Tel Aviv's Urban Galabia: Adapting the Desert Garment for Work and Evening Wear

Tel Aviv's year-old galabia store adapts the loose desert garment for contemporary leisure, work and evening wear.

Shahar Atwan
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Shahar Atwan

A beach chair is not usually found in boutiques. But the blue one sitting outside the Gallabia boutique on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard accurately reflects the intention of its owners, Eti Sayeg and Merav Hadari - to put customers in a holiday mood.

When they opened the boutique last spring the two were thinking about leisure clothing. "After all, we're always saying, 'Right now I could have been on vacation in Sinai or in any other place," explains Sayeg, 46. "That's why the initial idea was to bring some of this holiday atmosphere into our daily lives."

The definition of leisure clothes led them to Gallabia. They didn't literally mean the traditional galabia, but rather the kind that is refashioned in ways that suit our times. In the end they described it as urban galabias, because the idea is "not to buy them only before vacation trips abroad, but to turn them into something that will also be used as a formal item of clothing for office work, for example."

The conversation between us takes place on beach chairs outside the boutique, and a group of women passing by in the street stops for a few minutes in front of Sayeg to compliment her on the light blue dress she is wearing, whose neckline is decorated with white embroidery. She thanks them with a smile, and directs their attention to the display window behind us, where this dress can be seen next to other models of galabias and light shirts. There is no question about the magnetic pull of the leisure atmosphere of the clothes in the window.

The choice of location, on the outskirts of the Neveh Tzedek neighborhood, near the sea, is of course no coincidence. Not only is it hard to think of a better location in terms of the brand's target audience (female tourists ), but sometimes the boutique even looks as though it was created especially for women who look at a galabia through the eyes of foreigners and desire it as such. "The tourists are happy. They're crazy about it, of course," confirms Sayeg, "especially Frenchwomen." Those who are staying in the luxury tower above the boutique see it as a good place to buy gifts before their return home from vacation.

Israeli women, on the other hand, are somewhat less enthusiastic. To them, says Sayeg, the galabias is still perceived as too ethnic. "At first women who were looking for a traditional outfit for henna parties [Middle Eastern pre-wedding body coloring parties] came to us, but it's not the caftan that you wear at that ceremony or at Mimouna [North African post-Passover] celebrations, for example." And although some liked the look after agreeing to try something on, others are likely deterred by the Arab origins of the galabia.

This is a niche brand that doesn't necessarily have broad appeal, says Sayeg, but she sees another reason for the negative attitude of Israeli women. "In my opinion, from what I see on the street, Israeli women still have a problem defining their size. It's as though they suffer from myopia that causes them to buy clothes that are one size smaller than their real size."

She says the galabia is meant for women who prefer clothes with a loose silhouette which display the body's curves more discreetly. But let there be no mistake, a galabia is not meant to conceal excess weight. "This is not a solution for large-sized women, and when I talk about loose clothing I don't mean huge tents, but clothes that rest next to the body. For me, chic is a centimeter's width between the fabric and the body."

Sayeg displays two models of white cotton shirts with an oriental-style embroidered decoration on the back - a more formal, elegant style of galabia, which was adapted especially for women who work in offices or banks but are not obligated to adhere to a strict dress code of black pants and a white button-down shirt. One of them has a tailored style that includes buttons in front, large cuffs and a pair of hidden pockets on the hips; the second has a cleaner and more relaxed cut, with hooks instead of buttons. A very thin and transparent cotton shirt in a pale shade of blue is adorned by a fabric ribbon the color of natural raffia around the collar, on the hems and on the cuffs, and slits on the hips. Similar shirts are folded on a long wooden pole, in a selection of shades of green, blue, light blue, white, pink and red.

On the wall on the other side of the boutique hang long galabias made from synthetic satin fabrics, in a more elegant design. They come in three colors - black, coral red and navy blue - and are decorated with embroidery on the back and white fabric ribbons on the hems and on the three slits (two on the sides and one in front ), and they are styled like a tank top. In general, the embroidery that adorns the dresses and the shirts is in need of improvement, in terms both of design and implementation. In some cases it somewhat cheapens the front of the galabia and lends it the character of a folkloristic item of clothing of the kind that can be found in souvenir shops, rather than a desirable fashion item. And in some cases the simplicity of shape is reminiscent of the deliberate modesty typical of clothing for religious ceremonies.

While the collection offers plenty of good leisure and work clothes, it falls little in the evening wear department. A long galabia dress, from a fabric with a loud, colorful pattern in shades of blue, green, black and white - Sayeg calls it "the Uzbeki galabia," a fabric shirt with a leopard-skin pattern that is tied at the neck - are not alternatives that can inject an element of allure into the brand, especially not when they are displayed alongside an elegant galabia imported from India that is embroidered in rich flowers in earth tones.

Although on nearby Shabazi Street, Dorit Bar Or, the actress who became a designer, is offering a rich collection of caftans and luxurious galabia dresses that are embroidered by hand with semi-precious stones and gold chains, that doesn't mean Sayeg and Hadari are exempt from creating a tempting offering of their own for evening wear.

Naturally, explains Sayeg, spring and summer are the stronger seasons. "Until now we have gone through one winter and have learned our lessons well. In the winter collection we had shirts that go very well with tight-fitting jeans, large cardigans, and all kinds of complementary items that made the look more ethnic and bohemian, but it was still possible to identify the spirit of the galabia." Next winter they are planning to design a collection of galabias from velvet.

The collection also includes a few models designed for men, including a long white cotton galabia, very thin and semi-transparent, with a delicate striped pattern, a button below the neckline and a pair of pockets; or another gray one, of strong cotton in a more practical style. Also, there are galabias for children: white, embroidered with pinkish flowers for girls; or striped, like a biblical striped cloak, for boys.

Also available are complementary accessories such as straw bags, slip-ons and cotton hammam towels that can be used as a blanket on the beach. These are sold in the boutique and they hint that the leisure atmosphere may be too dominant, because to provide a galabia with a real fashion presence, or to have it become an item of clothing in the wardrobe of Israeli women, Sayeg and Hadari may have to work more seriously on developing the brand's collection in the future. Even if the idea sounds limiting in terms of creativity, and even it it's hard to see how a rich wardrobe can be developed around such a specific item of clothing, we are talking about essence: Clothes that are centered on a particular atmosphere.

In that context we should think about Gertrude, which began in the 1990s as a small boutique for lingerie and has since developed into a regular fashion brand whose core item remains tempting slips. A similar scenario could be possible at Gallabia, but it will require greater momentum and focus in assembling collections in the future. As Sayeg said: "We're only at the beginning and the burden of proof is on us. Meanwhile it comes to us naturally. It's our language and it's not foreign to us."

Prices: Shirts - NIS 350 to NIS 590. Dresses - NIS 390 to NIS 790. Accessories (hammam towels, slip-ons and bags ) - NIS 140 to NIS 890. Jewelry - NIS 420 to NIS 5,000. Gallabia, 1 Rothschild Blvd., Tel Aviv

Gallabia in Tel Aviv: Refashioning the galabia for modern times.Credit: Noa Yaffe
Merav Hadari (left) and Eti Sayeg, Gallbia's owners.Credit: Noa Yaffe
"This is a niche brand,'" Eti Sayeg says of the galabiya.Credit: Noa Yaffe