From Schmatta District to Paris Runways, Jewish Designers Are Dominating the Fashion Industry

New exhibit at Tel Aviv's Beit Hatfutsot pays tribute to top Jewish fashion icons past and present.

Yaki Halperin

Ralph Lauren. Donna Karan. Marc Jacobs. Alber Elbaz. Diane von Furstenberg. Arnold Scaasi. Sonia Rykiel. Michael Kors. Calvin Klein. Levi Strauss. Is it mere coincidence that so many Jews have earned international acclaim in the fashion business?

That's a question that curator and fashion house consultant Shelly Verthime has been pondering quite a bit lately. Her latest exhibit, which opens next week at Tel Aviv's Beit Hatfutsot (the Museum of the Jewish People), pays tribute to these top names and other Jewish fashion icons past and present, exploring their stories and tracing the journey their predecessors took from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, via the sweatshops of New York's Lower East Side, before making it big on 7th Avenue.

"When I started to compile the list of big names, I could not believe how many there were," recounts Verthime, an Israeli who moved to London 30 years ago, where among her other pursuits, she serves as senior consultant to Alber Elbaz, her former student from Israel's Shenkar fashion and design school. "For me, it raised many questions – not only about why there were so Jews in fashion, but also, about how they had come to be such trendsetters."

A Donna Karan dress at the new Beit Hatfutsot exhibit. (Credit: Yaki Halperin)

Titled "Dream Weavers: From Jewish Tailors to Top Fashion Designers," the exhibit features dresses created by 16 designers, among them big international names alongside up-and-coming Israeli-born garment makers. In the gallery where they are displayed, on a backdrop of black walls and mirrors, the dresses appear to be floating in mid-air. In an adjacent room, vintage photos and other artwork showcase Jewish tailors from days gone by, while a special video installation, created especially for the exhibit and inspired by the dresses, is housed in a separate space in between.

Orit Shaham-Gover, Beit Hatfutsot's chief curator, says the exhibit is a good example of the new direction the museum is taking – beyond persecution and anti-Semitism. "We have new glasses now through which we look at the Jewish story, Jewish history and the Jewish present," she told Haaretz. "Through these new glasses, we want to see other things besides persecution, expulsion and murder in the Jewish story. After all, we didn't all die in that story. We also created, and this is about celebrating our creativity and cultural achievements."

An Avi Tenzer dress at the new Beit Hatfutsot exhibit. (Credit: Yaki Halperin)

Verthime still has no definitive answer to the question of why Jews have attained such prominence in the world of fashion, but she says she thinks she may have some ideas. "It probably to do with striving for excellence and a tendency to push boundaries," she observes.

The exhibit opens to the public on November 18 and runs through May 17.

A Marc Jacobs dress at the new Beit Hatfutsot exhibit. (Credit: Yaki Halperin)