Late Israeli Icon Ronit Elkabetz's Wardrobe Takes Center Stage in New Exhibit

'Je t'aime Ronit Elkabetz' chronicles actor-director's life through her clothes – from the way she used them to combine cinema and politics to her relations with legendary designers

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Ronit Elkabetz in a yellow sun dress by Albert Elbaz, at Gindi Fashion Week in Tel Aviv in 2015.
Ronit Elkabetz in a yellow sun dress by Albert Elbaz, at Gindi Fashion Week in Tel Aviv in 2015.Credit: Gil Hayon
Shira Pur
Shira Pur
Shira Pur
Shira Pur

Ronit Elkabetz should have been celebrating her 53rd birthday on November 27. Instead, her brother Shlomi and her architect-husband Avner Yashar convened for an emotional press conference in honor of “Je t’aime, Ronit Elkabetz: Dreams from the Wardrobe” at the Design Museum Holon – a powerful exhibit dedicated to the life and work of the late actor-director-writer.

The exhibit’s curator, fashion historian Yaara Keydar, says the date was pure coincidence. “The museum’s director chose a Monday since that’s a preferred day for opening exhibits – and then we discovered it fell on Ronit’s birthday. It’s only symbolic, because this is an exhibit that celebrates her life,” she says.

“I think that if Ronit were to come to the exhibition she would probably have all sorts of comments, but she would be very pleased,” says Yashar, the father of Elkabetz’s two children and who participated in the design of the space. “She purposely kept things as an archival act, and I think this is a wonderful gift that we’re giving her and she’s giving us.”

Work on the exhibit began some 18 months ago, shortly after Elkabetz’s death from cancer. Shlomi Elkabetz, who is the exhibit’s artistic director, says he had planned to donate his sister’s clothing collection to charity, but that a meeting with Keydar gave rise to the idea of an exhibit that would tell Ronit’s story through her magnificent wardrobe – which included hundreds of meticulously catalogued items, folded, ironed and wrapped in silk paper. Some of them featured the name of the designer and even the event or film at which they had been worn.

“Had it been an exhibit of Ronit’s clothing collection alone, I guess I wouldn’t have been involved in this exhibition – but maybe I would have come to see it,” Shlomi says.

He adds that, instead, the exhibit uses objects Ronit left behind to try and tell her personal story, and also reflect her place historically and in the future. “It deals with the way in which cinema and politics connect to a person’s public image, and the way in which a person creates such a persona and uses it in order to infuse their agenda,” he explains.

Ronit Elkabetz. "She didn’t have a single garment in her closet that she didn’t like," says exhibit curator Yaara Keydar.Credit: Adi Kaplan

“Ronit was a brilliant woman who knew how to do that in her lifetime, and through that to attract people’s gaze, thoughts and, afterward, also their hearts. Mainly their hearts: When you were hers, you were hers – it was total. She speaks at the exhibit through the items, and there’s a lot to say. It’s not a commemorative exhibit; it’s a new statement that is being made through space, clothing, video and sound.”

Shlomi Elkabetz.Credit: Shai Ben-Efraim

Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz worked together on a series of critically acclaimed movies, including “To Take a Wife” (2004), “Shiva” (2008) and “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” (2014). “For 30 years, Ronit had gathered with great devotion and dedication everything that needed to be in this exhibit,” says Shlomi. “When someone creates a collection, an archive, it’s a big thing because Israeli culture is not a culture of archives. Without the artifacts, it’s impossible to create anything – well, maybe an exhibit of pictures. I thank her for [the fact] she had archival awareness. She thought of everything: from the smallest details to the largest, everything has a narrative.”

Shlomi sees the gloomy and eccentric clothing style that characterized his sister’s public appearances as a kind of political act. “The preoccupation with clothing enabled her to highlight the place of the other, and to express it,” he explains. “That’s a preoccupation through which she emphasized being different, transforming it from a status that should be denied and hidden to something that should be nurtured and perfected, to create new standards through it – and to turn the person who is different into someone visible and memorable.”

Thanks to her, he adds, “Clothing becomes a living activity – a performance that combines the way in which we are viewed with the way we view ourselves.”

From "Je t’aime: Ronit Elkabetz" at Design Museum Holon.Credit: Nir Keidar

Detective work

Ronit Elkabetz in the film "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem."Credit: Amit Berlowitz

The exhibition, which will be open until April 30, 2018, and is then expected to tour overseas, features some 400 items. These include Elkabetz’s makeup corner, her closet, her jewelry collection and about 90 outfits from her films, public appearances planned down to the last detail and personal life. The latter are presented as installations of stylized ghost dolls created by designer Victor Bellaish, surrounded by her personal diaries, tarot cards and books.

Ronit Elkabetz.Credit: Adi Kaplan

Suspended screens show video footage, some of it filmed especially for the exhibit in the city of Essaouira – the Moroccan coastal city that was the birthplace of both her parents.

Keydar says she had to do some detective work to track down items that were located with various designers in Israel – for instance, in the Christian Lacroix archive and among private individuals who had purchased clothing at fundraising sales Elkabetz held for Ahoti (the feminist movement of which she was president). At her parents’ home in Kiryat Yam, near Haifa, meanwhile, they found her final fashion studies project from her local high school: A strapless black evening gown embedded with precious stones.

The last item to reach Holon was a yellow sundress by Moroccan-Israeli fashion designer Alber Elbaz, which took Tel Aviv as its inspiration. This arrived a day before the exhibit opened, fresh from the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The dress, cut in the shape of a circle, stands at the entrance to the exhibit, and brings back memories of Elkabetz in her last public appearance, at the opening event of Tel Aviv Fashion Week in November 2015. No one knew at the time about the seriousness of her medical condition.

Elkabetz formed a close working relationship with Elbaz over the years: At age 18 she modeled for him while he was studying at the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, Ramat Gan, in a show that was her first public appearance. Later, when Elbaz worked at the French high-fashion house Lanvin, he designed many dresses for her – including the gown she wore to her 2010 wedding and at the Ophir Awards ceremony in 2014 (when her dress tore as she went onstage to collect a prize for “Gett”).

Standouts are the Christian Lacroix archive; the dress Elkabetz wore in artist Joseph Dadoune’s “Sion”; and the unfinished dress designed by Yaniv Persy and Betty Eldad especially for the exhibition, based on sketches the actor left them.

“Ronit decided for us in advance what would be in the exhibit,” says Keydar, explaining how she approached the curating job. “She didn’t have a single garment in her closet that she didn’t like. She didn’t work with stylists or dressers; she considered an item of clothing an expression of her mood, of her soul. Her perception of an item of clothing was very profound, and every outfit she wore was carefully scrutinized. She worked in close cooperation with Israeli stylists, came to them with detailed sketches and had a large number of fittings. We even have photos of Ronit trying on the dresses that came from the Christian Lacroix archive.”

Keydar notes, though, that the exhibition is more than just an opportunity to look through Elkabetz’s closet. “It is not only ‘Look at the beautiful clothes,’” she says, but a demonstration of the power clothes have when the person wearing them recognizes that strength.

“Je t’aime, Ronit Elkabetz: Dreams from the Wardrobe” is at Design Museum Holon until April 30, 2018

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