Israeli menswear designer Hed Mayner recently ended his third day of shows at the Paris Men’s Fashion Week. “A lot more people came than anyone could have imagined,” he texted me, excitedly. Indeed, the pictures that streamed in from the event showed large numbers of enthusiastic visitors using their phones to take photos, blocking the path of male models on the runway. For a minute they looked like spectators mobbing riders on the Tour de France, only minus the sweat and bottled water.
This was Mayner’s fifth appearance at Paris Men’s Fashion Week. Initially, his work was presented in showrooms as part of the event, but 2017 was the first time Mayner – or any other Israeli designer – had made it into the official schedule and earned a place on the runway.
Even more amazing is that it has happened after only six seasons in the business.
In January, when he was given an official spot in Paris for the first time, fashion industry bible Women’s Wear Daily picked him out as the most interesting designer of the year.
And the magazine reported on June 25: “Pushing boundaries in his approach to silhouettes and constructions, Hed Mayner confirmed his status as one to watch.” Other reviews called him “innovative,” a unique voice, on-trend and predicted a bright future for him.
We had met a week earlier in his studio in south Tel Aviv. A car repair garage is on the ground floor of his building and the mechanic inside makes sure I know that all the beautiful girls walk down his street. Dozens of baby strollers crowd the dingy entrance, loitering by the door of a kindergarten for asylum seekers’ children. The climb up the stairs reveals a filthy stairwell and disgusting bathrooms where the tiles were once white. A great place to be murdered.
Mayner greets me with a bright smile, dressed in his regular work clothes: button-down white shirt and wide black pants that end above his ankles. He wears black and dusty sneakers. His fingernails are long and curls fall onto his bearded face. He looks like a handsome yeshiva student, but also a lost one, sort of like a kite without a string. No matter how you view it, he looks a bit eccentric.
He is calm, speaks quietly and his indifferent tone reveals nothing – especially not that in two days’ time he will board a plane and, for the first time, touch the clothes he has been designing “by remote control” over the past few months. His phone rings. He apologizes; he must answer it.
Gabriel is on the line, his German production manager in Paris. He doesn’t understand where a sleeve attaches. Mayner quickly puts out the fire. He is used to pulling the sewing strings in his French workshop. After several attempts with energy-sapping and declining Tel Aviv manufacturers, he still does his development and design here. But he moved all the production stages to Turkey, then later to Frankfurt and then Paris, where he runs a local showroom and PR office.
He finishes the call, which was conducted in English with a heavy Israeli accent, and returns to his Hebrew spiced with a French accent. I’m almost certain that in our previous meeting – at an exhibit of students’ final projects at Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem, where Mayner began his design studies – he didn’t have any such accent.
I didn’t know you were French, I tell him. “I’m not, and I don’t speak French either,” he says. “I tried but I didn’t manage to absorb the language. After my studies at Bezalel I went to France and studied there for a few months. And the truth is that I learned English when I was speaking with the French. It was the first time I was forced to speak English all day, so it could be that the French accent stuck with me from there. I have no idea. It’s not something I’m aware of. It’s something people tell me. The minute people mention it to me, it gets worse and the accent gets heavier,” he adds.
His wife, singer Riff Cohen, has been stuck with a similar accent for years. She too, coincidentally or not, manages an international career after living in Paris and trying to make her breakthrough from there. In her case, it actually happened when she returned to Israel and wrote a song about Paris, “A Paris” – in Jaffa.
The couple has a rule about flights now that they are parents to two toddlers, who were born about a year apart and are accompanied by a nanny around the clock. “We try to avoid a situation in which both of us are outside of Israel – and certainly not on the same flight,” he explains. “We decided on that after I read an article about two artists who worked together and decided to fly separately because if something, God forbid, happens, their art will come to an end.”
Riff and the kids may have stayed home, but his assistants, Noga and Emily, accompanied him to Paris.
“I imagine arriving with a suitcase and two other people, and the suitcase opens and the items simply go up onto the runway,” says Mayner. “I don’t know anyone there except for my staff, and that’s fine.”
It seems that Mayner, who was born in the alternative Amuka community near Safed, Upper Galilee, is used to being an outsider. He has the elusive essence of a nomad, one who belongs yet is equally also a stranger – which probably gives him that outsider’s discerning eye.
It is with good reason he called his collection “Temporary Import,” and that invites to his show were printed on copies of Israeli custom forms.
But the only thing he actually imported to France was himself. “The idea is that you import yourself temporarily when you leave a place and begin anew somewhere else, when you escape from somewhere,” says Mayner. “I wanted to see what happens to something when it is taken out of context.”
Mayner is actually leading the menswear wardrobe on a journey somewhere between sanctity and casual, stripping the items of their original meaning and moving them through a process of dismantling and recycling – at the end of which they are maybe clothes or maybe sculptural objects such as a kimono in brown and olive tones with the sleeves of a military winter coat. Or a covering becomes a jacket, or an old military tent is converted into a trench coat. The models wore fake Nike shoes Mayner had bought at the Neve Sha’anan street market in south Tel Aviv, near the old bus station. He detached the soles and attached leather straps.
The 15 outfits he presented in Paris testify to his constant attraction to any type of uniform – from Tibetan monks’ outfits to military uniforms to Hasidic suits. On the one hand they protest against the identity of the wearer, unifying the masses so that no one will disrupt the frame. At the same time, this assimilation also brings quiet.
Mayner wants to formulate a personal identity within these uniforms. To create something familiar, but different. In other words, alien but not threatening.
“I’m obsessed with uniforms,” he admits. “They have danger. They have something hard about them, especially when you see them en masse – for example, with the Haredim. They wash away the human being. I’m interested in creating items that are seemingly familiar at first glance, but when you wear them they are completely different and have their own body language.”
So who are you actually dressing?
“I see him as the new man, and then the question arises of what he is. In every collection it is a different attempt to define him or reach him. The people who buy my clothes are very different from one another. A lot of people can get into a piece of clothing, but it is very limiting in what it offers. The offering is not infinite; it is very specific but includes a lot of cultures, backgrounds and personality types. It is a piece of clothing that is an object – you get into a sculpture,” adds Mayner.
Choosing your battles
Mayner chooses his battles carefully. From since he started back in 2013, he has been looking outward, learning from the bitter experience of others: he gave up in advance on any attempt to establish himself in Israel before turning overseas. This is how the absurd situation was created in which his clothing brand is sold in 40 outlets worldwide but he is not even available online in Israel.
“I couldn’t see it happening, to try and succeed in Israel and then branch out,” he explains. “That seemed to be much harder than what I’m doing.”
Mayner agrees Israeli fashion is in the midst of a process similar to that which Israeli cuisine went through over the past decade, after years in which it tried, unsuccessfully, to define itself.
As with a number of famous Israeli chefs, the new generation of Israeli fashion designers – the Muslin Brothers, Holyland Civilians and Hannah – have all received international recognition first.
“When I began working three and a half years ago, the entire dialogue Israeli designers had in the media about their clients was terrible. The designers always complained about their customers: “They are not like this and they are not like that”; complaints about the climate, complaints about the state. Everything was extremely negative.
“It was wrong,” he states. “Israel is one of the most sophisticated nations there is – Israelis simply don’t give a fuck about clothes. They’re hot and don’t have a disposable income. The problem is not the Israelis. It’s that this is fashion that appeals to a very specific niche, which exists everywhere in the world and also in Israel but in small numbers. On a grander scale, this simply allows me to reach more people.”
How do you do that?
“It forces me to organize on a logistical level. In Israel, it’s impossible to manufacture and obtain raw materials. If you buy a specific fabric, you need to buy a large quantity of it – even the entire inventory at that moment, because later it might not be there. You need to gamble with your money. It’s a problem when you still don’t know how many buyers will order from you. It takes a long time from the development process to the sale until your money comes back – if it ever does. There is almost six months where you are like a bank. There’s a lot of money in the fashion world, and it’s something you don’t understand when you leave fashion school and get 30 shekels ($8.50) an hour as a waiter in a café,” he says.
Mayner has no intention of spending money on marketing. His Facebook and Instagram accounts are dormant, and don’t reflect what is really going on in his world.
“To this day I haven’t paid a shekel on marketing, it’s ridiculous,” he says. “I’m focused on the product. I make sure it will be desirable. That’s where I’m investing all my energies – beyond that, whatever happens, happens. I don’t intend to convince anyone to wear anything. In the past, I went to business consultants, paid them a lot of money for nothing. They sit and don’t do anything, there’s nothing concrete. I’m someone who sews cloth with a needle and thread, I believe in what I can see. Either the material is there or it’s not. It’s very simple,” he adds.
While he still believes he can come back one day and manufacture in Israel, Mayner is simultaneously working on setting up a headquarters for his brand in Paris, which will save him a lot of problems with deliveries to fashionistas in Kuwait. When it happens, he will travel between Tel Aviv and Paris every two weeks. “I’m trying to look at it as a long trip between cities,” he says. “I’m trying to see how people from other areas, such as high-tech or dance, do it. Fashion is well constructed to work by remote control; it simply requires you to be very organized. You need to train yourself for it.”
What keeps you in Israel?
“The pace, it’s addictive. The people are intense – you do something and it stimulates a response. It’s interesting. The fashion industry fascinates me because it’s like a field that has been abandoned, where you have opportunities to grow something from the ruins. There are minimal resources, but there is a strong momentum and the people sacrifice everything they have and work 24 hours [a day] for what they believe in. This place is a miracle. To live and create here is to be a part of this miracle,” says Mayner.
On July 12 and 13, Mayner will open the doors of his studio at 11 Herzl Street, Tel Aviv, for his traditional, semiannual sale to the Israeli public. He will also launch an online store soon – an unavoidable step in 2017 – which will make his clothes available here all year round.
“All physical things are heavy,” he sighs. “Online is more mobile and convenient. The idea that I can pack everything and leave, even if I won’t go and do it, is very comforting. It makes things much easier for me.”