Japanese Fashion Comes Into Being in Tel Aviv

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A colorful, print silk dress suddenly appeared In the window of the Hibino shop-gallery in Tel Aviv recently, alongside the Japanese designer products and decorative objects. A few days later, the dress was replaced by another model and the sign "Tonari" was added. That was the subtle indication of a change taking place inside the bright and spacious area of the store – the coming into being of a new boutique, which, like the host gallery, is devoted to designers from Japan.

"Coming into being" is also one of the meanings of the name Tonari. Another meaning is "adjacent," and both seem like good definitions of the cooperative effort that led to the creation of the new store – between Prag Rokach, the owner of Hibino, Racheli Biton, the owner of a boutique in Zikhron Yaakov and Anat Kushida, who lives in Tokyo. The idea of starting a Japanese design boutique in Tel Aviv had been on Biton’s mind since she opened her first boutique seven years ago. She and her partners went into grear detail, examining how they could blend into the existing space in the best possible way. The though that went into the design is evident; the clothing stands, counter and modest display tables are from poles of light melia dubia wood, which blends in well with the overall design of the space and directs attention to the items themselves.

Until now, one of Biton's outstanding achievements, and a source of pride to her, has been the varied collection of items she assembled from the brands belonging to the Japanese A-net group, which includes companies and designers such as Tsumori Chisato, Merci Beaucoup and Zuko. "For years I dreamed of getting the franchise to import all those brands together. It's not at all simple," she says, adding that what is nice about the Japanese is their openness and flexibility. "Even now, when I'm operating two boutiques, our import turnover doesn't approach their standard, which is usually that of large department stores. But if they see that you are passionate about something and you persist, in the end they're willing to bend."

There's no question that Biton's patience and persistence have paid off. Recently an artistic director from New York visited the store and was surprised to see the collection she has assembled. "He said that even in Paris he was unable to find all those brands under one roof. What I'm trying to say is that there are things here that are sold only in Japan and Israel, not even in Europe," she says, pointing to a series of handbags by Akri Izahu, a designer who for years worked in Comme des Garcons and recently started an independent brand called Carnet.

The designer whose work is especially prominent in the boutique is undoubtedly Tsumori Chisato. Although she is not very familiar on the local scene, her designs are wonderfully original; full of sophistication and the joy of creation, while, at the same time, simple and of top quality. Her summer collection, which was inspired by a visit to Argentina, comprises folkloristic printed silk dresses in shades of orange, black and royal blue, as well as prints borrowed from traditional ceramic vessels.

The friendly ties that Biton has formed over the years in Japan enabled her to import styles by relatively young designers who are still unknown outside their country. One of them is Shiro Mio, who also worked for a long time in Comme des Garcons before starting an eponymous independent brand. Although his designs are limited to color combinations of black and white, the level of artistic complexity is high; for example, a white knee-length pleated skirt, with sheets of white lace between its folds, or a striped tank-top dress that is embedded with feathery cotton fringes and a supposedly simple sailor shirt in a good cut that includes five blue stripes on the chest that spill over to the sleeves.

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Inside Tonari. Credit: David Bachar
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Inside Tonari. Credit: David Bachar
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Inside Tonari.Credit: David Bachar

These styles present craftsmanship of design and style that is serene and unpretentious. The collection of wrinkled items by Issey Miyake is also not part of the familiar offerings identified with the Japanese designer. A selection of soft woolen hats by Yoji Yamamoto, and delicate fingerless woolen gloves, designed by his daughter, Limi, are the tip of the iceberg in a rich collection of accessories that includes a captivating collection of colored stockings, some of which sport naïve decorations and others transparent sheets of tulle, an impressive selection of shoes and a large number of complementary accessories which are unparallel in their uniqueness and delicacy.

"There are concepts of beautiful and ugly or bad and good in Japanese design," says Biton, noting that there are some people who enter the boutique and are somewhat taken aback. "I tell them, 'Calm down, you don't have to buy anything, you can just look, go home and maybe come back again if you like.' Of course people are deterred by the prices, too, but I don't think only about now, I think about what will be five years from now.

"And, yes, I also educate. I tell people, 'Yalla, take off the makeup and the black, put on some colors and enjoy the quality.' And another thing – we don't have to be pretty or perfectly groomed from head to foot all the time. It's very important to vary, and sometimes you can also look a little bit ugly." In order to remove any doubt, nothing in the boutique can be said to be ugly. What Biton means to say is that you don't always have to adopt the luxurious dress styles of European haute couture.

A collection of simple-looking but carefully-made items hints at where Biton is now headed. Vlas Blomme, "the best linen in the world," as she puts it, is a Japanese brand that processes flax fibers using a traditional method that requires four hours to weave one meter of fabric. It is represented in the boutique, among other things, in cardigans in an airy knit and long or short T-shirts for men. Another selection of light T-shirts, from a mixture of linen and silk, comes from the RNA brand, and Biton notes that Tsumari's selection of items for men – jackets, coats and sweaters – and moderately colorful unisex styles, are on their way here.

"One of the my new targets is men. There's something very enjoyable in communications with them, because they know what they want, and if they like something they'll come back to buy." Besides, she says, she has had an eye on Comme des Garcons for a long time. She has already made contact with Rei Kawakubo, the designer of the brand, but says that it will take some more time. "With the Japanese you have do it slowly and carefully. Not hurry too much, and without mistakes."

Prices: Shirts: NIS 480-NIS 2,600. Pants: NIS 1,700-NIS 3,300. Skirts and dresses: NIS 1,800-NIS 6,000. Jackets and coats: NIS 1,800-NIS 6,500. Bags: NIS 650-NIS 6500. Shoes: NIS 1,200-NIS 3,500. Additional accessories (socks, scarves, hats, gloves and jewelry): NIS 180-NIS1,700. Tonari, 30 Yavne Street, Tel Aviv. Racheli, 51 Hameyasdim Street, Zikhron Yaakov.

Rachel Biton at Tonari.Credit: David Bachar
Prag Rokach, the owner of Hibino.Credit: Daniel Chechik
Hibino, Tel Aviv.Credit: Daniel Chechik

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