With the official opening of the Soccer World Cup in June in Brazil, we can predict that the area on and near the pitch will be filled with players and fans wearing short sweatshirts with the word heshbon in Hebrew on the left side, right above the heart. How do we know? It’s simple: Over the past month, well-known soccer players from Europe’s leading teams, including Mario Balotelli, Didier Drogba, Seydou Keita, Eden Hazard and Marco Verratti, have done it. And the numbers are growing.
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The reason is the launch of a new Paris brand last month, H’echbone Paris, with that very Hebrew word on the front. The people behind it are Yoan Barouk and Souleymane Kamissoko, two friends from the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, the former Jewish and the latter, Muslim. Given that information, the word heshbon, which means “account” or “bill” in Hebrew, could be loaded with significance. But it turns out that the birth of the brand was fairly prosaic − it all started on a joint visit by Barouk and Kamissoko to Israel in 2011.
“We were sitting in a restaurant in Tel Aviv and when we were given the heshbon − the bill − Souleymane fell in love with the word, the way it was written and the way it was pronounced, “Barouk says. “When we founded the label last month, it was only natural that we would pick that word.”
Barouk, 22, had previously been in marketing and communications and had also tried his hand at graphic design. The dream to start a fashion label came from Kamissoko, 25, who had previously worked in textile marketing. Their clothes have very simple designs, some with a basic print consisting of a series of Roman numerals. Barouk claims that this is another way of expressing the pluralism that motivates their work, to show a universality that speaks to a broad audience, “no matter what color skin, what religion or country.”
The pair put together a small collection of shirts, manufactured them quickly and got a few of their friends involved − soccer stars who had their pictures snapped while wearing the shirts, posted them on Instagram and directed people to their homepage, which is also their sole sales outlet.
According to Barouk, even Nicolas Anelka, formerly of England’s West Bromwich Albion, has a shirt like that in his closet. Anelka’s name headlined in December last year after he celebrated a goal with a quenelle, the controversial gesture associated with anti-Semitism and popularized by the French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. For doing so, Anelka was banned for five games and fined 80,000 euros, despite his claim that he was not aware of the significance of the gesture. Either way, the fact that even he has a shirt with Hebrew writing on it might show the redemptive potential of the line.
In light of the commercial success of the first designs, Barouk says, he and his partner even feel at ease making their logo larger, and in the designs they will be coming out with soon the word heshbon appears huge in the center of the shirt. Still, he has trouble explaining what role Hebrew writing plays in their vision.
“We see the brand as a hope-bearing entity. We want to show that people can live in a city considered problematic and still have ambitions. To show that Muslims and Jews can unite around a project that’s all about good will. We don’t pretend to change the world, but if this calms things down a little, we’ll be very happy,” he says.
Can it be said that the label was established as a response to a growing wave of anti-Semitism in recent years in Europe, particularly in France?
“No, this is very separate from politics. We don’t want to go there … The fact that Muslim soccer stars wear our shirts only shows that it’s not connected to religion or the conflict between religious concepts. It’s just a nice logo,” Barouk says.
Barouk’s explanation might serve as a marketing strategy that makes it easier to accept the label (even though it’s a curiosity that has drawn media interest). And if this were an isolated case, Barouk’s explanation might hold water. But in light of the unprecedented flourishing of Jewish religious symbols in European fashions, one can’t help but wonder about the moment they first emerged.
It seems that the racist remarks of the British designer John Galliano in 2011 brought the anti-Semitic genie out of the bottle and, somewhat surprisingly, at the same time, signs of renewed interest in traditional Orthodox Jewish garb began to appear. Magazine articles on fashion were illustrated with photos of models wearing long coats and dark suits, with side curls dangling from their temples and white tassels hanging out from beneath their shirts. Some sported phylactery-like leather bands around an arm as an accessory. Runways saw collections in which the men wore garments created in the spirit of the Hassidic movement that emerged in Europe in the 18th century.
The trend was even seen among local designers like Dorine Frankfurt and Comme il Faut. But now it seems that all these were laying the groundwork for small initiatives by independent designers who have turned to Jewish iconography and chosen to showcase it.
In 2012, the Risk Oy line was founded in Kracow, specializing in “sexy and loud” Jewish design, as the founders, Antonina Samecka and Klara Kowtun, put it. Their designs are also made for those who do not necessarily identify with their Judaism, but the link to the sources is important to them − clothes with basic moderate lines, in shades of gray, whose main purpose is to highlight words like hutzpah, shalom and Israel alongside symbols like the hamsa symbol of the palm of the hand, menorah and Star of David with a good dose of humor thrown into the mix.
The French collective, Monsta x Beautiful Monsta, founded in 2012 in Paris, makes more extroverted use of religious symbols. The most recent collection by Monsta x Beautiful Monsta, whose members divide their time between fashion design and organizing massive hip-hop parties, is called Super Rich Kid. It includes wide garments in black and white, scattered with large logos recalling the elite European showy style of the 1980s. The heart of the wardrobe is the clash between religious symbols, crosses wildly combined with Hebrew and Arabic lettering and crescents, Stars of David and pentagrams on sweatshirts, short shirts and long galabiahs. Even if in this case the motivation was not necessarily to establish a culture against hatred of Jews, there is no doubt that the dissemination of clearly Jewish symbols like the Star of David is no simple thing in Europe.
According to Barouk, star soccer players from FC Barcelona will soon be wearing his label. “We have a real message of hope to convey. Unfortunately, there are also some people who don’t like the idea that the logo is in Hebrew. But they’re in the minority. We have to go on and aim as high as possible. We hope that with time this mentality will change,” he says.