“We were really lucky because of the coronavirus,” isn’t a statement that’s been heard very often in the past six months. So when Amit Luzon says it in the middle of our interview, I am compelled to stop typing and regard him with amazement.
“Even before the coronavirus arrived, we decided to skip the season. We said we’d stop for a while, look at the and go for it in 2021,” explains Luzon, who in 2016 started the streetwear brand Adish with Eyal Eliyahu.
“Prior to that, we simply ran forward and didn’t look back,” he says, adding they never had time to “see how many defective products we had, how much it was costing us. But if you want to create a company that will endure over the long term, you have to invest in infrastructure.”
Even if it was ultimately “fortunate” that the planned break just happened to occur while the universe was deciding to test humanity with a pandemic, it certainly wasn’t an easy decision for Luzon and Eliyahu to skip the 2020-2021 winter collection. In an industry where the common wisdom is that you’re only as good as your last collection, people are liable to forget about you completely if you pass up on one.
And Adish definitely has something to lose. While the name still remains relatively unknown in Israel, it’s a different story in many other parts of the world. The brand was officially launched some two and a half years ago at Voo Store – the iconic hipster boutique, in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, which has become an essential stop for fashion lovers thanks to its ability to combine luxury brands like Prada with independent, relatively unknown designers.
The Adish brand is now sold in about 20 well-known sales points, including the Matchesfashion website; Paris department store Printemps; Milanese boutique Slam Jam; and Dover Street Market in London.
What’s so special about the Adish story? Simple: a very catchy but politically explosive concept.
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As opposed to its name – which means “apathetic” in Hebrew and was designed to signal a certain “coolness” – the brand dives into the bubbling cauldron of Israeli political tensions. These are street clothes for men, such as T-shirts, hoodies and wide-leg pants, which are decorated with traditional handmade embroidery, weaving and braiding by Palestinian and Bedouin women from the occupied territories or from the Bedouin town of Lakiya, near Be’er Sheva.
But unlike Israeli brands that are manufactured in the territories or use Palestinian workers but downplay the fact, Adish makes sure to emphasize that this is an Israeli-Arab-Palestinian operation.
They stress the traditional handicrafts, such as cross-stitch embroidery (tatreez), as being Palestinian handicrafts. On the items created with the cooperation of Palestinian embroiderers, the label even specifically says “Made in the Palestinian Territories,” along with the embroiderer’s name in Arabic. Thus, the clothes embody a political agenda that’s trying to improve the distorted balance of power in the region – or at least shed a critical light on it.
How do two young men – Luzon from the central city of Petah Tikva; Eliyahu from the north Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon – manage to establish a clothing label that embodies incisive political messages and receives international recognition, a mere 18 months after they finish their army service? The answer lies somewhere between intuition, love of fashion and a head-on encounter with the country’s complex realities.
“After my discharge, I worked for my mother regarding everything connected to business development and sales,” says Luzon, whose mother, cosmetician Mimi Luzon, is the owner of an eponymous international cosmetics brand. “And when I traveled with her to fashion weeks abroad, I was exposed to the behind-the-scenes aspect of the industry. I didn’t feel any Middle Eastern presence in any of the stores there. I don’t know why, because from the point of view of the salespeople in the shops and boutiques, we come from an exotic place.”
As consumers of fashion, they also sensed an unrealized potential. “As boys, we loved Supreme and Palace,” says Eliyahu, referring to two popular streetwear brands. “We realized that these companies represent the place they come from. So we asked ourselves why there’s nothing that represents our region. Why should I wear a shirt that represents New York? And that’s how it began. With the simplest question: why isn’t there a company we like that comes from here?”
Politics wasn’t even on their agenda in the beginning. In 2016, the two decided to invest private savings, to the tune of 200,000 shekels (nearly $60,000), in order to get things moving. But the concept still wasn’t fully formed. “We didn’t quite know what we were doing, but we took a warehouse in Petah Tikva in order to start working,” Luzon recounts.
“Because we have no background in fashion design, we decided we wanted to invest in the details and the quality of the sewing, not in the styles – because we can’t do anything new in that area,” he explains. There are loads of brands that work that way. That don’t make crazy styles, but have an added value that’s related to handicrafts.
“At first we wanted to be very apolitical,” Luzon continues. “We wanted everything to be very pretty, but wouldn’t touch any political bias. We brainstormed and made a list of all the handicrafts with which you can work. Again, we looked for things that are closer geographically. We saw the weaving in Lakiya and we saw Palestinian embroidery. And we said, ‘OK, there are these things, they exist in the world. But what do we do with them? Is there a factory that does Palestinian embroidery?’”
Although they didn’t find a factory that met their requirement, they did get another lead. A family friend of Luzon’s, Orna Mintz-Dov – who participated in the Bereaved Families Forum (a joint Israeli and Palestinian organization made up of over 650 bereaved families, all of whom have lost a close family member to the conflict) – heard about Adish.
She was already involved in a project to empower a group of Palestinian women who were looking to open an online store to sell their embroidered items, and proposed bringing the two sides together.
“That was the first time we traveled to the territories, near Beit Jala [in the West Bank],” Luzon reveals. “We met with the embroiderers, and they came to Tel Aviv too. In effect, we began a kind of dialogue with them through one of the directors of the forum, because they didn’t know English. That’s when we started experimenting with them on fabrics.”
Eliyahu adds: “The first meeting was really jolting. I wasn’t used to seeing such things – embroidery and handicrafts. It’s as if you’re looking for a treasure and you come across a ship full of gold. Suddenly you realize you can do something real that looks great. It was a crazy experience for us. We realized that there’s a much bigger story here: You can both represent the place you come from, and work together with embroiderers from the territories.”
The face-to-face meeting not only encouraged Adish to focus on embroidery and cooperate with the women, but also turned the hitherto apolitical into something very political.
“The bubble burst,” is how Eliyahu describes it. “You understand that your family and your home is an insane privilege. You learn to see there’s another side that doesn’t have those things. It’s not even about the money. It’s full of small nuances that make it clear to you that there’s simply a huge gap between the sides.”
Luzon relays that when they decided they were going to do the Palestinian embroidery, it was unequivocally a decision to be political. “I think our first trip to the territories was very significant from that point of view,” he says. “We realized that we can’t work with these women without telling their story and where they come from. If there’s Palestinian embroidery, then it will be created by Palestinian women and it will be written on the item of clothing that it was made in the Palestinian territories and there will be a signature of every embroiderer and where she’s from.”
And so, with fashionable intent woven into a social agenda, the brand took shape. Its first collections presented T-shirts, hoodies and pants decorated with colorful hand-embroidered cross-stitch. The concept came together and the relationship with the embroiderers firmed up.
Their PR agency in Berlin even managed to interest the head buyer of Voo Store at the time, Herbert Hofmann, who agreed to launch the brand in his store.
The attention the brand attracted made it clear to Luzon and Eliyahu that they had a unique concept with bags of potential. They next recognized they needed a stable infrastructure requiring energy and money. Initially, they raised half a million shekels from family and friends.
Two additional partners joined the brand later. The first is artist Jordan Nassar, who lives in New York. What began as a friendship, in which Nasser advised the brand and offered his connections, turned into a more established relationship. Nassar used Adish items in an exhibition of handicrafts, “The Sea Beneath Our Eyes,” which was held in the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, and in the end he became a business partner.
The second partner is Kosai, the husband of one of the Palestinian directors in the Bereaved Families Forum, who eventually became responsible for the brand’s handicrafts in the territories. Luzon asks that his last name not be published, as he recently suffered harassment due to the partnership.
‘Don’t get into all of that’
Today, Adish works with about 60 embroiderers, some of whom live in the Deheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem. The political agenda has become an integral part of its activity.
On the one hand, the brand sees itself as a tool for preserving traditions that are gradually becoming extinct. “You understand that there’s not much money in embroidery and it’s a tradition that has stopped over time,” Eliyahu says. “Now there’s a chance of carrying on with it. That’s how you can preserve a craft.”
On the other, Adish serves as a voice for burning issues. Political opinions are constantly covered on the brand’s social media pages. Furthermore, as part of the summer 2019 collection, it produced a video called “Area A,” which described the restriction of movement in the territories and the experience endured by Palestinians at the checkpoints.
But as the brand’s political activity has grown, so has criticism with poisoned arrows being fired from both the right and the left. “Many people tell us: don’t get into all of that – why should you intervene?” Luzon says.
Likewise, on both the Israeli and Palestinian side, people have something to say about the cooperation: some see their project as pure colonialism, others regard them as traitors and collaborators, and some Palestinian embroiderers refuse to work with an Israeli brand.
It’s only when asked how they feel about this criticism that Luzon’s otherwise indifferent tone sparks into life. “As far as I’m concerned, these are people who don’t really understand and don’t want to understand what we’re doing. There will always be such people,” he shrugs. “When you do something like this, there will always be such people. On both sides.”
When asked how he responds to those who say they’re exploiting women from a weak socioeconomic background, Luzon states: “I don’t exploit women who are socioeconomically weak. First, they determine the price of all the items; it’s not that I come and put them in a sweatshop and tell them ‘Do embroideries for me for 5 shekels.’ They work from home. Some needed a new table so they’d be comfortable, for example, so we bought them a table for their home. We bring them everything they need right to the house, and they return the finished work to us.
“Of course, sometimes there’s time pressure – but it’s like that in every workplace,” he adds. “Aside from that, I think the fact that every embroiderer signs each item she makes proves that there’s no colonialism here. Ultimately, it’s cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. I think that our activity demonstrates that to the world in a much more positive light, and it’s preferable to not doing anything and only saying why it shouldn’t be done.”