For some time Oded Chai, head of Continuing Education and International Affairs at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, has been pushing the idea of a rather unconventional business venture. Last winter, a group of Palestinian textile manufacturers visited Shenkar every week for training in fashion design − lessons that are part of the Peres Center for Peace’s “Partners in Business, Partners in Peace” project funded by the European Union.
The training program is what gave Chai his idea: “To found a cooperative company where Israeli designers and Palestinian manufacturers will work, in full cooperation and with an equal division of the profits,” he says.
The products are intended for the American and European markets. “It can be wonderful, no?” he says.
Even Chai knows that such a plan will take time and a lot of work before his project can become reality. Which is exactly why tomorrow Shenkar, the Peres Center and the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce are holding a unique business conference where Israeli fashion designers and labels will meet with Italian designers and leading manufacturers from the Palestinian Authority.
This meeting at the Peres Peace House in Jaffa is intended to deepen the connections between the various groups in the field and emphasize the economic advantages inherent in such activities; from geographic proximity and the skilled labor in the PA. At the end of the conference there will be one-on-one meetings aimed at forming business relationships.
The clear advantages of the Palestinian textile industry − its relatively low costs, willingness to manufacture in small quantities and familiarity with local market conditions − make it well matched to working with Israeli designers. Nonetheless, capabilities and reality are not the same thing.
“Many designers are not even aware of such a possibility,” says Chai. “And those who are fear they will be cheated, or that the quality won’t be high enough. The issue here is the need to understand that it is possible, despite the objective and non-objective difficulties.”
The designer Ronen Chen says it is also a matter of conception. “For people outside the field of fashion, manufacturing in Gaza may sound like a strange idea, exactly as there are still those who turn up their noses about the quality of manufacturing in China. But once I had an excellent sewing workshop in Gaza that manufactured everything from jeans to hand-made evening wear,” he says.
But one day the workshop closed and he needed to find other solutions.
Today Chen manufactures some 30 percent of his goods in the West Bank, and it is not just a matter of economics or geography. “I have been working with a sewing workshop in Baka al-Sharqia for 15 years. The quality is excellent and I am very pleased with the reliability and the professional connection between us. I can trust the owner of the workshop blindly, and even when the political situation worsens he continues to work with us faithfully,” he says.
Israeli textile manufacturing has been shrinking for the past two decades, Chen explains. It is a disappearing profession since no one wants to be a tailor when they grow up. “The wave of aliyah from the former Soviet Union brought with it well-trained professionals who integrated into the local industry, but there is no generation after them. Most of the sewing workshops in Tel Aviv have closed, and those that are still continuing to work in Israel, mainly in the Galilee, are mostly specialized and inappropriate for working in our area, which requires the ability to adapt to changes and high complexity.
“The West Bank, on the other hand, has experienced workshops that specialize in different areas. In Nablus, for example, there are workshops that know how to sew pants and jeans. Over the years it turned out that way, it seems because the tradition has been passed down from generation to generation and was preserved. There are also wonderful workshops for leather work. It is an industry that keeps its strength but needs Israeli designers to continue to keep it going.”
Building an independent economy
Designer Dorin Frankfurt has a factory in Tel Aviv, which she is proud of and reflects her firm belief in local manufacturing. But in 2007 she cooperated with the H&O chain in manufacturing a collection in the Palestinian Authority, which left her with a very positive impression.
“The clothes we manufactured in the PA were breathtaking from a technical viewpoint. I was so impressed by the quality of the work that I didn’t understand why someone would want to manufacture in the [Far] East at all,” she says. “In Nablus and Hebron there are amazingly experienced professionals in leather work, so why not work with them? Moreover, it is our duty to help out with the welfare and livelihood of the residents of the PA. It is for the good of everyone. Of course every case is different, and it is important that things are done professionally and fairly.”
Even though there are already Palestinian companies that export their wares to the United States, Dubai and Jordan, Tarek Sous, chairman of the Palestinian Textile and Garment Union, and his deputy Majdi Zreir − who will participate in the conference − define Israel as a major destination for expanding their operations.
“Two decades ago there were some 90,000 people employed in the Palestinian textile industry, but today only some 15,000 work there,” says Zreir.
The Palestinian textile industry has naturally been affected by the processes of globalization and the sweeping move of manufacturing to the Far East, and many of those remaining work as subcontractors for Israeli manufacturers.
“Today there are almost 200 large and good [textile] workshops operating in the PA, and another about 1,000 small home workshops. Together they make up the textile industry, which is a central part of the Palestinian economy,” says Zreir. “We want to build an independent economy for the Palestinian people, instead of depending on aid from countries from all over the world.”
For Edan Raviv, director of the Business and Environment Department at the Peres Center, who supervises the project, the expectations do not end with increasing the volume of manufacturing. Two professional training programs that have been conducted so far: The first focused on innovative methods of work, quality control and pattern making, while the second dealt more with three-dimensional design. Both were meant to produce a new generation of fashion designers in the PA.
“The response we received from the participants [in both courses] was that it was not enough, and we hope there will be a continuation,” says Chai, noting the process created quite a bit of interest and curiosity in the Palestinian industry.
Is your goal to train manufacturers or to produce designers?
“A good question. My recommendation was to develop programs to train designers, who in the end may lead to the establishment of a higher school of fashion in the PA. It turns out there is a large hunger for this, despite that fashion design, or design in general, is still not viewed as a desirable profession in Arab society. And the textile industry people themselves have already understood that when you manufacture for others it gives you one status, and when you are capable of designing a collection and marketing it yourself, that is already another status.”