An African Journey Full of Beads and Bright Colors: Israeli Designers Meet the Source of Their Inspiration

Fashion designers Sasson Kedem and Liora Taragan went to Kenya to show their creations. How did their encounter from afar compare to the view from up close?

Last December, when fashion designer Sasson Kedem unveiled his summer collection, his show was entitled "Masa," Hebrew for "journey." The word was displayed in large letters on a screen at the end of the runway, and for one minute it was the only thing spectators could see in the dark auditorium. Afterwards, the word was replaced by a photograph of Sudanese refugees being transported in a truck.

But even Kedem himself could not have guessed at the time that the collection would be at the center of a real journey to Africa. Last month, Kedem was one of three Israeli designers - together with Liora Taragan and Oved Cohen – who represented Israel at a gala evening in Nairobi, marking 50 years of bilateral relations between the countries. The climax of the evening was a joint fashion show with local designers. The event was attended by hundreds of guests from the highest echelons of government and society.

"I don't think it would have been possible to choose another Israeli designer for whom Africa has been such a significant source of inspiration. Africa is my niche. It's the love of my life," says Kedem, describing his connection to the continent as mystical ("something related to previous incarnations"). And anyone who is familiar with his work of the past two decades can identify African influences in the silhouette of his clothes, and the ways in which they are wound around the body.

His studio in south Tel Aviv is filled with African items - masks, sculptures, reed baskets and wooden dishes - and that's only a small part of the extensive collection he has gathered over the years. It is surprising, therefore, that the trip to Kenya was in effect his first significant visit to the continent, preceded only by a short visit to Ethiopia three years ago.

Although it was his first visit, Kedem immediately felt at home. The sight of men in traditional dress, of women wearing large scarves wound around their bodies and over dresses with abundant fabric, are familiar from his work. Not only that, this creations were inspired by Africa. Even the models he met behind the scenes, he says, noticed the influences of their traditional clothing in his designs.

Looking at the photographs of Kedem's designs created by Michael Fisch (and his deputy Elad Yesharel Baron), one sees that Kenyan women are wonderful ambassadors for the Israeli designer's clothes. Kedem adds that he is considering the possibility of flying Kenyan models to Israel for future fashion shows. Yamit Newman, until recently CEO of the Israeli Textile and Fashion Association, and presently founder of TLV Showroom, a group designed to promote local designers abroad, adds that if her plans work out, in the future Kedem and other Israeli designers will dress models from other nations, too.

"What we did in Nairobi is an initial pilot," she says. "My vision is to create such events in additional places, to provide worldwide exposure for Israeli designers and to foster the tie between them and local designers. We have already chosen desirable destinations, such as Singapore and India, for example. Those are places where one can absorb new impressions about different lifestyles, not familiar sites such as London, Milan or Paris."

These impressions - as it transpired during the visit to Africa - don't necessarily accord with the picture seen from afar, in this case, the "African picture," which serves designers as a source of inspiration for their collections. "Africa is very inspiring for us here, and in the world in general, but when you get there you discover a lot of poverty," says fellow designer Liora Taragan, whose work has African tribal influences, along with motifs from Native American culture and hints of the Victorian period in England.

One thing Kedem mentions is how unsafe he felt in the Kenyan capital. "Nairobi is actually an optical illusion. Everything is very beautiful, really breathtaking, but frightening. You can't walk around without an escort because the crime there is insane. When we landed in the city the Israeli ambassador to Kenya began to explain to us everything that's not allowed. Just to give you an idea, the ambassador's driver traveled by bus from his home to the ambassador's house, and on the way eight men suddenly got up from their seats and asked everyone to hand over the money and the jewelry they were wearing. When they finished they got off the bus and continued on their way. The police didn't come."

And still the visit to Nairobi and the encounter with local designers brought up some clear similarities. "Kenyan designers are dealing with lots of questions that also preoccupy Israeli designers, for example who will buy these clothes, how can we create better quality, and other issues related to the development of a local identity as opposed to becoming absorbed into the global market," says Taragan. "They too, like us, have recently begun to have regular local fashion weeks, so that there's a lot of similarity between us."

In her former position, Neuman was involved in such activities at Tel Aviv's fashion weeks. Today, she is promoting her new organization and its website, which aspires to serve as a guide to local Israeli fashion designers, and as a virtual display window of their work for fashion-lovers abroad.

"There are almost 50 designers now registered on the website, and if the buyers don't come here to Israel we'll go to them," she says. "Work with embassies worldwide is another platform for doing that. It's a wonderful opportunity to receive international exposure, and not in the usual way of participating in commercial fashion shows, which are extremely expensive. And in general, it's a sane kind of advocacy, because fashion has no nationality."

Michael Fisch