A Leitersdorf Showcase

The granddaughter of Finy Leitersdorf has tried to do the late, great Israeli fashion designer justice by launching an exhibition of her inimitable artistry.

Two weeks ago Andrea Leitersdorf called a dental clinic to book an appointment. Hearing her name, the secretary said: "Leitersdorf? Like the name of the famous fashion designer?"

Andrea, the 36-year-old granddaughter of the late Adolfina (Finy ) Leitersdorf, was touched. "It stunned me that the woman still remembered her. Not many people know her today - unless they are elderly or have a special interest in culture or fashion," says the younger Leitersdorf. And that, she adds, is the reason for the initiative she launched at Villa Dallal, her restaurant and bakery in Tel Aviv's Neve Tzedek neighborhood: an exhibition showcasing the impressive work of her grandmother, who died 25 years ago next month. The exhibition closes tomorrow.

Ben Lam

On permanent display in the home of Andrea Leitersdorf's parents, in Savyon, are clothes that Finy designed during the second half of the last century: On one rack are items in natural colors of brown, beige and black; on another, colorful silk dresses.

According to her granddaughter, there are, in fact, two Finys. One is associated with creating designs for Maskit (a government-owned enterprise that promoted ethnic art and culture until the mid-1990s ); the other with creating costumes for theaters, and clothes for select clients and Israel Bonds' fund-raising fashion shows abroad.

"One can see the duality immediately, in the clothes' colorfulness and materials. In the Maskit designs, the colors and materials are natural ... the sheep's wool that is woven by hand. The other clothes are more stylized and the colors are livelier," says the younger Leitersdorf, who considers her grandmother's designs to be "works of art" in the full sense of the term.

What gives a designer national importance is his or her ability to use local colors, to reflect the feelings and particular textures of his country, Finy Leitersdorf said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post in 1966. It is not the Yemenite embroidery that makes the Maskit clothes "Israeli" per se, she added: Rather, it is the range of colors - the desert brown, the impure black inspired by Bedouin tents, and the eternally changing blue of the Mediterranean. To this is added the loose design, which makes life more comfortable in hot climes.

"Finyland" is what Andrea Leitersdorf calls the room with the clothes, in the Savyon house, which overlooks a pool surrounded by thick tropical foliage. This is where her grandmother lived and worked during her final days.

"Everything around her was seashells, wooden buttons, pebbles, big safety pins, broken glass that she collected on the beach," Leitersdorf says, recalling the workshop during her own childhood years.

"These items gave her ideas for designs or became elements in the clothes that she fashioned. For a child it was sort of a playground ... She always had limitless patience. I never heard her raise her voice or speak impatiently. I remember her working. She did not prepare any advanced sketches of her designs. She would work straight on the mannequin, intuitively. She would take a bolt of cloth and throw it on the table or the floor," she continues, demonstrating the movement of lifting the bolt.

"Then she would go around and energetically cut a pattern and put the pieces together on the mannequin ... Her clothes were not something from the past that lost its relevance. I would even go as far as to say that they embody not only the past and the present, but also something of the future."

Leitersdorf thinks her grandmother managed to beat the system. "Her fashion did not die young. It continues to live to this day."

Returning to life

Finy's creations return to life at the Villa Dallal exhibition. In one area are three dresses, accompanied by articles and other documentation about them, beside the so-called Desert Coat she designed for Maskit. Another room features dresses inspired by the paintings of artist Yohanan Simon, Finy's third husband. Among them is one adorned with palm trees, which Leitersdorf called "a view from my window," designed for an Israel Bonds fashion show in the United States. She created designs for these annual events from 1958 to 1982, which she said allowed her to be free of business considerations because the items were generally made for display, not for sale. "These were models for a show. It was my show," she said, of the colored silk dresses she created on the basis of Simon's oil paintings.

Amos Gutman's "Sipurei Badim" ("Material Tales" ), is screened as part of the Villa Dallal show. The 1978 film documents the Israeli fashion industry and opens with an interview with Leitersdorf, set in her Savyon home.

"It was very exciting for us to hear Finy speak in the film," says her granddaughter. "Unfortunately we do not have additional video clips that document her. Finy died when I was 11. I had a terrific grandmother with a stunning personality whom, to my regret, I did not get to know during her lifetime."

However, the matriarch's presence is still felt, she notes: "In our family she is still very present. Many of the dishes we prepare are Finy's. To this day my mother wears clothes she had designed and that were reconstructed in other fabrics. Even the artworks by Yohanan that hang in our house are a reminder of her.

"People's memory of her is always positive ... She was a woman who excited people. Everything about her was different, beginning with her external appearance. She was a big woman, physically, with fiery-red puffy hair who wore loose clothes and large jewelry ... Her Hebrew was archaic with a heavy Hungarian accent and when she could not find the word she wanted, she would use Hungarian."

Primitive instinct

Born in Komarom, Hungary, Adolfina Leitersdorf came to Tel Aviv in 1939 with her husband, architect Andreas Leitersdorf, and their young son Thomas. A year later she opened a studio for clothing design on Ahad Ha'am Street; shortly thereafter, she started to design costumes for the Cameri Theater - something she did for 10 years.

At the same time she sewed clothes for private clients, including artists and actors. Since she had begun designing clothes in Europe, she had worked with artists, Leitersdorf said in a January 1983 interview with artist Jenifer Bar Lev, which was published in the catalog of an exhibition that the Tel Aviv Museum of Art devoted to Leitersdorf that year. In an interview with the Maariv newspaper years later, she said: "Most of my customers are bohemians. I prepared costumes for the theater, so actresses and their friends come to me. I place a piece of cloth on a mannequin and play with the fabric until it gets the shape I want - and this is what I do to this day."

In 1955 Leitersdorf met entrepreneur Ruth Dayan for the first time; that meeting led to a joint exhibition of their collaborative Maskit designs at the Dizengoff Museum (which is today the Tel Aviv Museum ). The exhibition was a stunning success and led to their fruitful cooperation. At the time, Dayan had been looking for a way to give new immigrants jobs and also to preserve their traditional ethnic art and culture. Her encounter with Leitersdorf created an exciting adventure that served that purpose, and involved creation of the brand name Maskit - an important pillar in the history of local fashion. For 15 years Leitersdorf designed clothes and accessories for Maskit that are today considered sterling examples of original Israeli haute couture.

"At first we tried to sell Finy's clothes," Dayan recalled in that Maariv interview. "Back then, already, she produced original clothes with an oriental inspiration, with embroidery and buttons made of wood and seashells, but the store owners politely refused to let us into their shops."

Leitersdorf believed that Israeli clothes ought to fit the country's bright light, climate and lifestyle. "A nation's fashion is not dependent on luck," she said in an interview with Haolam Hazeh in 1955. "It emerges from a sense of the nation's style, the climate of its homeland, the practical needs of its day-to-day life, the raw materials that grow in it and are processed on the backdrop of its land. Therefore, it reflects in a way that is difficult to define the special character of the people, their hidden ideals. And it is an educational element of the first degree."

From the West, Leitersdorf took only the technical knowhow. The colors and the fabrics were all locally made. "It is impossible and absurd to copy the West's fashion here," she said in the Haolam Hazeh interview. "We have a different climate, a different light. All this requires materials and colors that are different from Europe's. Sabra [native Israeli] fashion must be a combination of sabra simplicity, oriental colorfulness and the Western technique of sewing."

Silversmiths cast buckles and silver buttons to order, craftsmen made buttons out of seashells, and local weavers created cotton fabrics that were so unusual that haute-couture houses in Paris bought them from Maskit.

The cooperation between Leitersdorf and Dayan led, among other things, to the Desert Coat design in 1955, one of their most famous creations. The coat was made of a special natural cotton, in a soft pattern that wraps around the body, from one piece of cloth cut diagonally and hand-stitched. It turns out to have time-transcending beauty and a modernity that is valued to this day.

"Many times I went abroad with the Desert Coat," Leitersdorf said in the Maariv interview, "but I always returned without it. There was always someone who took it off of me. In Los Angeles Katharine Hepburn took it from me."

The so-called Ein Gedi design was inspired by archaeological artifacts. Specifically, Leitersdorf got the idea for the dress - designed like a tunic with a big square scarf - when archaeologist Yigael Yadin showed her a piece of cloth that he had found in one of the Qumran caves. Na'ora Warshawsky, Maskit's weaving artist, spent days reconstructing that piece of cloth and the result was a garment with a 2,000-year-old tradition.

There was also the design called the Big Crater - harem pants and a bra, with a cape of fine, floating organza in five layers, in the colors of red loam, gray basalt and sand; black silk evening dresses embroidered with silver in a Yemenite style; hand-woven cotton suits in the colors of the Negev landscape; and use of other natural materials, such as olive branches, bones and straw.

"I have a primitive instinct for natural materials," Leitersdorf said in her interview with Jenifer Bar Lev. "The very first garment worn by man was from the skin of the animals he hunted, the coarse leather. My feeling of the joy of creation only comes to me when I use such natural materials."

A unique fiber

Leitersdorf's works in the early 1950s also reflected the period of austerity that existed in Israel. "During the War of Independence, fabric was very scarce," she told Bar Lev in their conversation. "I made dresses from 1.90 meters of fabric and not a single remnant was left. I made a dress for Golda [Meir] out of grosgrain ribbons ... She was going abroad and there was no fabric and she needed a dress for formal occasions."

In the 1950s and '60s Leitersdorf also designed costumes for the Inbal dance troupe, for its founder and choreographer Sara Levi-Tanai, and also the uniforms for the ushers in the Israeli pavilions at the World's Fairs in Brussels and Montreal. In 1965 she opened a school for fashion design in cooperation with what later became the Na'amat women's organization and the Ministry of Trade and Industry. It was closed only after the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design opened in 1970.

After the Six-Day War, Leitersdorf tried to update her collection. She shortened the Desert Coat, and integrated outer-space and pop-art motifs in her work, but the fashions changed even faster. When she lost out to colleague Gideon Oberson in the competition for designing the El Al stewardesses' new uniforms in 1968, it was clear that an era had ended in Israeli fashion.

In an article published soon after her death, journalist Adam Baruch was somewhat critical of Leitersdorf's work on behalf of the Zionist enterprise and of what he saw as her failed attempt to create truly unique, original fashion.

"As much of a genius as she might be," he wrote, "she can be considered a victim of Ben-Gurionist rhetoric. The failure was evident at the very beginning ... her extensive attempts evolved into formal fashion, arbitrary - meaning institutional fashion ... Almost all Israeli fashion designers would define her as 'the greatest thing that happened to local fashion.' There is no argument about that. But it is still not too late to offer an explanation for it. My explanation is based on the sociology of art. The assumption is that fashion is an art. Well, Leitersdorf offered Israeli fashion a cultural and conceptual depth that no other fashion designer put forward. That is, she was something more than a fashion designer. She had a theory about life here, an arbitrary, somewhat naive theory, but it was solid, consistent, provable and could be reconstructed. And she paid for the concept. The Leitersdorf 'fiber' was identifiable, one of its kind."

Back at Villa Dallal, we ask Andrea Leitersdorf why she didn't try to present her exhibition in a gallery or museum.

"I like the idea that I am the one who is hosting this show," she says. "If somebody later wants to host it in a gallery or a museum, I would be happy, of course, but at the moment I feel there is something very right in this intimate format. All the items were taken from our home. I visited Shenkar's archives of outfits and saw there spectacular items, but I didn't want to assume responsibility for them. These are national treasures. Besides that, we have enough material.

"I try to 'plant' Finy in my mind and think what she would have said about my selections. I believe she would be happy to know that I am hosting the exhibition in my restaurant. She never sought approval from the outside or extensive recognition. Of course, she enjoyed it, as every person does, but that wasn't the heart of the matter. She focused on her work. She was also very family-oriented and opened her house to fashion designers and young artists. She was never interested in being hailed as the best. I think praise even embarrassed her, somewhat.

"Now, after the exhibition, I realize how important it is to start working on a book documenting her life and work. As far as I am concerned this exhibition is an opening shot."

Up to this day, Leitersdorf says, women visit her restaurant and tell her, excitedly, that they have Finy dresses and that they would happily pass them on to her. She pulls out a hanger with a lemongrass-colored dress lined with a colorful silk cloth. Miriam Eshkol, the widow of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and a very close family friend, brought it over for display in the exhibition. Its design, which seems simple, like most Leitersdorf creations, takes the form of broad, floating lines.

Eshkol also loaned the show an impressive necklace that Leitersdorf made from broken glass in a cloudy shade of turquoise that she collected on the beach, set in golden threads on square golden tablets. A photo of the Eshkol couple in which Miriam is seen wearing it is also on display, with a dedication in English: "To Finy, Love Forever, The Eshkols."

"This is, essentially, the exhibition's spirit," says Andrea. "The main point is obviously the dresses and other items that Finy designed over the years, but it also reflects the personal and creative connections she had with people from that period."

Another testimony of that is found in the exchange of letters between Finy Leitersdorf and her husband Yohanan Simon. The originals were written in German and for the show were translated into Hebrew. "Yohanan used to dedicate a small drawing to her, a sort of caricature of her, in every letter he sent her," says Leitersdorf.

It is reasonable to assume that Finy Leitersdorf herself would have defined the exhibition her granddaughter has launched as a craft exhibition.

"No, no, I am not a fashion designer," the designer once said. "I am a craftswoman with a selective sight and a pair of hands that tried to produce Israeli clothes."