Tel Aviv Fashion Week 2012 began winding down late Tuesday afternoon, although there were still several shows to go as well as a closing party and a post-midnight after party.
But founder and organizer Ofir Lev was already celebrating.
“This is my second Fashion Week, so I’ve learned a little bit more,” offered the former model, who calls himself a fashion industry entrepreneur. “Because of the situation that happened, I’ve had the chance to bring young designers this year, the ones who can really make a change.”
The “situation” Lev was referring to was his professional breakup with producer Motty Reif, his partner and creative director at last year’s revived Tel Aviv Fashion Week. According to Lev, the production company that backed Reif backed out over budget issues, and Reif left with them, taking with him many of the more established designers, such as Gideon and Karen Oberson, Sasson Kedem and Dorin Frankfurt, for his own fashion week. That event was postponed from late November to December 16-18, and is being backed by the Gindi real estate group, which is also hosting its new shopping complex, which is under construction.
“I’m not promoting any shopping mall or apartments,” said Lev, offering a dig at Reif’s Gindi-backed event. “We are the official Tel Aviv Fashion Week, sponsored by the government. We have a goal, a vision, to promote Israeli design, and now we have the opportunity to promote new designers.”
Gaining the attention of the global fashion world has become Lev’s passion. He began working on the revival of Tel Aviv Fashion Week three years ago, making the rounds of government ministries and offices to gain the support of the necessary bureaucrats, from the Israel Export Institute, Israel Manufacturer’s Association and the Israel Textile and Fashion Association — of which he is now the official representative — as well as the Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality.
What he’s trying to do in the long term is create a program to promote Israeli design worldwide, possibly establishing a center that would support 10 young designers at a time, with a committee of consultants from the textile and fashion industries to help hone their work.
“Design is just one part; you need quality, you need marketing, you need to have branding, you need to have visual merchandising,” he explained. “The best example is Michal Negrin” — referring to the Israeli jewelry designer known for her somewhat gaudy rhinestone baubles, which are often shunned by the more conceptual local design crowd but are beloved by many consumers — “because you know what you get from her. We tell the Israeli designers, just be yourselves, don’t try to be Italian or French, bring your culture, your background, your manners into your vision and bring yourself, don’t be afraid.”
Having been pushed by his professional breakup ahead of this year’s event into featuring young designers rather than the more established design crowd, Lev feels he has a better chance of creating the kind of change necessary to bring Israeli design to the global market.
“Young designers are the ones who can really make a change, not the established designers who have 30 shops here,” he said. “The older designers are important for the industry, they’re the names, but they won’t make a switch and go abroad now.”
Exporting Israeli designs abroad has always been something of a challenge for the local market. Besides the swimsuits of Gottex and Gideon Oberson, as well as a handful of designers who sell through American and European showrooms, Israeli fashion designers have found the export market to be hard going. It’s an expensive venture, one that young designers can’t easily fund, and Israeli designs don’t always translate well abroad.
Following the success of last year’s revived fashion week, Lev has big plans to shift gears on Israeli design exports. He was able to entice 12 European buyers to this year’s exhibit and said there were 80 fashion writers and bloggers on hand as well. With interest from French and Italian buyers to bring Israeli designers to the 2014 trade shows, Lev said he’s building interest slowly, mostly because “you can’t bring buyers if there’s nothing for them to buy,” he said, referring to the local designers’ generally small collections and inventory.
For their part, the visiting buyers were interested in what the Israeli designers were showing, appreciating and impressed by the young talent but not yet sure it could stand the test of the more sophisticated European markets.
“We’re testing the market,” said Muriel Piaser, a Paris-based fashion consultant who brought two fellow French buyers with her to the shows. “I always like to work in emerging markets and there’s good potential here.”
That said, added the chicly dressed Piaser, the Israeli design is “too casual, too conceptual” and not of a high enough quality.
“They have to adapt pieces of their collections to the European market,” she said, referring in particular to the local love of colorful fabrics, as well as the lower quality fabrics and finishing. “In Europe, we like black.”
Quality, sighed Lev, is an ongoing problem.
“I tell the designers, ‘Work in a home studio, work on quality in your collection, work on things that matter,'” he said. “You can still sell from a studio, don’t spent money on renting a store. Don’t compete with [mass market labels] Zara, Forever21, Castro, Renuar; you’re unique, you have to be between mass market and the luxury brands. People will pay for individual creativity and high quality.”
For now, Lev is willing to pay out of his own pocket to promote that creativity and individuality. When Reif left their partnership and fled to the Gindi backers, that competing fashion week offered to pay the designers’ show fees; Lev felt he had to do the same, particularly for his young, less financially stable designers.
“That’s what you do in a war,” he said, only half joking.
His Tel Aviv Fashion Week cost around $1 million, he said, which included government funding as well as his own investment, at a cost of about $25,000 per runway show, or $25,000 for 25 outfits.
“I invested in this because I believe in what I’m doing; I’m looking 10 years ahead,” he said.
With plans to repeat Tel Aviv Fashion Week each November and to take his young designers to trade shows in New York, London, Paris and Russia during the second half of the year, he’d also like to host a swimsuit show in Eilat, showing off Israel’s laid-back beach vibe to the fashion world.
“I want them to look around and see how beautiful it all is, forget the politics and the M16s and the camels,” he said. “I spilled blood to make this event. It’s been Lev against the world. I’m going to show everybody that this is Tel Aviv Fashion Week and I will promote Israel and Israeli designers worldwide.”