The Israeli Fashion Designer Who Made Bathing Suits More Than Just Bathing Suits

Leah Gottlieb, who reinvented bathing suits and turned them into a glamorous industry, is celebrated in posthumous show.

Shachar Atwan
Shachar Atwan
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Shachar Atwan
Shachar Atwan

During World War II, Lea Gottlieb would visit her husband who was imprisoned in a work camp in Hungary, bearing a large bouquet of flowers by means of which she hid her face and her Jewish origins. Since that time flowers were a major motif in her work and adorned the swimsuits and the beachwear of the brand she founded and shaped – Gottex. It isn’t surprising, then, that the directors of the Design Museum in Holon chose for title “Lady of the Daisies” for the exhibition it is devoting to Gottlieb, who passed away last November at the age of 94. However, with respect to the second part of the exhibition title – “A Tribute to Lea Gottlieb” – there are some question marks.

The exhibition, which opens Monday, in fact begins with the tribute part. In the center of the space, at the entrance to the museum, stands a structure of lengths of white cloth printed with drawings by the company’s director for the past four years, Molly Grad, and in the midst of them is a display of mannequins wearing garments Grad designed especially for the exhibition: a long evening dress of tulle and silk in shades of bronze.

It is worth slowing down in the long corridor leading to the upper gallery, where Ayala Raz has curated a stunning and representative collection of Gottlieb’s designs during the last decade of her activity at Gottex. Along the way you can enjoy the wonderful illustrations by Leah Cohen of garments Gottlieb designed at the end of the 1970s and video clips documenting selected fashion shows by the brand.

The exhibition Raz has curated is very stimulating to the eye and the mind in its richness of color and subject matter, and it leaves a lasting impression. “Group Portrait with a Lady” was the provisional title of the exhibition, and the simple way Raz has arranged the space reflects it. The curator pulled selected items from the 12 collections Gottlieb designed between 1989 and 1999 and has presented them with the help of mannequins on platforms of varying heights.

There was a reason for this choice of a specific decade rather than a chronological sequence. According to Raz, Gottlieb discovered that during this decade of her life – well after she had garnered international acclaim in the 1960s and again in the 1980s – the designer reached her creative peak, especially in the collections she designed as homage to outstanding painters of the 19th and 20th centuries.

“And this is not necessarily the brand’s most commercially successful decade,” adds Raz.

That is an understatement. Commercially, this decade in fact marked the waning period of Gottex. In 1995, with the death of Lea’s husband Armin Gottlieb, who served as the CEO of the company, it encountered economic difficulties. Four years later Gottlieb sold the company to the Africa-Israel group, and three years after that she resigned once and for all from her role as designer. During that period, because of the stylistic changes in fashion at the time, the luxury and glamour of Gottlieb’s work had lost their appeal.

Lea Gottlieb's work on display at the Holon Design Museum.
Lea Gottlieb's work on display at the Holon Design Museum.
Lea Gottlieb's work on display at the Holon Design Museum
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Lea Gottlieb's work on display at the Holon Design Museum.Credit: David Bachar
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Lea Gottlieb's work on display at the Holon Design Museum.Credit: David Bachar
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Lea Gottlieb's work on display at the Holon Design MuseumCredit: David Bachar

Now, in retrospect, one cannot help but admire the abundant creativity of one energetic woman who did all the work: the vision, the inspiration, the design, the buying. The innovation in materials and in means of production. The opening of new markets and the identification of new partners. And one cannot fail to be impressed by the effervescent imagination and glamour that today look new once again – her designs in tones of black and white, inspired by pop art, or those with ethnic prints evoking recent impressions from runways in fashion capitals.

“If only she had succeeded in surviving the reversals in fashion of the 1990s, she would be enjoying renewed glory because the glam she knew how to produce has returned to fashion [over the past decade],” says Raz.

Van Gottlieb

Sadly, however, Gottlieb did not survive that shakeup, to a large extent because she wasn’t a person who compromised. In the “Topkapi” collection (1989) for example, Gottlieb reworked Pakistani shisha embroidery. She had to find a technological solution and she had to replace the small pieces of mirror embedded in the traditional embroidery with silver prints that have a metallic shine. Raz calls attention to the fact that every sample was cut individually by hand in order to ensure that the flowers and decorations would always appear in the desired place. Sometimes her stubbornness paid off: Two designs from this collection were shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the exhibition “Orientalism” (1994), alongside works by top high fashion designers.

In the relationship Gottlieb pursued through her designs with outstanding artists of the 19th and 20th century she evinced similar ingenuity. More than that, she took endless liberties in adapting motifs from their works. In “Van Gogh,” she took apart the Dutch artist’s painting of irises and reconstituted from it new patterns, according to her own whims.

In “Jamaica” (1994), which was inspired by the paintings of Paul Gaugin, she printed one of the paintings of Tahitian women on an entire one-piece bathing suit and then took a detail from the original painting and magnified it into a print on another design.

Among the impressive collections, “Jerusalem of Gold” (1992) – which is displayed in a place of honor in the exhibit – represents without a doubt the peak of Gottlieb’s creativity. Two decades after they were designed, the pieces in the “Jerusalem of Gold” collection still succeed in impressing with their beauty. These included kaftans and jalabiyas modeled on the traditional, flowing Arab robe, as well as harem pants and overalls – all of them white and densely ornamented with Jewish decorations such as the star of David, the menorah (seven-branched candelabrum) and hamsa hands sprayed on in gold. Raz explains that these decorations were sprayed on in gold in order to achieve a uniform shade and inset with turquoise stones. It is surprising to discover that what look like laborious hand embroideries are in fact various elements pasted on with hot glue.

When the collection was shown at a fashion fair in Dusseldorf, Germany, the audience rose to its feet and cheered the designer for an entire 10 minutes.

“This collection was the closest to her heart,” relates Raz, “and because she herself had not believed she would survive the tribulations of World War II. You can imagine what it meant to her to see the Germans rising to their feet and cheering her with such enthusiasm.”

The collection was so dear to Gottlieb’s heart that she kept the samples in a closet in her bedroom and some of the bathing suits in her bedside dresser. This could explain why they have been preserved in such good condition.

Glamour and alienation

There is no doubt Gottlieb was at her best when she was adapting materials that were close to her heart. However, her love for art was also a strong emotion that motivated her in her work. Every close acquaintance with the work of an artist and every study of his methods of working contributed to her professional development, refined her language and prepared her to adapt the materials in each collection.

On a shelf built along one of the walls at the exhibition are framed pictures from Gottlieb’s family album and books from her personal library – most of them art books and monographs of artists. Alongside these, on the wall, are printed significant landmarks in her personal and professional life, from her birth in 1918 until her death. These include her decision to move from producing raincoats to producing bathing suits in 1956, her first prize in 1972 – won at an international swimwear and beachwear show in Cannes, where she competed against 186 manufacturers from around the world – the launch of the “seven suit” strapless bathing suit in 1980 that became the bestseller in all of Gottex’s history, and more.

The points are many and meaningful, and tempt one to ponder what really would have happened had Gottex survived the changes in fashion in the 1990s. After all, Gottlieb did what no one had done before her: She injected glamour into bathing suits and beachwear.

What happened to Gottlieb later in her life is what could happen to any independent manufacturer who has managed to make her way to success on her own terms. The ability to work in accordance with the heart's wishes is a huge advantage. But inherent in this drive is the risk of becoming unable to listen to the people around you, out of blind adherence to an inner voice. The exhibition does not reveal this to the spectator. In general, its main weakness is that it does not leverage the impressive creations on display with Raz’s research, which yielded profound insights into Gottlieb and the zeitgeist of her most prolific years.

Lea Gottlieb's work on display at the Holon Design Museum.Credit: David Bachar

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