Designer Lia Kes takes kibbutz look to the runway

Israeli-born fashion designer will show her collection as part of the official New York Fashion Week calendar

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Three of the looks from the upcoming collection of Lia Kes NYC, being shown at New York Fashion Week (Courtesy Lia Kes)
Three of the looks from the upcoming collection of Lia Kes NYC, being shown at New York Fashion Week (Courtesy Lia Kes)

It’s been decades since designer Lia Kes left Kibbutz Afikim, the Jordan Valley farming community where she was raised that’s known for its banana fields and avocado orchards.

But it was there, in the seamstress closet of the kibbutz, that Kes learned the basics of design and tailoring from her mentor, a Holocaust survivor.

Her teacher was a woman from Germany who made the work clothes the kibbutz members wore to pick produce and milk cows, as well as couture-quality velvet blazers for those who earned annual points they could put toward their privae wardrobes.

“It was really a wild thing, we’re talking Dior,” said Kes. “I can still remember the closet with the clothes, and how the fabrics were folded by color. It was an institution, where clothing was made to measure.”

Lia Kes, born in Kibbutz Afikim, initially learned about design and tailoring from a Holocaust survivor who was the seamstress at the kibbutz (Courtesy Lia Kes)

Now Kes is taking her draped and bias-cut shapes in washed silks and pliant chiffons, which have been worn by such celebrities as Rihanna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kim Kardashian, to New York Fashion Week, where she’ll be showing for the second time, with a show on February 14, at 11 a.m.

It’s the first time Kes will be listed on the tightly controlled calendar of New York Fashion Week, overseen by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Kes presented at New York Fashion Show for the first time last fall, in September 2017, but was not yet on the official calendar.

In September, Vogue wrote that Kes was “getting ambitious,” with a presentation that was “modest in scope,” but with “forays into tailoring” and “draped, wrapped, and bias-cut silks” that had evolved from their earlier iterations.

Lia Kes has her clients model for her at New York Fashion Week, as she feels they complete the look (Courtesy Lia Kes)

Kes said she will be showing a little more tailoring than in the past at the upcoming Fashion Week, with her clients stepping in as her models, deepening Kes’s dedication to her clientele and their range of ages, ethnicities, skin colors and shapes.

“I love fashion and I relate to fashion on every level, but there has to be content and reason for what you do and how you do it,” she said. “My business is a reflection of what kind of person I am on many levels. You can wear it, and when you come into my store you can feel it.”

Lia Kes specializes in draped, luxe fabrics in her minimalist design (Courtesy Lia Kes)

Kes, who recently opened a second store on the Upper East Side, a crosstown partner to her popular Upper West Side boutique, classified her customers as intellectual, working women who are “uber successful” and “really interesting to work with.”

Kes wants her clients to bring their characters to the garments, and not the other way around.

“If you can relate to quality and to something that can be worn in different ways, and you bring the character, then it’s for you,” she said. “I work for ages 18 to 80, different sizes and shapes and characters, different bodies and complexions and stages in life.”

She attended the Shenkar Design school 20 years ago and eventually made her way to New York, where she was hired by a small design company whose business is similar in scope to what Kes has today.

“It was a learning curve,” she said, noting the similarities of their design and manufacturing and purchasing of additional labels to show in the shops.

Lia Kes is slowly adding tailoring to her design look, a detail that hasn’t gone unnoticed in the fashion media (Courtesy Lia Kes)

Kes slowly developed her own line, starting with T-shirts and eventually moving into a kibbutz-inspired, minimalist collection of fine fabrics known for its textures, subtle, elegant lines, draping and lush, singular fabrics of washed silks, felted wool and rich hand-knits.

And, inspired by the kibbutz, where nothing went to waste, her off-cuts are used to create new looks.

The look was something that happened organically, said Kes.

She was slowly developing her own line, selling to Saks Fifth Avenue and Barney’s New York, when she and her husband moved to San Francisco, a work change for him, where she opened her own store.

But during the course of that year her husband suddenly became ill and died, leaving Kes with two young children and decisions to make.

She didn’t design for three years, but eventually decided to open her Upper West Side store in New York with her own collection.

“I wanted to validate myself and the new form of me,” said Kes. “I was more mature, and that really influenced the business.”

Lia Kes’ Upper West Side location (Courtesy Lia Kes)

Kes has launched her brand out of her retail shops, which included a pop-up shop in Southampton, and she’s spent the past few years road testing her designs on her clientele.

“This is a visual input of what is running in my mind, connecting the values and moments of my upbringing, and adjusting to being an immigrant and choosing to be an immigrant,” she said. “As I sit on the fence, this is the visual output.”

Supple silks and chiffons have become a hallmark of Kes’ look, first honed on the kibbutz where she was raised (Courtesy Lia Kes)

And while it’s attracted an audience, and Kes is excited about that, she isn’t sure she would want a larger audience, or a more corporate approach to her fashion company.

There have also been times when she considered returning home to Israel, where most of her extended family lives, but didn’t feel strong enough to make that decision.

“I’m engaged in what I’m doing, but I don’t necessarily feel established,” she said. “It’s a long effort that has amazing moments and more challenging moments, but it’s still such a beginning.”

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