The role filled by Israeli malls, which provided a formidable shopping experience in the 1990s, has been usurped in recent years by independent fashion compounds. Unlike the malls, these fashion centers are consumer spaces created by store owners within a cluster of nearby streets that bustle with the creativity and young spirit of entrepreneurship, and allow people to discover small and original boutiques.
The "Compound 21" complex in Haifa was officially inaugurated this month. Haifa municipality initiated and promoted the project, meant to resurrect the business activities in the lower part of the city down by the port area, and to encourage original local artists. Out of the 160 artists and designers who applied to be part of the project, 21 succeeded in receiving a space for work and sales in the lower city – without paying rent for the first two years and with an option to extend their use of the space for another two years.
"The goal is for these business owners to establish themselves, and that is why we also are providing them with business advice and support," said Tzahi Terno, director of Haifa's municipality's spokesperson's department. "The vision is to return the lower city to central role it had in the middle of the last century."
A pink path marked on the sidewalks in the lower city connects the foci of the complex. The path is drawn between the workspaces of artists, photography studios and recording studios used by well-known local musicians such as Assaf Amdursky and Micha Shitrit. The New&Bad Gallery, which Natalie Levin opened in 2007 in Tel Aviv, moved its operations to the area and in its first exhibition that is now opening three artists are participating: Elisheva Levy, Tamar Hirschfeld and Len Buchman.
Young designers living in the region are being given a chance to establish themselves professionally, without being forced to move their lives to Tel Aviv. Two of them are Nirit Damari and Lir Stern, both fresh graduates of Haifa’s Wizo Academy of Design’s department of fashion design. The two women are launching their first space.
Among the designers working in the compound are quite a few who started their careers in Tel Aviv and returned to the north. Before opening his studio in one of the alleyways of the Turkish market, jewelry designer Uri Unger had a studio and store in the Gan Hahashmal area in south Tel Aviv, until, in his words, Tel Aviv strangled him.
"To find space there was really not so simple and since I am originally from Haifa it was like returning home," he said.
Not far from Unger, Hila Shemesh opened Alt Neu Made. She started off selling second-hand clothes in Jaffa and now is presenting vintage second-hand clothing that she repairs and updates in her new store – as well as a first collection of her own designs. She is planning to move to live in Haifa soon.
The desire to leave the bustling center of activity in Tel Aviv is refreshing and should not necessarily be taken for granted. For years, the accepted idea was that in order to survive in the design business, designers must operate in Tel Aviv since that is where the hard core of the customer community is.
The accessories designer Adi Kilav, who has a store in Compound 21 in addition to his two other stores in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, was happy to dispel the myth: "Tel Aviv [people] are difficult. They have a larger supply and variety, but that's not all that is involved," said Kilav.
He added that he would be committing the sin of generalizing, but nonetheless that people are less supportive and caring in Tel Aviv – and in Haifa he thinks they will love them.
The essence of Compound 21 in Haifa is in its tolerance that enables the activities of original designers, who would probably not have found a way to exist in the pressing economic reality in Tel Aviv. Take, for example, Claudia Manokian, a textile designer. All the pieces in her shop – from coasters for coffee cups to glasses cases, and up to dresses, bags, scarves and lighting fixtures – are all made of felt.
Or take Miki Ohana, who sews delightful dolls for children and adults; or the Tezi Teza studio at the southwestern edge of the complex, which combines a broad range of Ethiopian arts in a single space.