Maskit, a fashion house once celebrated for its intricate ethnic embroidery, returns triumphant to the design world, thanks to a confluence of people who appreciate style and how to pioneer a new idea.
The main player in the storied comeback is the gracious and dogged Sharon Tal, a Shenkar-trained designer who knows her warps from her wefts. In typical sabra style, she also had the right kind of chutzpah necessary to bring back this piece of Israeli fashion history.
In the late 1950s, Israel’s fledgling government asked Ruth Dayan, then married to General Moshe Dayan (and mother of the recently deceased actor and director Assi Dayan) to come up with work opportunities for new immigrants to Israel who came from Yemen and Morocco and other eastern lands.
The initial idea was to train them in farming. But when Dayan visited the immigrants’ homes she found that many were skilled in embroidery and weaving, and she started thinking in different directions.
With the government’s backing, and the eventual help of Hungarian-born designer Fini Leitersdorf, she took modern styles of the times and embellished them with ethnic embroidery made by immigrants, as well as Bedouin, Druze, Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian women. Leitersdorf often said that it wasn’t the embroidery but rather the colors, textures and shapes that made the clothes Israeli.
Maskit became one of the country’s first popular exports, known for its unique desert cloak and Bedouin-styled tunics, as well as the rich, heavy embroidery sewn on its clothing and accessories. When it was at the top of its game, Maskit was featured in Vogue and sold in Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. It had a store in New York and ten in Israel, including an entire building in Jerusalem with an in-store cafe, a floor for textiles, another for Maskit’s unique clothing and another for furniture.
Maskit featured a higher-end line as well, using local materials such as buttons made from river stones, olive tree wood and pure silver, and fabrics made of pure sheep’s wool, silk, linen and cotton. But by 1970 the government stopped funding the company, and Dayan stepped down several years later. In 1994, Maskit went bankrupt.
Nearly twenty years later, Sharon Tal entered the picture.
After graduating Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, Tal had networked her way to Alber Elbaz, the Israeli who heads the Lanvin fashion house in Paris. She ended up working closely with Elbaz, and then sought out Alexander McQueen in London, eventually interning for the English designer as well.
“She’ll knock on any door to get something done, “ said her husband and business partner, Nir Tal, who has an MBA from the University of Chicago.
Sharon Tal ended up as McQueen’s head of embroidery, something she didn’t know much about initially. Later on, she worked on the designer’s bridal collection for celebrities and European royalty.
When the Tals finally returned to Israel several years ago, they were expecting their first daughter, but Sharon Tal wanted to keep her hand in the fashion business.
“She wanted to do something that was of high quality and unique,” said Nir Tal. “And she didn’t want to do something that was just like what’s in London or Paris or New York.”
Then she remembered Maskit.
“She cold-called Ruth Dayan, something she was used to doing,” said Nir Tal. “And then she spent two and a half years examining the history, researching, talking to anyone around who once worked for Maskit. She didn’t want to do something like Maskit; she wanted to do Maskit again.”
Nearly 20 years later after it closed, following several years of research and a year of intense work on the first collection, the two Tals recently launched the renewed Maskit, working closely with Dayan, who personally signed every label of the 80-piece collection.
“It’s our quality assurance,” said Nir Tal.
But unlike the case with other local fashion houses that often operate more like artist’s studios than start-ups, the Nirs carefully planned Maskit’s comeback along the lines of Scotland’s renewed Burberry and the Paris-based Lanvin couture line, headed by Tal’s old boss, Alber Elbaz.
“It was more than clothing, it was about a lifestyle,” said Nir Tal. “The question was how to bring Maskit to 2013. There’s a lot of brand revival out there, because people are looking to tie to heritage.”
They started by gaining the financial backing of Stef Wertheimer, an Israeli industrialist who has always believed in sabra know-how.
Neither Tal will say how much Wertheimer has invested in the fledgling fashion house, and Wertheimer wasn’t available for comment, but with several employees, a posh Tel Aviv address and eventual plans for launching Maskit abroad, this appears to be a long-term partnership.
“We have big ambitions,” said Nir Tal. “Having Stef means we gain his wisdom for building a real company with solid foundation. We want to establish ourselves in Israel first before heading anywhere else.”
Wertheimer made his millions with turbines and blades, last year selling a 51 percent stake in Blades Technology to US aerospace giant Pratt & Whitney. He had first built Iscar Metalworking, which was sold to Warren Buffet for more than $6 billion.
And he has his own long-term relationship with the Dayans, going back to 1969 when France embargoed the sale of arms to Israel and the then-defense minister, Moshe Dayan, asked Wertheimer to build a plant to make spare parts for Israel’s French-made Mirage jet fighters.
Wertheimer and his partner, Lynn Holstein, are active partners in the renewed Maskit, visiting frequently.
But it’s the Tals and their staff of designers, sewers and embroiderers — ensconced in a historic wooden clapboard building in Tel Aviv’s American-Germany Colony — who are ultimately responsible for Maskit’s wares. Some 80% of the work is done in Israel, said Nir Tal, although certain fabrics and finishing work are sourced or done abroad. They work with the same suppliers as Alexander McQueen and Lanvin, Sharon Tal’s former employers.
The first collection, launched in November and shown at the recent Gindi Tel Aviv fashion week in March, has attracted a wider range of clients than they expected.
Priced from NIS 900 ($260) for one of the leather-trimmed tunic blouses to NIS 25,000 ($7,200) for evening wear, the items appeal to clients who are “pretty sophisticated, and appreciate the art of this clothing,” said Nir Tal.
Some of the clients are also more than a little sentimental, often showing up with a long-saved piece of Maskit wear, worn by them or their mother, and hanging in the back of a closet for the last 20 or 30 years.
“At least four people came over from these apartments to show us their Maskit memorabilia,” said Tal, pointing from Maskit’s back veranda to the two apartment buildings that share a spacious garden with the atelier.
There’s more than a little harking back to the past in the current ready-to-wear collection hung along the racks of the Maskit studio. With its wooden floors strewn with handmade Bedouin rugs and walls dotted with original Maskit photos, there is the feel of an atelier that has been in business for years.
The desert cloak that made Maskit a household name is here, now in linen rather than wool. The beaded leather vests and leather-trimmed striped tunic made from fabric sourced from Damascus is reminiscent of another well-known Israeli company, Beged Or, famed for its leather work.
In fact, commented Sharon Tal, the original Maskit often used bits of leather given to them from Beged Or to trim blouse colors or jacket lapels, given how difficult it was at the time to source enough fabric and accessories.
The current set of prints, such as the floral blue shirts and dresses created for this spring, were also made with the former Maskit in mind, which used to make at least 25 original prints each season, utilizing the country’s then-growing textile industry.
“We wanted to be tied to the original Maskit,” said Sharon Tal, “but using the details and influences of the past. Sometimes it’s doing something as is, like the desert cloak, or just taking details that affect each piece.”
The flagship piece that opened the recent fashion show is a slim white wedding gown, featuring heavy silver epaulets on the shoulders that are influenced by prayer shawl embroidery, said Tal. It’s a feature that’s repeated in other items, like the golden discs reminiscent of those used in Yemenite henna ceremony dress and now used as a collar on an evening dress, or the raised embroidery on another sheath, known as Bethlehem embroidery, for the city where it was first created.
Tal mentioned that Elbaz, her former boss, always said that Maskit was his original inspiration as a fledgling designer.
“Ruth [Dayan] says he used to walk around the Maskit showroom,” she said.
As Tal presents two mannequins set by side, one dressed in the original Maskit tunic dress, the other in the modernized version, two customers walk in, amazed to find Maskit open once again.
“What, is this the original Maskit?” asks one woman.
“Remember I had this?” said the other, fingering the tunic.
“Are you open for business?” they asked Tal.
“Yes,” she said. “We are.”