Designer Shahar Avnet has a way of turning dreams into reality. The 30-year-old Israeli only set up her brand last year, but has already designed the multicolored kimono famously worn by Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai and a gown for the queen – Queen Bey, that is.
For the young Avnet, who 18 months ago fantasized on Instagram about Beyoncé wearing one of her designs, watching the singer perform in her nude-toned, long-train creation of tulle during her current world tour with husband Jay-Z is a defining moment.
Not bad for someone who couldn’t even draw six years ago, until enrolling at Shenkar College in Tel Aviv.
“Beyoncé is the biggest inspiration in my life,” says Avnet, while serving coffee and bourekas at her south Tel Aviv studio. “It was an opportunity to say without words how much I love and appreciate her work.”
The designer was born in Kibbutz Eilon, northern Israel, and grew up in nearby Kfar Vradim. She says she first knew she wanted to be a fashion designer at 15, when her grandmother taught her how to knit.
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When she finished her first scarf, she recalls, she was shocked and excited that the finished product turned out exactly how she had pictured it in her mind. Showing a natural talent for the unusual color combinations that now characterize her haute couture looks, Avnet used a combination of gold and brown yarn after she ran out of pink.
But it wasn’t until after finishing her army service and the prerequisite Israeli gap year (spent traveling around India and Nepal) that Avnet got the chance to put her plan into action. At 23, she moved to Tel Aviv and got a job as a bar hostess. That’s when she signed up for her first sewing course and decided to pursue fashion design professionally by applying to Shenkar.
Even then, Beyoncé was helping her get through what is commonly regarded as one of the best fashion design programs in the world: The aspiring designer spent many long nights sewing and listening to the song “Formation” on repeat; Avnet even studied how the pop icon and her team predict trends and adapt them.
Beside learning about trends, Avnet studied sketching, embroidery and the use of color at Shenkar: All now contribute to the unique work that’s getting her noticed by stylists like Zerina Akers, who works for Beyoncé, and Barzilai’s Itay Bezaleli.
Akers reached out to Avnet a few months after a dress from her Shenkar graduation collection was featured in a July 2017 W Magazine photoshoot with American singer-actor Zendaya – this after Avnet had sent the dress to Zendaya’s stylist, Law Roach (“America’s Next Top Model”).
The photoshoot kick-started Avnet’s career and helped give her the confidence to launch her own brand last September, despite the fact she had been working at the veteran Israeli fashion house Maskit for only three months. (The Zendaya dress is now on display in the “Fashion Statements: Decoding Israeli Dress” exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, through April 2019.)
Beyoncé’s stylist initially only asked Avnet for designs for R&B duo Chloe x Halle. But later the same day, Akers added a request for Queen Bey, without ever seeing the Instagram post where Avnet had dreamed of designing for her.
“The first thing that came across my mind was fear,” recounts Avnet. “It’s the biggest dream of my life!”
Avnet called one of her five siblings – her brother, Or, with whom she’s particularly close – and confessed to panicking about not knowing what Beyoncé would want to wear. Or reminded her that no matter how famous the client, a designer’s job is to give them what the designer knows they should wear. “You know Beyoncé so well,” he said, “so for sure it’s going to be great on her.”
There’s no ‘right’ black
As you enter Avnet’s studio loft in a former industrial building, you realize you need a richer vocabulary for color. From the room’s hot pink couch to the orange, peach and blue kimono being worn by the designer, everything here challenges the high-fashion hegemony of black.
“When I go to some celebration, for a wedding or gallery opening or a party, I don’t want to wear black,” says Avnet, explaining the inspiration for her largely colorful and radical designs.
But she admits that her confidence varies and she sometimes chooses what color to wear based on how much attention she wants to receive – a deep-rooted calculation that will be familiar to many women.
“Unfortunately, sometimes women think about themselves and they prefer not to be the one that everyone will look at,” says Avnet, noting this leads to the safe choice of wearing black. “If you’re going to wear yellow, maybe some other person will say, ‘Look at that color! Why is she wearing yellow? It’s so strange – it’s not at the right time, or the right trend, and it’s not the right yellow.’ There’s no right black,” she declares.
Still, Avnet wishes more women would ask themselves, “Who am I today?” while getting dressed, instead of “What are they going to think about me?”
“Just wake up in the morning and say, ‘Wow, I’m f***ing beautiful! What am I going to wear today? Let’s celebrate,’” encourages Avnet.
That’s also the spirit behind the “Love Yourself” message inscribed on all of Avnet’s garment tags and an ever-present hashtag on her Instagram account. More than a marketing plan for the age of body positivity and the #MeToo movement, the motto is also a mantra Avnet strives to live by.
“I think today we are watching great changes in the fashion world – both in professional collections and also from the image of women’s bodies,” says Avnet, who made her brand’s sample size a 38 (U.S. size 8), compared to the smaller standards for most brands. Avnet also creates her designs up to size 44, which she says is larger than the maximum 42 usually available in Israel.
“In the Middle East, we have curves, so it’s important not to deny it,” she says.
Avnet is also defying industry norms by choosing to work in the Middle East instead of more obvious fashion capitals like London, Paris or New York. Several factors influenced that decision, including her wish to remain close to friends and family, and the dream of starting her own family in Israel someday.
But Avnet also realized that in today’s global and digital economy, the physical location of her business doesn’t matter as much of the quality of the work.
Plus, she credits her Israeli identity as a crucial ingredient in her bold designs.
“I have the nerve of the Israeli people – not to be shy, to say it out loud, in your face,” she says. “I’m pretty proud to be Israeli and to be from Tel Aviv. I think it’s one of the places [where] everything goes really fast, and we have tons of inspiration because we have a complicated situation.”
Israeli fashion designers are innovative because they have to be, and due to the many influences that converge in a small country of diverse immigrants. Large-scale textile factories are no longer supported by the Israeli government – as they were in the 1960s and ’70s, before the industry collapsed during the economic crisis of the ’80s. And even though the industry has experienced a modest resurgence since the ’90s, Avnet says the ongoing struggle for designers still operating out of Tel Aviv just leads to greater creativity.
Working with a small team of three, Avnet does all of her own publicity and communications in-house, and is heavily involved in the fitting and creation of every one of her designs. For now, she’s working primarily on dresses only available by custom order, but hopes that New Yorkers, Londoners and Parisians will someday be able to buy ready-to-wear Shahar Avnet outfits.
But a word of warning for anyone hoping to join the likes of Zendaya, Netta and Beyoncé: The designs are for women who can walk into a room and not be afraid to have everyone turn their head and stare. In other words, they will need some of the chutzpah Avnet has already shown in her short but promising career.