Soft Edges, Hard Core

Tovaleh's flowing, lyrical clothes contrast sharply with the designer's own blunt style.

Fashion designer Tova Hassin - better known as Tovaleh - calls her show, which opens today as part of Tel Aviv Fashion Week, the show of her life. It is her chance for a comeback.

Hassin, who launched her boutique in Tel Aviv in 1987, was once the darling of the media, stylists and fashion exhibitors. But over the last decade she slipped out of the limelight. She blames herself, in part, for this.

Noa Yafe

"I think that in my youth I made mistakes in the words I used," says Hassin, 65. "I thought if I bash another designer or complain about someone, it would make me better. I regret it to this day and I think I paid a stiff price for my arrogance and for my mouth. I always said I am the best and that there's no one like me.

"Now I'm at a point where I'm almost anonymous, and this anonymity has some wonderful aspects. I'm not pressured by what they'll write about me; I don't regret that my name isn't in the paper every day. There's a fantastic calm that comes with that," she says.

Hassin's talk is one thing and her actions are another. Splashed in large letters on the photo CD that comes with the catalogue she produced for her spring-summer 2012 season collection are the words "The Greatest," and below that, in small letters, her name in English. In the past, the phrase was embroidered in gold on one of the tops she designed. "I didn't write it. And I want to correct the record: I never associated this phrase with me. People would come into the boutique and tell me: 'Tovaleh, you're the greatest,' and I'd tell them that it's the Shekhina (Divine presence ) or the Torah. Not me. For a long time now I haven't thought that I'm the greatest."

She created the current collection from leftover scraps of fabric in her studio. But she does not define it as a collection. "What collection? Never in my life did I build a collection in an orderly manner. I make clothes I want to sell tomorrow morning at the store. I have a few principles that guide me in my work: I don't have end of season sales. I think that cheapens the clothes."

Hassin suggests that she coined the concept of vintage clothes. "I sell clothes that have been in my store for over 10 years. And I tell this to customers. I can't see an item of my clothing as part of a seasonal collection and sell it for a reduced price at the end of the season. I sell clothes that can be worn all day long."

Hassin has a reputation for throwing customers out of her store. She denies this is so, maintaining that the most she has done is "remain silent" when customers have offended her "by flipping through my dresses on the rack the way you flip through posters" or "coming into my store in Crocs and holding a water bottle in their hand." Eventually her stony silence drives them out.

For all her rough edges, Hassin's designs have a soft touch. "Contrary to my nature, which has something very blunt about it, and I am sorry about that - it's the trait I hate the most in myself - my clothes relay a message of a lot of comfort and softness.

"I always ask the models how they felt in my dress and they always say the clothing brought out something very childish, that everyone came up to them and stroked their hair."

She shows off a white dress with two tiers, stiff satin silk and thin silk in a dirty shade of pink. The two tiers are embroidered with flowers and spiral designs (the black layer features a reflective fabric around the embroidery ).

She points the similarity between the dress and a cleric's robe - "something like what you'd see in a church," as she puts it. Religious motifs were present in her work in the past too. In the early 1990s, for example, she sent models on to the runway wearing religious women's clothing - wide, long dresses and head coverings - who turned their backs to the audience and appeared to be praying to a plaster barrier.

On her forehead, above the right eye, the words "b'ezrat hashem" (with God's help ) are tattooed in large letters. Below her left eye there is a Star of David and a cross. "I like all the religions and I find something very nice in all of them."

The clothes she designs do not take into account popular trends. There is style - the same consistent, clear and defined style that she has been working on since she opened her Tel Aviv boutique in 1987. Good taste, intense and surprising colors, flowing silk fabrics and bohemian-romantic chic of the kind that can be found in the flea markets of Paris, London and Amsterdam are among the elements of the style.

Another element is the abundant decorations - be they flowers and other symbols spread generously over the clothes, fluorescent reflective plastic fabric patches or glittering crystals and sequins interwoven into the clothes. In the past, some viewed the designer's indiscriminate use of glittery decorations as distracting attention away from her limitations as a designer.

"Let's say I'm designing a smooth dress. Personally, I like clean lines the most, but then I'll feel that it won't work if don't give it some other element so that they'll see it's Tovaleh - embroidery, stones, appliques." She shows a little black silk dress, with a shiny black strip along the sides and with a rounded neckline with black Swarovski crystals embroidered in it. "You see the simplicity in the clothes?" It is hard to describe the clothes Hassin designs as simple even if they do have a certain lyricism. Many of the dresses are not form-fitting, radiate freedom and are so carefully made that they are reversible. Hassin encourages reversing them, of course, demonstrating the various options such items offer. "I want to get the maximum out of every item," she says. "They are not unique because of their blatant sexuality. Only after a second glance is it possible to discern the transparency which is created, for example, with a princess cut white silk dress, narrow on top and flaring on the bottom, embroi dered with flowers and Swarovski crystals.

Referring to a different kind of embroidery on a black silk blouse she says: "I do this by hand, in the store, in order not to go crazy."

If Hassin is viewed with the right degree of humor, it is possible to see her as an original, powerful and unique phenomenon: a creative and notable designer with her own signature.