contacted Gottlieb and suggested she manufacture her swimsuits under the names of the elite fashion houses of Paris. “That’s when I understood that I’m pretty famous and that my models were too beautiful for me to give away without publicizing my company throughout the world,” she told Haaretz in 1981.

And that’s what she did. Manufacturing was expanded to include men’s and children’s swimwear, as well as bed linens, towels and drapes. At a certain point, the Gottex name had enough cachet to sell the goods all on its own. When she was asked about the secret of her success, she answered: “Maybe it’s my instinct for making the right choice. I’ve always been able to choose the right fabrics and colors that later become fashionable, attractive and very commercial.”

The good life

In the couple’s spacious penthouse in north Tel Aviv − the heart of which was an enormous patio resembling the deck of a ship, decorated with Parisian streetlights, shaded arbors and elegant tropical plants − Gottlieb used to listen to famous arias sung by Luciano Pavarotti, her favorite singer, while designing her models. Other sources of inspiration were Impressionist painters and tango and jazz tunes of the early 20th century. “La Traviata,” for instance, made Gottlieb think of shades of blue, and when she designed her Egyptian-inspired models she hummed “Aida” to herself.

“When I think of beach clothing and dresses, I start with the music and immediately envision the entire collection down to the smallest detail,” she told Haaretz in 1981.

Gottlieb loved the good life and lived the glittering life of jet setters reflected by the models she designed for Gottex. To save time, for example, she regularly flew the Concorde and kept an apartment in Milan, which she visited every few weeks to keep abreast of fashion innovations. “I love flying the Concorde,” she told Haaretz in 1985. “Three and a half hours from Paris to New York, and you can be there for the start of the workday. I like to drink a glass of papaya juice on ice in the morning, served with an orchid, just like in Hawaii. I love the atmosphere of Paris and the plays in London. Traveling is a source of inspiration for creating new collections year in and year out.”

She lived the cutting edge of technology of the 1980s, the print and dyeing techniques, and the development of the most innovative fabrics, but her creative sources were the art and music she loved. The living room of her Tel Aviv apartment was adorned with paintings by Rubin, Eisenscher, Bak and Adler, and the 1986 spring-summer collection, for example, was created as an homage to three sources of inspiration: an exhibition of van Gogh works she saw in New York ‏(long brushstrokes in a wide palette of colors‏), Impressionist paintings of Paris ‏(intense light and color‏), and the musical of Scott Joplin’s “Ragtime” she saw in London.

Some wondered how Gottlieb combined her occupation with the exposed female body and swimsuits together with her tendency to observe Jewish tradition, but she settled that question quickly: “I don’t like women who’re too revealing,” she said in the 1981 Haaretz interview. “In my opinion, the swimsuits I design aren’t too sexy. I like to wrap women in a top dress, caftan or jacket.”

She didn’t view herself as religious in the usual sense: “I have my own laws that I live by,” she said, and meant, among other things, not traveling on the Jewish Sabbath, a stricture she assumed when her mother fell ill in 1969.

Throughout her life, she had a complicated relationship with Israel and what constituted being Israeli. One the one hand, she put the young country on the map of international fashion with Gottex. On the other hand, she never spoke favorably of the local fashion scene. In fact, the few times she had no choice but to relate to the topic directly, she was fairly dismissive of the local manner of dress and its inferiority compared to elite European fashions. Her infatuation with the new country took place through foreign eyes. Still, during its glory days, the Gottex plant provided a living for 700 Israeli families.

“Lea came up with an idea no one before her had thought of: to inject glamour into women’s swimsuits and beachwear,” wrote author and fashion journalist Helen Shuman in her book “Gottex: Swimsuits as Elite Couture” published in 2006 by Asulin Press ‏(in Hebrew‏) in honor of the company’s jubilee. “Gottlieb absorbed the pulse of the new, young city of Tel Aviv and its Bauhaus architecture, and decided to make a brand of swimsuits for the women of the new, sun-drenched country.” Gottex’s design, she determined, would be inspired by the light and contrasting colors of Israel: “the turquoise of the Mediterranean, the golden yellow of the desert sand, the blue of the Sea of Galilee, the pink of Jerusalem stone, and the many shades of green of the Galilee.”

The book, surveying the successes of Gottex over the years, notes the 1984 Seven Suit model, which put Gottex on the map of international fashions: a one-piece strapless suit that became the world’s best seller. But alongside the big successes, there were also years of waste and failed management, and a period of decline in which the rich style of Gottex couldn’t match the minimalism of the time and the anti-fashion winds blowing in the 1990s. The book skips over the collapse of the Gottex empire, only noting dryly that in 1997, after the Gottlieb family sold its shares and stopped its involvement in the operations of the company, it was bought by businessman Lev Leviev.

The decline began with the death of Armin, in 1995. The widowed Gottlieb lost some of her confidence and appointed hired managers who were replaced with dizzying speed until Gottex was sold. In 2001, she resigned from Gottex after attempts at working with the new company management failed. “It’s hard for me to part from the workplace I founded and where I invested my skills and talents for more than a generation,” she wrote in the letter of resignation she handed in to the Africa Israel Company that bought Gottex.

In 2005, Gottlieb founded an independent label that bore her name and through which she hoped to revive the Gottex heritage and compete with the name that had been transferred into the hands of strangers. But the Lea label didn’t manage to restore control of the swimsuit trade.

The official announcement made by Gottex’s management after Gottlieb’s death stated that Gottex is planning an exhibition of her work in conjunction with the Holon Design Museum. One may hope that such an exhibition will present Gottlieb’s work in its entirety and pay the last respects to someone who undoubtedly deserves such commemoration.

Lea Gottlieb examining one of her models at the Gottex headquarters in 1971.Credit: Peter Herzog
Tami Ben Ami modeling one of Gottlieb’s winter designs in 1982-83. Credit: Ben Lamm
A design by Gottlieb. Credit: Peter Herzog
One of Gottlieb's designs. Credit: Peter Herzog