Fashion and family clash in ‘Mrs. G.,’ a film about Gottex swimsuit doyenne

Fashion and family clash in ‘Mrs. G.,’ a film about Gottex swimsuit doyenne

First Israeli documentary about local design industry unfolds relationship dramas in Lea Gottlieb’s family

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

The intersection of career and motherhood was the issue that filmmaker Dalit Kimor pondered most in the making of “Mrs. G,” a documentary about the life and work of Gottex swimsuit mogul Lea Gottlieb.

Gottlieb, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor who created the wildly successful brand of swimwear, has been said to have failed miserably as a mother to her two daughters, one of whom died young while the other moved halfway across the world in order to keep a distance from her mother.

Those personal failures are looked at deliberately and carefully over the course of the documentary, which premiered at Tel Aviv’s DocAviv film festival and will be making its way around the festival circuit this fall.

“We’re all in that story,” said director Dalit Kimor. “Her model for life was the model for her daughters and they paid the price. She was truly famous, a huge success, but she and her family paid the price.”

The Gottex family, Miriam, Lea, Armin and Judith Gottlieb (Courtesy ‘Mrs. G’)

But the film is first and foremost about Gottlieb’s art, designs and work ethic.

It is, in fact, the first Israeli documentary about the country’s fashion industry, which was put on the global map by Gottlieb’s outrageous bathing suit designs and her use of wonderfully different fabrics, cuts and colors.

Gottlieb immigrated to Israel from Hungary after World War II with her husband and two young girls.

She initially tried her hand at designing raincoats, but quickly realized that they were in low demand in Israel, where the sun shines nine months of the year. Instead, she turned her attention what was being worn at the beach.

Once she had her concept, Gottlieb took the idea and turned it into an empire. She drew from whatever inspired her — flowers (particularly daisies), her travels, nature, the Egyptian desert, Broadway and Josephine Baker in a particularly inspired collection, the city of Jerusalem — creating rich, intensive collages that served as the drawing boards for actual bathing suit collections.

Gottex swimsuits, 1961 (Courtesy Government Press Office)

That was the crux of Gottex, a name derived from the combination of Gottlieb and textile. The brand grew, was sold throughout the world, and still exists today.

Two fashion researchers, Keren Ben Horin and Ayala Raz, brought the idea of a movie about Gottlieb to Yahaly Gat, the veteran filmmaker who produced the film.

“I said, ‘How could it be that a story like this isn’t a film already?'” said Gat, who has been producing films for 30 years. “It’s the first Israeli film about fashion, and about the most well-known fashion figure.”

As Gat and director Kimor dug into the story, they uncovered unexpected parts of Gottlieb’s personal tale.

“It was a story that was tied together according to what we found,” said Kimor, who was also working on another film at the time, “Unkept Secrets,” about an ultra-Orthodox pedophile. “It’s a small story that grew, that stood against [the backdrop of] Israel’s development.”

Kimor wove together hundreds of old photos and recordings, footage and images, creating a film out of the company’s archives.

“I worked like she did,” said Kimor. “It’s a collage of voices, just like her collages of inspiration. She tied things together, and so did I. She would take an image from Gauguin, change the color and add the colors of a napkin she had used for dinner. I did the same.”

Some of Gottex’s earlier looks (Courtesy Gottex)

Personal story

The film respectfully showcases Gottlieb’s skills and genius, but also delves into her personal life, said Kimor.

“It had to show the proportions,” she said. “How snobby she was, wearing Dior and Chanel, to show how cut off she was, and that’s what brought on her downfall. She lived like a princess and spent money like it was going out of style — she didn’t think about tomorrow, and that combination went along with huge talent.”

And while she was building Gottex into an international success, she wasn’t an attentive or loving mother to her two daughters, Miriam and Judith — yet expected them to be as devoted to the company as she was.

Judith worked closely with her mother in Tel Aviv, but died of cancer at 59. Miriam moved to New York City, wanting more distance from her mother. When Judith eventually fell ill, she came to New York in order for Miriam to care for her.

When Kimor and Gat delved more deeply into Gottlieb’s history, they also discovered a recording she made in her later years for Yad Vashem, sharing her struggles during the Holocaust.

Miriam Ruzow, left, Lea Gottlieb’s daughter, with ‘Mrs. G’ director Dalit Kimor (Courtesy ‘Mrs. G’)

They brought the recording to Gottlieb’s daughter, now known by her married name of Miriam Ruzow. She has lived in New York for the last 40 years and had no idea the Yad Vashem recording even existed.

“We didn’t know if she would cooperate, if she would really talk,” said Gat. “We convinced her we’re coming to do the right thing, that we would be asking hard questions. The relationships there were really difficult and she really opened her heart.”

Ruzow, who spoke briefly to The Times of Israel, said her mother was an  extremely strong woman who set her goals and ambitions very high, and could achieve so much because the experience of the Holocaust had made her stronger.

“I admire her, I still do, and I always looked up to her, but there were emotional ties that didn’t exist,” she said. “The lovely people who did the movie brought me a gift, the interview that my mother gave, the only one that she gave, to Yad Vashem. I had never seen it and never knew about it because she never wanted to talk about that.”

It wasn’t easy being the daughter of Lea Gottlieb. When Ruzow was in her early 20s, she had recently returned to Israel from Paris where she had designed a lingerie line in a type of look that people hadn’t seen before, said Ruzow.

“When my mother saw I did it, instead of supporting me, she said, ‘No, you have to come to the business,'” said Ruzow.

Ruzow moved to New York City when she was just 24, sent by her mother to set up a Gottex showroom in the fashion capital. At the time, in 1966, she didn’t know anything about launching a company.

“I thought all department stores were the same, whether it was discount store Alexander’s or the high-end Saks Fifth Avenue,” laughed Ruzow.

Like her mother, though, she never took no for an answer and “people loved what I was showing them — that gave me the strength to go forward,” she said.

Lea Gottlieb (right) and her daughter, Miriam Ruzow (Courtesy ‘Mrs. G’)

Ruzow also said that what helped her persevere was the opportunity to put Israel on the fashion map.

“People loved Gottex, and that had nothing to do with being from Israel,” she said. “They liked it because the garment was outstanding and they had never seen anything like that.”

Still, those early years in New York on her own weren’t easy.

“I don’t really give enough credit to myself, but I just wanted to do something on my own,” said Ruzow.

In fact, she said, she made the decision to move to New York in order to create a greater distance and separation from her mother. She later struggled with being a working mom to her own four children, something she speaks about candidly. Now, she said, she thoroughly enjoys her eight grandchildren — her “vitamins,” she called them.

“That’s the tragedy of Lea Gottlieb’s life,” said Kimor. “Lea Gottlieb didn’t find the Yellow Brick Road, and yet she was ahead of her time. Colors and Lycra, she was the first to do that — she did amazing things.”

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