Young Israeli Fashion Designers Trying on Berlin for Size

Frustrated by the small domestic market, a number of Israelis have been drawn to the German capital to pursue their couture dreams. Even there, the streets aren’t paved with gold lamé.

Michaw Andrysiak

Idan Gilony clearly remembers his indecision last summer, when he finished his fashion design studies at Barcelona’s Istituto Europeo di Design. As a designer just starting out, he had to decide whether to base his career in Europe or forge his professional path in Israel. In the end, he went for Berlin, establishing the brand UY, together with Fanny Lawaetz, a Swede he met during his studies.

“Quite a few people encouraged me to come back to Israel,” recalls Gilony. “On the other hand, I have friends who said don’t because the market in Israel is small and I’ll have trouble finding my audience there. Besides, I have friends in Israel who are working two jobs and I suddenly realized I don’t feel like getting up in the morning and cutting cloth and at night working in some bar just to survive.”

As well as the relative convenience of the city, he adds, Berlin’s spirited nightlife, its varied population and openness are a powerful source of inspiration.

Gilony, 26, chose Berlin before the outbreak of the “Milky rebellion.” However, like many creative people who have made Berlin their home over the past decade, Gilony is attracted to it for a whole variety of reasons that surfaced during the Milky affair – including its openness, combined with fair living conditions (and convenient taxation for small businesses) and relatively good access to additional markets in Europe.

A few dozen Israeli fashion designers have moved to Berlin. To name but a few, Hani Sagiv, a Shenkar School of Engineering and Design graduate who works as an independent designer in a commercial company; Tal Arbel, who works with a small German label; and Amit Epstein, a theater costume designer. Not every designer succeeds in the city, obviously, and not everyone sees their future there. But most of them appreciate the opportunity Berlin gives them to foster their creativity and regard it as an important milestone in their career.

Before 2009, when the designer Nait Rosenfelder and her partner Roey Vollman settled in Berlin, she was one of the pioneers who had settled in the streets near Gan Hahashmal in south Tel Aviv and tried to breathe new life into the area through fashion. Boutiques and studios sprang up around the park; coffee shops and bars followed, and the locale was transformed into a shopping and entertainment hub. But toward the end of that decade, they hit a glass ceiling: low rent, one of the factors that led designers to the area, skyrocketed following their success, real estate developers capitalized on the momentum, and the sense of impending global economic crisis made things look much less rosy.

Cosmopolitan label

Then there was the feeling among many Israeli designers that the domestic market was too small for them and they needed to find new territories. Motivated by the desire to found a cosmopolitan label based in Europe, Rosenfelder and Vollman saw such potential in Berlin, aided by Rosenfelder’s German citizenship and the positive impression formed during frequent previous visits to the city.

During the first years there, the city fulfilled their hopes. Their label, Eva & Bernard, participated in Berlin’s Fashion Week and received good coverage in leading magazines in Germany, including Vogue, and they sold to boutiques in Europe and the United States.

But five years after they set out on their joint adventure, their dream changed form. The label did not take root in the European market as they hoped, and last year they decided to shutter it. “Our product did not suit Berlin itself – in terms both of style and the expensive materials, as well as the pricing,” Vollman explains. “In retrospect, the thought that a label can be anchored in the city, but reaches out to other markets, was problematic.”

Itamar Zechoval is another Israeli who closed a boutique he launched in Berlin, but he still has business affairs in the city and sees it as a good springboard. In 2011, after finishing his studies at the Marangoni Institute of Design in Milan, he opened an independent boutique in Berlin called Dandy of the Grotesque. The boutique was based on a kind of tailoring that would not likely be found in Israel – somewhere between the traditional and the macabre. In the three years the boutique was open, he forged ties with a broad clientele.

Zechoval says he now devotes more space to production and less to display. He receives his clients, including the American singer Brian Hugh Warner [better known as Marilyn Manson], in his Berlin studio.

“Berlin gave me the feeling I can try for much more – economically, of course, but mainly because the experience is of a place that is still raw and allows me to go where I want to go. As opposed to Paris or London, for example, the approach in Berlin is comfortable; ties are personal. I’ve met people who, if I met them in Los Angeles, it would be harder for me to make a connection with them,” says Zechoval.

Explosion of culture and design

Like Zechoval, accessories and fashion designer Maya Ben Natan – who moved to Berlin from Haifa two years ago – opened a boutique-studio. “There was a lot of buzz about Berlin and that’s why I went,” she says. “I met a lot of people and I could not ignore this explosion of culture and design. The combination of sane rents and all the conditions that make it possible for you not to run in the rat race for survival, attracted me. Encounters with people in the profession challenged me. I understood I was attracted to living in a place where freedom can be felt in the street. Here, you dress and say what you like.”

Today, Ben Natan, 28, lives in a space behind her studio-boutique, with aspirations of expanding to other places in Europe. She is selling her Benatan range in Austria, but in two places in Israel as well – the Jaffa flea market and Haifa. Her big dream? To live half the time in each place, “and stay close to family and friends, and where I grew up.”

Berlin also presents its own challenges for designers. “There’s not the pressure on a young designer there is in Israel, but that is not always a good thing,” Ben Natan observes. “The challenge here is great and designers have to be self-motivating.”

Designers also have to do a great deal on their own – cutting, sewing, printing – all alone at home, as well as importing cloth from elsewhere – Sweden, for example, or even Tel Aviv. “People actually like the fact that we import cloth from all over. It creates a personal image rather than an industrial one,” say Gilony.

Berlin also has a wide range of retail outlets. Ben Natan, for example, sells among the city’s markets, while Gilony and his colleagues show their collections in clubs or various events, together with dance and other performance artists. Access to artists from other fields is another advantage in Berlin, and yet, Gilony says, they don’t want to limit themselves there. Now they are planning a sales event in Copenhagen. “Scandinavia is winking in our direction,” he smiles.