The Israeli Actress-turned-fashion Designer and Her Obsession With Casualness

Former TV personality and ex-wife of rock star Aviv Geffen boasts a breezy personal style.

The entrance wall of the studio-boutique belonging to Ilana Berkowitz, who was famous in Israel as an actress and television presenter, is located on a basement floor on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street, and is densely covered with drawings and doodles. “Everyone who comes here draws on it,” she says, adding that for her it’s the only way to concentrate in the midst of a workday.

In the past year Berkowitz had to concentrate and focus her strength on establishing her status as an independent designer, and for good reason: After only one season she parted from her professional partner, designer Nativ Yochai Maor. In their joint effort, under the brand name Nyota, Berkowitz, a fashion stylist, determined the style and the overall look, and Yochai Maor executed it. After they separated she had to fill in gaps concerning the more technical and practical aspects of fashion design. This winter she was somewhat hesitant when she presented the first collection that she designed by herself, and now she feels more confident about revealing the spring-summer 2013 collection, while officially dedicating her eponymous boutique.

This is not a collection in the usual sense of the term, just as Berkowitz is not an ordinary fashion designer. “My approach to the field has always been as a stylist: I thing about complete looks, not individual items,” she says. “For the same reason my collections aren’t homogeneous or properly constructed. It’s also related to the fact that there isn’t really a formal industry in Israel, and that’s why you can do what you want and experiment. Somewhat like an amusement park.”

She compares the building of the present collection to work on a musical album. “It started with a list of styles that I collected. From that Sahar ‏(Sahar Gerstel, her assistant‏) and I chose the best ones, with the thought of creating a collection that would meet a broad range of needs.” Naturally, there are aesthetic ideas that tie everything together. In the previous collection, for example, they originated in Martin Scorsese’s film about George Harrison; this time it was a Parisian atmosphere that Berkowitz drew from a Woody Allen film. “But in the final analysis that isn’t really of great significance. It’s only the point of origin,” she says.

For good lookers

Berkowitz’s belief in her work method is persuasive, and her relaxed attitude during the conversation is evident in most of the collection’s items. Overall, the style is simple and indicates that Berkowitz’s clothes are designed to lie on the body with an incidental looseness that conveys confidence in one’s external appearance. Rounded shoulder stitches and loose sleeves hint that the T-shirt is one of the main points of reference in her designs even when it comes to formal dresses; there is no question that her clothes were meant for women who enjoy dressing but don’t want to be seen as making too big a deal of it.

Berkowitz reinforces this impression in her words. Of a figure-hugging skirt made of thick elastic fabric, she says: “You wear them with a simple T-shirt, as torn as possible, a cap and flip-flops or sandals. And that’s it. In the final analysis women design for themselves, and even if it wanders to other places in the end it always comes back to me.” She means that prior to her birth as a designer, Berkowitz was a celebrity with a familiar and widely discussed style and a reputation for good taste. Now she is trying to exchange this symbolic capital for tangible capital in the guise of a line of clothing bearing her name.

In this connection we can mention Dorit Bar Or, the actress who started an independent brand − and who in effect first experimented with fashion in cooperation with Berkowitz. Together they ran a select-clientele shop in south Tel Aviv, and the joint experience gave rise to their individual brand names. But if the vivacious Bar Or was interested in reviving some of the Bohemian splendor that characterized Israeli fashion in the mid-20th century, Berkowitz has stuck to her roots as a local glamour girl in charmingly casual dress.

What she retains today from her celebrity period − from all her appearances in the society columns, from her youth when she was the face of designer Tova Hassin ‏(better known as Tovaleh‏), and was called “Ho, Ilana,” after the song written for her by her ex-husband, singer Aviv Geffen − is her determined preference for the clothing style that aims for casualness.

Walking thin line

But this style, like any attempt at informality, has one main drawback: It invites walking on the thin line between the low-key and the tasteless. There are models that require a series of improvements: The most prominent is the long “boxer dress,” whose name comes from the shape of its back, which is like that of a sporty tank top. The type of fabric and the quality of the sewing exemplify how a deliberately down-to-earth look can be seen as amateurish negligence if it is not handled properly.

The fact that Berkowitz is well aware of the type of clothing she loves is a good starting point. But she will have to continue improving her skills when it comes to choosing the fabrics and the accessories, adapting the styles, and the quality of the sewing. And above all, the seriousness with which she fulfills her aspirations as a fashion designer. Accepting new challenges that will move her out of her comfort zone could provide her with greater satisfaction. Meanwhile she seems not to be overly bothered by that. Or maybe it’s only her nonchalant attitude that is misleading.

Prices − shirts: NIS 500-1,000; pants: NIS 880; vests: NIS 600-700; skirts and dresses: NIS 600-1,500.

Ilana Berkowitz, 264 Dizengoff, Tel Aviv.

Anaella Berkowitz
Anaella Berkowitz