Vintage Fashion in the Service of Society's Underprivileged

Proceeds from a website selling clothing collected from older people go to an NGO that helps seniors and Ethiopian families in need.

At first glance, the new Israeli fashion website Roots brings to mind Bedford Avenue in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. At every corner people above 50 are selling garments and other objects – in one of New York's hipster neighborhoods. What could they have to offer the young people passing buy?

This issue guided McCann advertising people when they came up with the idea for Roots. The site, which went online last week, offers used clothing from older folks. It's part of a campaign for the Shorashim Group, a nonprofit organization that helps lonely elderly people and Ethiopian families in need. The proceeds go to Shorashim.

"We wanted to do something different, so instead of showing yet again elderly Israelis rummaging through garbage cans looking for food, which unfortunately nobody notices anymore, we thought about coming from a more positive direction in order to raise funds,” says Ami Alush, a creative director at McCann. “In addition, we wanted to appeal to a cool, young audience that ordinarily wouldn’t take an interest in the issue.”

Over the past six months, Alush and his colleagues collected old clothes from senior citizens’ clubs, assisted-living facilities and private homes. The clothes were sorted by a pair of stylists, Sivan Levy and Adir Sharon, who later supervised the sprucing up of the garments.

Their collection boasts dresses by Israeli designers from boutiques that no longer exist. There are also tailored suits and cardigans from the middle of the last century, some by famous designers like Pierre Cardin and Chanel, and some from Israeli brands that have become legendary, like Ata. The price range is from NIS 50 to NIS 250.

All the garments were cleaned, pressed, mended and photographed for a lighthearted fashion catalog. But it was the art of collecting that made the difference. The two stylists brought garments that had lost their sheen into a fashionable and contemporary context. And like everyone who had a hand in the project – the seamstress, the laundry people, the photographer and the models for the catalog – they did this voluntarily.

Boxes piling up

Customers are equally enthusiastic about the site. Most items have already been sold and Alush and his colleagues are organizing a second round.

“In a single week we raised donations of about NIS 7,000, without special advertising except for a few items in the press or online. I admit I didn’t think it would catch on so quickly," says Alush. "I remember telling my colleagues at the first meeting that we'd probably sell a few items, and we’d sell the rest afterward in secondhand stores. We too are in shock that it has sold so quickly.”

Alush also recalls a meeting where he presented the idea to a few seniors. Most of them didn’t understand exactly what he meant, but they were glad to take part and within two days the boxes were piling up. Some are still stacked in his office, from where the site is run and from where the shipments go out to customers. He calls the small room where the boxes are kept “the factory outlet.”

Now, he says, offers are coming in from people who want to donate whole suitcases of clothes that had belonged to relatives who have died. “We have to find a platform for this where the site can continue to operate in the future as well, after the current campaign,” he notes.

One reason for the project’s success is the graphics. The site and the catalog photographed by Iddo Lavie star models Adi Neumann, Gili Saar, Idan Roll and Nikita.

“We tried in advance to have the vibe target hipsters and young people. I assume that if it had been just another fashion site it wouldn’t have created the same buzz. The cheeky language we chose for the initiative is good for us,” adds Alush, referring to the young male models and a mature woman; one of the models is even kissing her.

The woman in the photographs is Neumann’s grandmother, Esti Oren, a retired lawyer and amateur actress. She came to the photo shoot by chance, and the photographer signed her up, as it were.

Mixing past and present

Another reason for the success is that Levy and Sharon have put together a tempting collection in the spirit of the present. So how do you forge an up-to-date collection of old items?

“First, a lot of items didn’t fit the definition ‘vintage’ or didn’t suit the spirit of the collection we wanted to put together,” so they were donated to secondhand stores,” says Levy. In the past she managed the clubbing-clothes brand Shpina and her partner, Sharon, was a founder of the Salon Berlin boutique in Tel Aviv. Both of them are in tune with the lifestyles of fashionable young people in Israel, so they were able to create the right mix of past and present.

“From rummaging through people's or families’ boxes of clothes, we could put together a profile of the person who wore them – who he was, how he lived, what he thought and so on,” says Levy. One especially touching item was a buttoned shirt printed with illustrations from “The Little Prince.”

“There is so much humor in this garment,” she says, adding that humor is something the old clothes have – something lacking in fashion today. “Now everyone wants to be sexy and impressive.”

Iddo Lavie