Israeli Designer With the Queen and Madonna on His Resume Bags It

Rossello Shmaria's unique life story is only matched by his designer bags, now selling in museum shops.

Rossello Shmaria

It was five days before the opening of the traditional year-end exhibition of the fashion design department of Shenkar College of Engineering and Design Art in Ramat Gan, in 2008. Rossello Shmaria was one of seven students who were abruptly informed that they would not be allowed to show their graduation projects in the exhibition. Shmaria’s theme was the concept of degradability. A survey of the projects in which he has been involved since then casts doubt on both the legendary status that design schools ascribe to graduation exhibitions and the assumption that they constitute an index of future success.

For the past two years, Shmaria has been focusing his efforts on marketing the various types of bags he designs. His materials are colorful plastic sheets, pieces of old jeans, the inner tubes of bicycle tires and polyurethane fabrics that change color in the dark. Prior to that, he was part of the team that designed the costumes for a Madonna concert in Israel, and he has fashioned attire for local video clips. In 2012, a crown he co-designed with the textile designer Eden Tzesin – as part of a special project mounted by Shenkar and the British Embassy in Israel to mark the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne – was purchased for the monarch’s private collection.

Recalling the Shenkar graduation incident, he says, “I didn’t take it hard. You work and work, and students get stressed and spend thousands of shekels. I wasn’t like that. I spent 14 shekels [about $3] to buy fabric – seriously, I’m not kidding. A lot of reviewers wrote about the dress I designed. We were taught in the department from day one that there is design and there is art. My project was more artistic, more abstract. I want to recycle material, to make something out of nothing. Maybe it has something to do with the process I underwent since coming to Israel – we started from nothing, from zilch. I’m sure that this has stayed with me: to start from nothing and do something that ends up making people say ‘Wow!’”

Shmaria, 34, was born in Baku, Azerbaijan. He and his family immigrated to Israel in 1992, settling in Ramle. He attended school in the ultra-Orthodox Kfar Chabad community. “We were not a traditionalist family,” he says, “but in Israel I became religiously observant – I was drawn to that world. Today I can’t believe I made decisions like that at such a young age. How does a 12-year-old become religious and two years later turn secular again?”

A crown designed by Rosello Shmaria. Photo by Ziv Radar

At 15, he entered a boarding school in Ben Shemen, in the center of the country. “It didn’t really work out, but I learned a fascinating way of life there, which has stayed with me.” After his army service he applied to Shenkar College, but was rejected. He was admitted on his second try, a year later. Almost immediately he discovered the world of fabrics and was powerfully drawn to it. “I still don’t understand why Shenkar separates textile design and fashion design,” he says. “I can’t separate the two worlds.”

After graduating, Shmaria went on working for the Israeli fashion brand Grip, where he had been a designer since 2007. “I worked there for four years, until I got tired of it. I couldn’t stand being in front of a computer anymore. There was no room for development. I went abroad, visited friends, traveled and did all kinds of small jobs. Gradually I returned to the fashion world. I started to design costumes for video clips; I was involved in the launch of the Fashion Channel and more.”

One day he got a surprising call. “A good friend offered me the chance to work on the costumes for a concert by Madonna in Israel. I didn’t take it in. I told her I would think about it and call her back. As soon as I got off the phone I realized what I had just said. I called her back immediately and said yes. There were three other designers besides me; we did what’s known as ‘trends,’ items of apparel that are kept for the last minute. We looked at the existing items and tried to figure out how we could add, change things, sharpen the cut. We worked with materials that arrived specially from abroad, a kind of flexible metal that isn’t manufactured in Israel. The items we made looked stiff but were actually bendable. Afterward, the crew wanted us to continue with them to the next concerts, but that didn’t pan out because of financial problems. They were willing to pay well, but couldn’t subsidize accommodation.”

Around this time, Shmaria was also involved in a project – shared by 
teachers and students from Shenkar – to design distinctive and original crowns for Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee. The crowns were exhibited at a festive event held in the residence of the British ambassador to Israel.

Designs by Rossello Shmaria. Photo by Rossello Shmaria

“Working on the crown was insane,” Shmaria recalls. “It’s all I did for two months. In the end, the crown, which is made of copper filaments that were 
subjected to a process of corrosion, looks as though an archaeologist found it in the ground after 200 years.

“It was important for me to have it look organic, even though it’s made of metal,” he adds. “From the outside you can’t see all the work that went into it; the inside is completely studded with Swarovski stones. It is actually a ‘crown on a crown.’ It’s only when you approach it closely that you discover additional worlds in it, like with a conch. A few crowns from the exhibition were taken for the queen’s private museum, and afterward they are supposed to be exhibited at the Jewish Museum in London. I’m still waiting for photos of the crown with the prince and the queen, so I’ll have something to show mom,” he laughs.

He’s been selling his bags mainly through Facebook and Instagram, mostly to buyers abroad. The collection includes side bags, handbags and backpacks of different sizes. They can be bought by personal order, at prices ranging from 250 to 1,200 shekels (about $70 to $430).

“I put a lot of work into each bag,” Shmaria says. “The problem is that in Israel, if you’re not a major fashion brand, there isn’t that much of a market for back bags costing 700 shekels. My main selling sites are Amsterdam and Berlin. It’s only in the past half-year that the local market has perked up. The whole consignation thing drives me crazy, and I still get comments like ‘It’s too cool’ or ‘It’s too splashy.’ Responses like that make me think that maybe I should actually sell the bags in museum shops.” At present, they can be purchased in three museums in Israel: the Israeli Cartoon Museum and the Design Museum – both in Holon – and the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv.

David Bachar