A One-woman Island

Ilana Efrati and her clientele operate like a private members club at her appointment-only boutique. Such isolation may explain why her new collection lacks fashion context.

When we meet in the boutique she owns on Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Street, Ilana Efrati declares, "I'm an island girl." She means the Mediterranean islands, and accompanies her statement with snapshots of her recent travels there. Ship decks, blue water and ferries slide across her iPod screen.

Efrati runs her boutique as if it were a desert island at the north end of the classic Tel Aviv shopping street. It's not accessible to people who happen by. It is open only at certain times of the year, and visits to the boutique are by appointment only. The clothing on display is elegant but practical, in stark contrast to the ornate glamour of evening dresses for sale in adjacent boutiques. "I have a world of my own where I live, and to a certain extent it's a little cut off from my surroundings," she says.

About seven years ago, she now confesses, Efrati started to doubt her role in the local fashion market as a result of "the mass assault of imports of foreign fashion labels," as she puts it. "I was thinking about retiring. I even sent a farewell letter to my customers, but they refused to let me go. They asked me to continue working. The format that developed means that I let them know when the store is open and the new collections are ready."

Since then Efrati has divided her time between Italy and Israel. She creates and sews the collections in Tel Aviv using fabrics she imports from abroad. She describes her work in recent years as running a private members club for her customers. "They know me and my style of work, and I know their individual needs," she says. This personal relationship is paramount to Efrati: "It's like you make a point of going to your usual cafe because the staff there know exactly how you like your coffee."

In Efrati's world, for example, women love khaki slacks. It is therefore not surprising to see a collection of khakis - from the straight-cut design of her AA Line (a line of cotton products she stopped making in 2005 ) to a comfy, seven-eighths length style - on the boutique's entrance level. The range of fabrics and finishes on the khakis is similarly wide. Efrati says she has dozens of different khaki fabrics in different weaves, shades and finishes.

But the crowning glory of the current summer collection is on display on the boutique's top floor. Efrati calls it her "colorful collection" and a quick glance reveals a rich palette of reds, blues and browns, alongside white, gray - and khaki, of course. She notes that she chose classic colors that would go well with the very formal wardrobe she designs, while also providing her customers with solid flashes of color. Anyone who has followed her work over the years immediately notices a change. Given the color wars of recent fashion seasons, however, this is a muted statement.

"I don't think I'm out of touch with the fashion world. The fact that I give my customers the confidence that red is the right color for now allows them to try on the colorful designs without worrying, and suddenly they think it looks good," she says. It turns out that incorporating new shades into one's wardrobe is not so simple for Efrati's customers. She has wanted to use orange in her clothing for quite some time but refrained because many of her customers still associate it with the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Commercial advantage, creative limits

Even today, Efrati says with wonder, she has women coming to her boutique who hesitate to try on long skirts because they associate them with religious women, even though such items are at the forefront of fashion today.

"In Israel there are lots of 'thou shalt nots,'" she says. Still, these "thou shalt nots" haven't kept her from including in her current collection a handsome skirt in white cotton voile painted with broad brushstrokes in brown, green, light blue and ochre. She matches it with a tailored shirt of crisp cotton in mandarin orange with a narrow collar and elbow-length sleeves.

An intimate conversation between designers and their customers, such as the one that takes place between Efrati and her clientele, has certain technical and commercial advantages, but at the creative level it is liable to profoundly limit a designer's moves, and even lead him or her totally astray. This season, for example, Efrati has designed a special line to meet the travel needs of her customers who were "clueless," as Efrati says, about dealing with the weight limits on luggage imposed by discount airlines.

"On low-cost flights luggage is limited to eight kilograms, so it's important to pack with care," she explains. "I calculated the weight of the suitcase - about four kilograms - and on that basis I created light pieces that can comfortably stay within the remaining four-kilogram allowance."

While the new collection is small, it is varied and includes dresses, slacks and tops, and even an unlined cotton sports jacket (weighing in at only 250 grams ). A special travel wardrobe is a delightful notion all on its own. Some of the pieces Efrati has designed have the charm and lightness that trigger an immediate yen for a vacation, and when you look at the items and their listed weights it's hard not to be impressed by the precision. But the travel-collection idea also raises a valid question: Why bother investing so much money in a special wardrobe when most airlines let you have a greater luggage allowance in exchange for a fairly paltry surcharge?

Timeless elegance

Efrati gives a great deal of thought to fine distinctions, such as the type of weave, the fabric's weight, the treatments applied to the fabric, and the finishing. At the same time, catering to a whole spectrum, from luxuries to basic necessities, has always formed the core of her work. One could even say that this is her specialty. At her best she gives us gorgeous items, such as ultra-thin, feather-weight jackets and leather coats. Their weightlessness and fluttery feel - announcing their suitability to the local climate - reveal that they are elegant, worthy alternatives for occasions where more than a cardigan is needed to keep the air conditioner's chill at bay. On the other hand, in the everyday items she designs, that same meticulous touch is liable to give her creations a weighty, archaic feel, like the stiff polo shirt she created from a linen-cotton weave.

Efrati's bathing suits, which she designed for the first time this season, are amazingly refined. Designed in the same language as the rest of the collection, they include restrained color combinations, solid cuts and, of course, the finest quality materials and finishing - giving them enough exclusivity, elegance and even glamour to wear both as bodysuits as part of formal evening dress and as bathing suits during the day. They are also double-sided and may be worn two ways. A style called "The Ballerina," for example, includes slimming lines along the waist, and another design is comprised of two parts that incorporate fabrics in different shades - navy blue, gray, and a striped weave in light blue and white.

These and other creations - such as the relaxed A-line dress in brownish-gray antelope skin, whose sharp, clean cut gives it an elegant tension, or a knee-length leather skirt rich with waves - reveal Efrati's phenomenal skill in putting clothes together. Thanks to her refined taste, she is capable of formulating timeless elegance that speaks to women who love a practical yet exclusive look. Unfortunately, this is not enough to make up for the lack of a fundamental fashion context.

Prices: Tops - NIS 800-1,500; slacks - NIS 1,200-1,500; jackets - NIS 1,800-6,500; skirts and dresses - NIS 1,700-2,500; bathing suits - NIS 750. At Ilana Efrati's boutique, 226 Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv. By appointment only. For an appointment call 03-5465905 or contact the designer at ilanaefrati@gmail.com.

Ilana Efrati's new collection.
Roni Cnaani