It's not every day that people wake up to discover that Celine Dion is crazy about them. But that's exactly what happened seven years ago to the women behind the Israeli children’s fashion brand Nununu, Iris Adler and Tali Milchberg. One morning an email landed in their Inbox with the subject heading: “Celine Dion is crazy about your brand – and she has a question.”
In the email, the singer's personal assistant explained that Dion had purchased several items of clothing for her twins at the Fred Segal boutique in West Hollywood, and had become obsessed with their fragrance. She wondered where the unique fragrance could be purchased, and signed off with an invitation to one of her shows in Las Vegas.
Adler and Milchberg were not blown away, to put it mildly. They politely explained that the source of the fragrance was the stone-washing process that gives the clothing their worn-out look, and that in the foreseeable future they had no intention of bottling their laundry smell.
“We didn’t understand what she wanted from us. We aren’t into her music, she looked like an old auntie to us. At the time we were still working in a little cubicle in Kiryat Shmuel with water dripping on our heads – it was so far out,” the two say today. “We didn’t understand what it was about her that led her to buy Nununu; it’s a very progressive line. We didn’t get where the 'click' was, but it turned out that she was really into it.”
Indeed, the iconic singer didn’t give up; she turned out to be both enthusiastic – and insistent. About two years ago, Adler and Milchberg received another request from her staff, this time by phone: “They told us, ‘Listen, Celine really really wants to do something with you. She doesn’t stop talking about you and pressuring us.’ In the end we agreed to a meeting in New York, mainly out of respect for her, but with a great deal of skepticism.
“Erez and Shelly" – referring to Nununu CEO Erez Baruch and Shelly Ziv, business development and chief brand officer– "met them [Dion's representatives]. We didn’t attribute any importance to it. They had dozens of meetings during that trip. At one of them, the two were told: ‘Listen, Celine is driving us crazy. She comes to the office with bags of clothing, takes things out and forces us to smell them. She’s dying to do something, please try to think of some possibilities.”
It’s seems like an unnatural connection, as though [Israeli clothing brand] Fox Kids and Israeli singer Rita were to collaborate.
Milchberg: “Absolutely. The first thing we said was ‘What’s the connection'? On the other hand, when Celine Dion knocks so hard on your door you don’t kick her out. After all, there’s great business potential here. We deliberated about this a lot and decided to try to decipher it – to find a common language.”
Ne créez pas des vêtements sans moi
Over the course of a year, both sides worked with an external business strategy firm and tried to unravel this hardly trivial brief. On the one hand, there was a rock ‘n’ roll-style children’s clothing brand that tries to destroy gender dictates with non-infantile styles – and on the other: an icon embraced by the LGBT community, a sticky-sweet diva who is, by virtually international consensus, a symbol of bad taste in music.
So what is the connection, really?
Milchberg: “As far as we’re concerned she was an outdated symbol, but when we started investigating we discovered that two things had happened to her in the past two years – her husband died and she reinvented herself as a fashion icon with the help of a personal stylist, so that now they’re doing articles about her in Vogue. We didn’t know all those things. What did I know about what she's become and about her husband dying? How is that connected to me?
“We realized that something good had happened to Dion. She’s undergoing a genuine soul-searching; she’s rediscovering herself. From the age of 12 she was with a partner who was a father figure, and to wake up at the age of 50 and leave that gilded cage is significant.”
Adler: “Tension between us and her was the basic assumption underlying our collaborative work – between what we represent and what she represents. We worked on the gap. Presumably she represents something pop, saccharine and cloyingly sweet. Which is exactly the opposite of us. But if you really delve into it, there’s far more there than meets the eye. There’s a great deal of strength, of power behind Celine.
"She’s a bulldozer, and she has an amazing personality. The deciphering that went on was more for us than for her, because no matter what we would show her, she would say, ‘I do.’ The mechanics of all this rests on our shoulders. We’re the ones who had to feel that there’s meat here.”
At a meeting at 2 A.M., after one of Dion’s shows in Vegas, the two designers showed her the results of their prolonged brainstorming, and had a hard time maintaining a serious facade. “When we met, we were very excited. She was also excited to see us. It was a crazy emotional meeting. She cried, we cried, crying, laughing and so on. Like nutcases. It was so powerful,” says Milchberg.
“Celine turned out to be someone with highly developed senses,” Adler adds. “One of the first things she did was a kind of gesture with her hands, and she said, 'I’m a girl, I’m a ninja.' She understood that this is a brand with strength, despite its quietness. We took all the values of Nununu, mainly in the realm of gender equality, and passed them through Celine’s microphone.
“It was a road trip of three mothers of children who really and truly want to make a difference for our children’s benefit, where we are able to contribute. Each one brought something else to this plate. In the end, we’re all saying in our own way, ‘Be yourself, be strong, boys or girls – it makes no difference.’ That’s why we could contain her. Inside, she has the same perspective, even if she wears sequins in Vegas. She also expresses herself in the way she dresses her own children."
And so, in the middle of the night, Celinununu was born – the shared offspring of the three women. The line was officially launched worldwide about four months ago, and immediately received an enthusiastic response in major global media outlets. There were also those, however, who were less enthusiastic, like The New York Times and CNN, not to mention certain communities in America.
Adler: “The preoccupation with gender-neutral clothing made us a subject of attack by all kinds of pious Christians who were driven berserk by the equal place for everyone. They said ‘What do you mean? There are boys and there are girls, and you’re confusing the children.’ Somehow, they understood that there they are no boys or girls, there’s only one gender. That’s a distorted perception, totally the opposite [of what we believe]. After all, we’re talking about a range.”
In an article in the British fashion magazine i-D, for example, John Esseff, a Catholic priest and exorcist from Pennsylvania, claimed that the brand is “definitely satanic.”
“I’m convinced that the way this gender thing has spread is demonic,” Esseff told Catholic writer Patti Armstrong. “It’s false. I don’t even know how many genders there’s supposed to be now, but there are only two that God made.” Armstrong wrote on her blog that she doesn’t understand “who would pay $77 for a baby blanket with skulls or $161 for a jacket that looks like a trash bag.”
Why did you start another brand rather than launching a capsule collection that belongs to your existing brand?
Milchberg: “Because we don’t believe in one-night stands, but in great love. Such processes take time and we decided on a shared and profound path. A capsule would have flattened this idea, it would have turned into a one-time thing, a PR bubble that may or may not succeed. If I had done a capsule collection, then why not with [American singer] Gwen Stefani, with whom I feel much more connected?”
At present, the two Israelis are launching a second collection for the new brand: “In the first collection we went back to the brand’s DNA, in order to isolate it and to charge it with our messages. It was clear to us that we would be exposed to new audiences who have to understand who we are, so we created a kind of intro of basic models. The first child turned out similar to us, in short. The second collection is more pop-like and brings Celine in. We took a step toward her. 'Nununu meets Vegas' – that was the design exercise.”
The result is a collection with large doses of Dion, which signals a utopian future in which gender norms have become extinct. Among other things, the image of the chanteuse herself appears on many of the T-shirts, with the slogan Follow Me – a kind of invitation to her 2025 performance tour Into the Future. On the back are the dates and venues of various concerts. The shirts were sold out within 12 hours.
A New Day Has Come
Adler, 51, and Milchberg, 42, both sporting short hair and dressed in black, receive me in their company headquarters in the Tzahala neighborhood of north Tel Aviv. From here, with 25 employees, they conduct a business that manufactures its products mainly in Israel and operates at about 400 sales points worldwide, including leading stores such as Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and others.
In the past year the design duo opened four new flagship stores: two in Taiwan, one in South Korea and one on the Spanish island of Minorca – all of them franchises. These join their shop in Tel Aviv's Kiryat Shaul neighborhood and an online store established in 2014 that markets clothing that's sent to the four corners of the earth.
The two women first came up with the idea for Nununu about 11 years ago (Nununu is a Hebrew word typically used to scold children). New mothers at the time, they were tired of their previous careers – Adler as a stylist and Milchberg as an art director at advertising agencies – and like other creative women who are feeling their way during maternity leave, they were attracted to designing infants’ clothing.
A mutual friend arranged for them to meet and was surprised that there was no immediate affection between them. But from one encounter to the next they “grew” on one another, they say now: “We presumably represent the cliché of designers on maternity leave who want to design baby clothes, but we got there from a more mature place, at a relatively late age, after successful careers.
“We didn’t come out of a school of design with a desire to conquer the world, and we weren’t interested in moonlighting as mothers of toddlers. In our first year we didn’t touch a pencil, we didn’t design a single item. We sat day and night and sharpened and distilled the thing we wanted to produce – the baby we wanted to give birth to together.”
The newborn label was initially named Black Sheep, but was quickly forced to change its name: The two women realized early on that the local market was too small for their ambitions, and when they went to register the company abroad, they discovered that a hunting equipment firm had beaten them to it. They then decided on the name Nununu. In our conversation, they prefer not to discuss the fact that a restaurant by that name opened in Tel Aviv last year (“It’s not clear and not innocent, but let them enjoy it”).
At first they made neutral, monochromatic baby clothes in three colors: black, gray and white, without prints and designed for parents with a minimalistic taste who don’t want their offspring child to light up on a gray sofa. Later they added prints of skulls, numbers and sharp graphic elements.
“We wanted to offer a basic alternative, to dress the babies like us,” says Milchberg. “When the children were born we found pastel-colored clothes in the stores, in pink or light blue and with teddy bears and hearts. I’m not opposed to that, it’s fine, but it doesn’t represent anything that we believe in. From the most innocent place we asked why it’s like that: Why, as a woman, can I wear a black, yellow, green T-shirt, or whatever, while for a newborn baby I only have a choice between light blue and pink? Our interpretation was to go for free and simple, basic colors.
“At this point in life gender is the place we go intuitively. It came out rock ‘n’ roll-style, and black and skulls, because we’re refugees of the '80s and are attracted to that world, but it’s a gimmick. The bigger idea is that we produce gender-neutral clothing. We’re in favor of color, we also have pink and light blue in the collection, there’s no problem with that.
“But let’s grant equality to kids already from the earliest stages. Let’s not dress a year-old girl in pink and tell her that she has to play with kitchen utensils and Barbies, and then grow up to be a weakened woman and earn less money. Or tell a boy that he has to wear light blue and play with guitars or soccer balls. Let’s allow children to touch everything, and they’ll decide.”
What did you wear when you were little?
Adler: “Good question. Terrible 1970s clothes. I don’t remember that I had a dress phase. I didn’t have an outburst of femininity in my childhood. Both my parents are fashion designers, they had a business designing bridal gowns called Adler Fashions in the '70s, so at home they sewed well-made clothes for us. I was attracted from a young age to clothing with clean lines. I didn’t like colorful and ostentatious things; I always liked to be low key. That became more sophisticated over the years. There have been no sharp changes in my taste.”
Milchberg: “I was a tomboy. As a kid I always asked for white Fruit of the Loom T-shirts from my aunt in America. I remember in the winter, at the age of 4 or 5, refusing to wear long pants. In pictures from that winter I’m wearing shorts with woolen tights. That’s the only thing I remember. I don’t have childhood traumas related to clothes, to the contrary.
"We both come from the middle class, our mothers are strong and significant; my mother was an events manager at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. In the 1970s and the '80s we were exposed to the world, we didn’t come from a closed provincial society. Our clients are also city-dwellers, university graduates, people who are somewhat more sophisticated.”
Near, far, wherever you are
Very soon the Nununu clothes, which are not cheap, became a status symbol, with many customers mistakenly believing that it’s an American brand. As the line became ensconced in prestigious U.S. department stores, the celebrity buyers followed – at first naturally and without the intervention of a public relations agency. Aside from Celine Dion, they include Beyoncé, Elton John, Orlando Bloom, Ben Affleck, Robert Downey, Jr. and the Kardashians.
When did you know that you had done it? That you had succeeded?
Milchberg: “When we were represented by two showrooms, one on the West Coast and one on the East. We already had broad distribution. We met our first agent and told her that we wanted to sell in Barneys, that that’s how we would know that we’ve made it. Within a year it happened. And that’s how the hype surrounding us was created. On the business level, the company grew by hundreds of percentage points from one season to the next. We could just as easily have tanked. There are businesses that are unable to contain the growth.”
What tip would you give a young Israeli brand that wants to break out abroad?
Adler: "There’s something about the initial naivete of starting something and not giving up. It is difficult from the first moment. There were places where we didn’t give up, and we were naïve because we didn’t know what would happen later – but that gave us the ability to advance. It’s like saying, 'Had I known what was waiting for me maybe I wouldn’t have had kids.’ Had I known that this was the path, maybe I wouldn’t have gone there.
“Other than that, you really need balls: to stick a pin in a map and aim for the destination, otherwise it won’t happen. One more important thing is not to listen to others. There were quite a few people who warned us about partnership, for example. So my recommendation is to listen somewhat less to other people.
“Personally, we aimed at selling abroad because we knew that we are a niche item. It depends on the product and the concept. We asked ourselves how many people in Israel would buy black clothes for children, with skull prints, and our answer was 50, maybe 100. Even if you aim for 1,000, that doesn’t fill Rothschild Boulevard” – a reference to an exclusive Tel Aviv street.
Milchberg: “The market has changed in 11 years. Today everyone dresses children in black and we want to think that we have a part in that. Zara, Castro, Shilav and so on. From Tel Aviv-Jaffa to the fanciest places. Black for babies isn’t news today. It’s not enough. True, we like black. But first of all Nununu is a company for individualistic children. We’re bringing about a revolution in the field of 'gender blender.'
“Nununu is not a cult that forces children to wear cool black clothes. It’s a brand that provides an alternative. It’s not the black planet where black people live who wear black clothes – that’s not where we are. We design clothes for individualistic children from intelligent families on planet Earth.”
What’s your next goal?
Adler: “On the business level, to open additional franchises. We believe in the power of the sales floor in our case. At the level of design, our present fantasy is to make clothes for teenagers, young adults. That’s a problematic age, because on the one hand they choose their clothes alone, but on the other they want to go to the chain stores and dress like everyone else, like their friends in school, in sweatshirts by Nike and Adidas and American Eagle or whatever.
“I can understand the psychological mechanism that's at work: You’re at an age when you want to belong. There’s no question that teens who wear Nununu will be different. The choice at that age is not necessarily attractive clothes but the right clothes. At the moment our challenge is to understand what’s right for them.”