Israel's Non-fundamentalist Muslin Brothers

Designer collective's latest collection shows lighter side, featuring 'an outbreak of color you can't be indifferent to.'

When the members of the Muslin Brothers collective — Yaen Levi, Tamar Levit and Nadav Svetlov — completed work on their summer collection last February, they took advantage of the break to head overseas for the first time. The destination they chose was Berlin, and they sent Svetlov there with samples of the collection to be shown to buyers and managers of boutiques. When he returned to Israel three weeks later, he had some startling news: He was leaving the group.

“He asked for a meeting and said he felt satiated. After a year and a half of work, it got too intense for him,” says Levi. “The work we picked for ourselves really is quite intensive. Besides the planning, manufacture and marketing of the collection twice a year, there are lots of events and collaborative projects that we do with artists who work in various other fields.”

Changes in group composition are no rarity. In 2005, the same thing happened to the members of the New York-based fashion collective As Four, whose experimental approach and desire to take their work outside the conventional boundaries of the field is similar to that of the Muslin Brothers. When one of their four members left, the remaining three renamed the brand Three As Four. But it wasn’t just the name or the nature of the collective’s work that bothered Levi and Levit.

“It raised questions about the nature of our work, and we finally decided we needed to change it,” says Levi. “I realized it was a very Israeli tendency to do everything like in a military operation. Anything goes and everything’s possible, because there’s no established method or system. It’s a kind of survival situation where you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. So from that point, we tried to relax our pace a bit and work more effectively.”

They decided to leave the brand and the logo in place. The main thing, they said, was the group’s collaborative spirit, not the number of permanent members. Levi says that the space created by Svetlov’s departure still exists, and is available to be filled by anyone who wants to join, “a bit like the empty chair of Elijah the Prophet.”

The first to step into the space was Zohar Koren, a student in visual communications at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. Koren contacted them, offering to rebrand the Muslin Brothers as part of his studies. When the collaboration proved successful, the three of them decided to keep it going for the photographing of the current collection.

At the same time, they started developing an artistic dialogue with photographer Roni Kna’ani. She, too, contacted them, offering to add the professional precision and quality sometimes lacking in the artistic photographs they produced each season. The end result was a paragon of commercialism, in the positive sense of the term. Kna’ani made the Muslin Brothers’ vision more visually accessible. The humor, delight and pleasure that are the hallmark of their work come through more than ever in her photographs.

But the photographs helped the group in another sense. During the sessions, they finally found the system of working that they had been missing until then. “We did those photos in a very professional way. We cast four models, two men and two women. We had skilled people such as Roni and Zohar on the team, helping with the set,” Levi says. “They also planned the photo session in advance. Since many people were involved in the shoot, we felt we should get to the set earlier with a better understanding of our needs. Until that point, we’d done it like a guerrilla operation, improvising here and inventing there, creating as we went.”

Whether because of the changes going on in the group or the chaotic way things were done locally, Levi says that the collection’s point of departure was “a place of collisions. I feel we live in a crazy time where everything’s being called into question and nothing’s taken for granted. It’s a fascinating time that reminds me of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s.”

In the samples they designed, this way of thinking is reflected in the dynamic patterns and the collision of complementary colors such as red and green. Levit recalls that when the three of them went out to look for fabrics, they noticed how much they were attracted to the color combination of green, orange and red. “Finally there’s an outbreak of color that you can’t be indifferent to,” she says, adding that even now, when she looks at the samples on the hangers, she can’t help but smile.

Indeed, one gets the impression that the convoluted theoretical component that often cast a pall of severity over their work has dissipated, leaving space for a new, lighter approach. One of the most prominent examples of this approach is a pair of shorts reminiscent of the tracksuit bottoms of the 1970s, with rounded hems at the sides and accented with a strip of satin. Some are made of fabric with splotches of color arranged like a sample of army camouflage, while others are in shades of bottle green and rust.

The hemline is surprisingly bold, since the group’s clothing has never been blatantly sexy. “That’s also what attracted us to this, to be on the provocative edge,” says Levi.

Levit corrects him right away, saying that it’s not provocative at all compared with the trouser lengths seen on the street today.

Once they sewed short T-shirts from the fabric, they were curious to see how the fabric would look in a larger inner space, so they designed a dress from it as well. The dress’s silhouette looks simple and direct, but the pattern is based on an old pattern from Maskit, Israel’s first (and now defunct) fashion house, altered by Levit’s grandmother. “My grandmother, who died a few months ago, made a few changes in the pattern,” she says. “She made a few nips and tucks here and there, and cut off the color and resewed it. That’s how the apron at the center of the dress came into being.”

The line between the enticing and the daunting also gave rise to the long skirt, which is actually a large square of cotton fabric whose top portion is gathered with elastic and elongated plastic beads (a detail borrowed from hikers’ clothing), and whose bottom portion has similar gathers on each side, creating a new silhouette. The skirt is available in shades of grayish-pink, silver gray and a fiery reddish-orange. Levit says, “It’s one of the items that was fun to design because it can be made one-size-fits-all.”

While the light, pop-style spirit of the group’s summer collection goes naturally with the season, it can’t be disconnected from the change in their approach. “So far, the three of us did everything on our own, in the studio. We never outsourced anything but sewing,” says Levi. “Now we’ve decided to outsource more of the work. There are professional people who are more skilled than we are. Not only will it make things easier for us; it will leave us more time to start more artistic collaborations and expand our creativity.”

Prices: Shirts: NIS 350–550. Trousers: NIS 500–600. Skirts and dresses: NIS 650–850. Bayit Banamal, Hangar 26, Tel Aviv Port. Also at their studio at 61 Matalon Street (by appointment; call 052-321-6899 to set one up). The studio will be holding an open house this coming Friday, May 24,from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M.

Noa Yoffe