Israeli designer Galia Lahav’s official Instagram page is laden with images of celebrities. There’s Jennifer Lopez in an ostrich feather dress on the cover of the Spanish-language version of People Magazine; Ciara hosting the Billboard Music Award ceremony in an asymmetrical black gown; Eurovision Song Contest winner Conchita Wurst wearing a figure-hugging strapless number cinched with a wide gold belt; and British actor Michelle Keegan on the cover of Hello! magazine, with the backless gown she wore on her wedding day.
Then there are actors Angela Bassett and Michelle Rodriguez, tennis star Serena Williams and TV personality Giuliana Rancic. They all have one thing in common: they’re wearing dresses by the haute couture designer.
Lahav’s website also bears witness to her fashion house’s international success. The most recent photo is from the end of last month, showing an article from the British edition of Harper’s Bazaar with the headline: “Introducing couture’s new star: Galia Lahav.” Her website also features a wealth of mentions in the media and women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan, Elle and Glamour UK, alongside photos of celebrities wearing her designs on the red carpet.
Yet the pinnacle of her success is not documented on the website: That was the moment when she and her staff – daughter Osnat Malkin (who is the director of operations), son Idan Lahav (director of business development) and head fashion designer Sharon Sever – learned that their enterprise is the first Israeli fashion house to be accepted into the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (the French high fashion federation). This is an institution that, even today, is considered an exclusive temple whose doors open only to a very select few.
Admittance means not only that Lahav must hew to its incredibly strict standards of quality, but also that she will show in Haute Couture Fashion Week in Paris next month. In fashion terms, it’s like winning the Nobel Prize.
30 years of work
Lahav’s fashion house spreads out over four floors of a listed building in south Tel Aviv. Any visitor cannot help but feel the excitement that success has brought. In the entrance space, where the boutique itself is located, it’s business as usual. Brides come in for gown fittings and the atmosphere is quite relaxed. The moment you climb the first flight of stairs, though, everything changes.
In Lahav’s fashion house, the direction of movement is from top to bottom: On the third floor they cut the designs; on the second they sew them together; and on the first they add the embellishments, do the beadwork and add semi-precious stones or bits of delicate lace to styles on display mannequins. Each floor features dozens of people moving around, but most of this activity is done in silent contemplation.
The phrase “haute couture” is truly a magical one for Lahav, and she prepared for the vital meeting with the French federation with a sense of awe. “The moment I realized I was part of a handful of contenders for the couture federation’s official imprimatur, the excitement and pressure began,” said Lahav.
“Every single thread has to be the right color, every cut has to fit the model’s measurements perfectly. Before the meeting, I developed a kind of obsession with the dresses I would show them. I realized I had only one chance to show the best judges in the world everything I had worked on for 30 years.” So, they burned the midnight oil at the fashion house as new designs were prepared, ripped apart and resewn (“There are designs that were redone 30 times. This is hundreds of hours of work,” said Idan Lahav).
On the day of the flight to Paris, Lahav boarded the plane with wobbly knees and recited “countless sentences in French about the institution I have built, so as not to get confused in front of the judges. And the moment I stepped into that history-filled building in France – which on the one hand is very conservative, and on the other is full of passion for innovativeness in sewing techniques that come from various cultures and fashion houses – I suddenly understood the magnitude of the occasion. Then, during the meeting, even before I knew if we had been accepted, I looked at Sharon [Sever], who was there next to me, and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, you’ve done it! I’ve realized a dream.’ And I shed a tear. The members of the federation asked if everything was alright. I apologized and we continued with the process.”
The madness begins
Lahav, 68, did not start out with bespoke dressmaking, or even commercial dressmaking. Born in Pinsk, southern Belarus, she immigrated to Israel with her family in 1957 and grew up in Ashkelon. From her mother, who was an accountant but also a keen dressmaker, she inherited her love of fashion.
For years, during which her son Ran and daughter Osnat were born, Lahav worked as a teacher of art and sewing in a school in Ashdod. Then, though, at the start of the 1980s – when she was pregnant with her son Idan – she experienced a kind of epiphany and decided that she wanted to establish a fashion house.
She launched a studio in Ashdod in 1985 and began to design. At first, she made large knitted garments embellished with appliqueed beads and fabrics, which she embroidered herself and marketed to shops around the country. But very quickly, a new plan hatched and she began designing made-to-measure evening gowns and wedding dresses.
In 1993, Lahav felt ready for the next step: opening a luxurious bridal salon in Tel Aviv. Lahav’s boutique operated on Dizengoff Street for over two decades. At first there were only bridal gowns and, later, particularly glamorous evening dresses that were sewn and fitted individually, largely by hand using traditional tailoring methods that Lahav had learned from her mother.
Osnat Malkin, a lawyer by training, joined the brand’s management team in 2007. She was responsible for taking the first steps toward breaking into overseas markets, and she was the one responsible for getting Fashion TV to come over to Israel in 2012 and cover the brand’s collection. The video went viral and inquiries started flooding in.
Meanwhile, son Idan, 32, left a position in high-tech to join the company. Since most of the emails were coming in from Australia, he decided it was best to begin in the Antipodes. The other key player was designer Sharon Sever, 46: He first entered Galia Lahav’s fashion house in 1996, after completing his academic studies in America and Paris, and following a series of apprenticeships at fashion houses like Balenciaga, Christian Lacroix and Lanvin.
In 2013, Idan Lahav and Sever packed up the wedding dresses in suitcases and flew to the Australian Bridal Expo in Sydney. Despite encountering a lot of enthusiasm there, not a single order came in. Galia Lahav didn’t despair. A week later, Sever and Idan Lahav flew to London for the White Gallery international bridal fair. Again, the meetings with buyers were warm and enthusiastic. But, again, there were no orders. On the brink of despair, they decided to continue onto the next destination: New York.
“Having lost so much hope, we economized and rented a room in a standard hotel,” recalled Idan Lahav. “I slept in the living room on an inflatable mattress. I would let out the air in the morning and we’d transform the room into a showroom, with improvised lighting. The model we found didn’t have the right measurements for the dresses and nothing worked the way it was supposed to, but the buyers were excited and placed orders. Then the madness began.”
For the past four years, the fashion house has been showing regularly at New York’s International Bridal Week (held biannually in April and October), and participating in an equivalent event in Barcelona, where they show a ready-to-wear collection called Gala (which first debuted in October 2015).
The United States is the fashion house’s main market, with Lahav’s designs sold, among other places, at department stores like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, as well as boutiques in New York, California and Florida. Her gowns are also sold in nearly 60 locations worldwide – including in Japan, Australia, Brazil, Moscow and London – and at two Galia Lahav boutiques in Hamburg and Los Angeles.
A made-to-measure bridal dress will cost the happy bride between $7,000 and $20,000, while a ready-to-wear dress will run from $4,500 to $9,500. There are also, of course, couture evening dresses, and a new line of ready-to-wear evening dresses will be launched at the Gindi Fashion Week in Tel Aviv.
How has the brand enjoyed such rapid success? Malkin cites their recognition of “the whole Kim Kardashian phenomenon” for flesh-revealing clothing, while Idan says social media was another important factor: “Everything came together and created a kind of momentum,” he said. “If the big thing used to be magazines and articles online, suddenly the globalization of the web made it possible to break through at not too high a price for publicity. This recipe has created something good, and [about] five years ago we really started to grow.”
According to Galia Lahav, it is also connected to the global process of what she calls “female empowerment and the empowerment of the individual.” She explains that social media also played a role in the fashion house’s popularity among celebrities. “We started to get inquiries from stylists who found the pictures on the social networks, people who were already familiar with our store in Los Angeles and people whose celebrity clients had seen our designs and were requesting them,” she said.
“Some of them wanted the dresses as is, and some wanted bespoke dresses (like Jennifer Lopez’s). This is a process that was built up gradually and cautiously, with a great deal of uncertainty – sometimes we can work on a dress from scratch, and in the end it won’t get worn – but it is exciting and makes us very happy when it finally happens.”
And has anyone ever been deterred by the “Made in Israel” label? “Do you know how many brides we have in Dubai?” asked Sever. “We also get a lot of emails from brides in Iran.”