More Than a Fad: Activist Launches Fashion Revolution

Wearing a galabiya on 'Big Brother’ put Ortal Ben Dayan on a new path, but she still refuses to blend into the crowd.

Ilya Melinkov

When Ortal Ben Dayan presents her colorful collection of galabiyas at the Ofnat Ortal (Ortal Fashion) store she opened a year and a half ago in south Tel Aviv, one thing is immediately notable for its absence. None of the items is labeled with the name of the designer, or any other name that could represent her. “I still don’t feel comfortable with the title of designer; I can’t see myself as a label,” she says, with a dismissive wave of her hand.

It’s a little amusing to hear this from someone who became one of the biggest names in social media, especially after she appeared on the “Big Brother” program (still being broadcast on Channel 2; Ben Dayan was ousted by viewers a month and a half ago). She is often referred to by an acronym – a testament to how frequently her name is mentioned in the media. Ben Dayan, 33, a sociologist and social activist, has become a local symbol of the struggle to change common perceptions of gender, class and ethnicity. And she isn’t afraid to put herself right in the middle of the storm in her fight against social injustice.

Suddenly, a passerby interrupts our conversation with perfect timing. “Kudos!” he shouts to her. Perhaps he’s referring to her activism in the neighborhood, or maybe to her declarations on Big Brother on behalf of women and Mizrahim. It isn’t long before another passerby excitedly shouts, “I know you from Big Brother!”

Ben Dayan gives the woman a friendly smile. “I’ll put it this way,” she says. “There are places where I feel comfortable expressing myself confidently, where I feel I’ve accumulated a certain heft and experience. Fashion isn’t one of them. It’s always been a hobby of mine, I always made all kinds of things for myself – I sewed clothes or made jewelry – but it’s not something I felt comfortable doing professionally. It was hard for me to make something and put it in the display window and stand behind it. It’s still a little hard for me, actually.”

Photo by Ilya Melinkov

Appearance counts

So how did you make the leap from fashion aficionado to designer and boutique owner?

“First of all, I didn’t open a boutique. It’s a vintage clothing shop. A shop is a lot more modest than a boutique. My shop doesn’t have the atmosphere of a boutique, the clothes aren’t all perfectly arranged on hangers. You don’t need to pull yourself together and tense up before entering. Sometimes people just come in to sit and have a coffee or a chat.”

She was encouraged to design her line of galabiyas and sew them with the aid of her partner Musa Ebied, a refugee from Sudan and owner of an adjacent sewing shop, when she left the Big Brother house. “The reactions to my wardrobe there were incredible. Hundreds of women wrote to me on Facebook or called me and asked about the Gottex galabiya I wore. And it’s funny, because I didn’t buy it especially for that evening. I just thought, ‘What dress do I have that most fits me and my style?’ And I realized that this was the one – because it was geometric and clean, precise and strong.”

Photo by Ilya Melinkov

This is not to say that Ben Dayan didn’t put a lot of time and thought into her chosen look. She asked jewelry designer Liat Ginzburg to create the large gold earrings she wore with the galabiya, and had her hair done in a suitably dramatic style. She also packed her suitcases carefully, to have a rich wardrobe available in the Big Brother house. “I had enough clothes with me for another month there,” she says. But she adds that this attitude wasn’t due to her television experience alone. “When I’m at home I also think about my appearance. You know what kind of looks I put together right here, even when I’m just going out for a minute to buy something at the grocery store? It’s fun! Friends or customers of mine in the shop often ask where they could wear this or that piece and I tell them – wherever you like!”

Why galabiyas? Don’t you feel that you woke up a little late?

“No. I’ve been selling galabiyas in the shop since day one, and now I just want to create them myself. And besides, the things I love the most are timeless; I don’t think that you can’t wear overalls anymore, for example, because they’ve gone out of fashion. That’s a ridiculous idea.”

Ben Dayan’s galabiya collection is comprised of seven items, each with a different character. One is cut like a T-shirt; she sewed it in pink cotton with black and orange squares, or thin silk fabric in a mosaic pattern in pale shades of pink, turquoise, yellow and red. Another dress – in the Pucci style – has a raised collar that buttons in the back, Victorian-like, and is made of silk fabric in a geometric pattern in shades of green, brown and white. There’s also a wide dress with a pattern of colliding stripes in red, purple, brown, turquoise and white – like a vintage edition of Joseph’s multicolored coat.

Photo by Ilya Melinkov

She tries on another model she designed – a wide black galabiya adorned with a lush flower pattern in the upper part; long, extra-wide kimono-like sleeves; and a wide round neck that buttons, with an elliptical slit below it. It can be worn with the slit either at the back or the front. Another model – made of crisp cotton in geometric patterns of orange, brown, pink and red – has a U-shaped neckline that narrows in the center. This model has some of the cosmopolitan flair of Israeli fashion of the mid-20th century. Another model is a cross between a galabiya and a traditional African dress. Two sheets of fabric wrap around the neck and are tied behind it, creating a generous opening at the back.

Open up to color

All the designs stand out for their colorful patterns. Ben Dayan pulls out her cell phone and shows photos from her childhood in Kiryat Shemona in which she is wearing flowery dresses very similar to what she wears today. Her mother was a seamstress and designed her clothes at the time.

Photo by Ilya Melinkov

“I was stylish, and I never lost that even after all the attempts at suppression in the schools I attended,” she says. She encourages her customers to be bold as well. “Some aren’t comfortable with the stares, and they’re worried about what people will say, so I encourage them not to care too much about that. Do you know how many women tell me that because of my shop they’ve started to dress more colorfully? I gradually get them to open up to colors, and they discover it can be flattering and that the world won’t come to an end if they wear it.”

The continual battle against what she calls “normalization” – the push to conform to a staid and uniform style, is something she recalls very well from her youth. “My experience in the kibbutz school was formative. Ashkenazim versus Mizrahim, city ways versus the informality of the kibbutz. And I’m extreme by nature, even in relation to my family. They would call me ‘Ortal the fashion show.’ They’d be wearing their cut-offs and their hair just long and natural, and there I was all made up, in colorful clothes and with a hairdo that everyone made fun of. It was the most unpopular way to be, but I totally ignored them. That doesn’t mean it didn’t get to me or hurt me, but I didn’t let it change me or limit me.”

Did it never occur to you to try to blend in more for the sake of some peace?

Photo by Ilya Melinkov

“I’ve never liked to blend into a crowd. It’s scary, you know? The easiest thing is for women to disappear, and for Mizrahim to take a non-threatening position within Ashkenazi society. But you have to fight and resist that.”

So this is really a political project too, not just a clothing shop.

“Yes, but it’s a living, too, and I wouldn’t make more out of it than it is. In general, I don’t like to attach titles to things I do. For instance, I’m not altruistic and I didn’t come here, to south Tel Aviv, because I want to create social change. I came here because the rent was cheap. If I had 7,000 shekels to spend on rent, I’d live in central Tel Aviv. And maybe then I’d also sew even better galabiyas.”

But then you’d be aiming for a different audience, and would have to sell somewhere else, maybe in Kikar Hamedina.

“Ick, never! That’s not me at all. I’m doing this now, and I’m learning as I go. I never studied fashion design in any formal way. Look, I have a problem,” she adds after she goes behind the curtain in the shop to put on another one of her items: “I bring a new dress here, and if I still see it for more than a week, I can’t stand to look at it anymore. It’s the same with copies: If I see more than one piece with the identical pattern, I can’t take it, I can’t look at it. I’m the kind of person who gets bored very quickly.”

So you might get bored with galabiyas soon too?

“It’s very possible. Just because I’m doing a line of galabiyas now doesn’t mean I’ll do it for the rest of my life. In fact, I already have a few new ideas in mind.”