It was the eve of Yom Kippur and fashion designer Philip Blau, half of husband-and-wife team Frau Blau (his wife is Helena Blaunstein), had just arrived back in Israel from Coterie, the trade fashion show held the week following New York’s famed fall fashion week.
For Blau, a veteran fashion designer in Israel with a label that is known for its often whimsical clothing — particularly the ‘ke-ilu’ or ‘as-if’ pieces: illusional dresses, skirts and tops printed with lifelike graphics — this year’s Coterie was a first, also marking the start of his business with a New York showroom.
“We’ve wanted to do this for many years but didn’t know if we could pull it off because the industry works so differently here,” said Blau, referring to the Israeli custom of working on collections within a season, rather than months ahead, as is customary in the U.S. and Europe. “People here don’t really think it can work, that it’s just too hard to make clothes for the U.S., and it’s true, it requires a lot of energy and preparation. You have to follow the American rules.”
Israel’s fashion designers, like most of the country’s entrepreneurs, have always looked abroad, hoping to find a larger audience outside the small, Sabra marketplace. Yet the burgeoning fashion design industry is still relatively new in Israel, and despite names like couture and bikini designer Gideon Oberson and swimsuit maker Gottex, most of the current fashion designers have only been in business for the last 15 years or so. Many make do selling their designs through their studio or several shops, and if a designer succeeds in selling abroad, it’s usually with the help of a distributor or showroom, as opening a brick-and-mortar store is too expensive to manage.
That said, only three Israeli labels — Frau Blau, Kedem Sasson, and Ronen Chen — participated in this year’s Coterie, the biannual trade show in which hundreds of labels show their summer and winter collections to store buyers. Taking part in Coterie is a sure sign of a designer’s success, from being able to afford the stall to knowing that buyers will take notice of and purchase pieces from the label to stock their inventories for the next season.
“It’s basically a huge industry,” said Michal Chitayat, the longtime marketing director for designer Ronen Chen, one of the first and few Israeli labels to sell in the U.S. “Lots of people have customized booths and try to recreate their own stores. It’s for well-known brands as well as totally up-and-coming nobodies.”
Ronen Chen and Sasson Kedem — the designer behind Kedem Sasson whose label is geared more for the plus-size domain, using highly-sculpted and draped fabrics — have been selling through their New York showrooms for at least a decade. But Frau Blau entered the market this year, opening accounts at stores in the U.S. and Canada, expecting “many orders and customers,” as well as getting a write-up in trade newspaper Women’s Wear Daily, said Blau.
“It was really exciting to be at the show beside Diane von Furstenberg, Anna Sui, Alice by Temperley and other top brands,” he said.
One of those “American rules” that Blau discovered on his virgin voyage through American retailing related to being told by the Coterie management at the end of the fair that he was now classified as a shirts and dresses company. For Blau, whose label produces the whole gamut of clothing — some 60 pieces that include pants, blouses, skirts, and dresses — it came as something of a surprise, but he’s prepared to follow along.
“It doesn’t hurt me in what I will design,” he said. “This has pushed us up a notch.”
LIke Ronen Chen and Kedem Sasson, Frau Blau is working in several markets, including Israel, the U.S., Europe — and Russia, which is where both Blau and Blaustein hail from originally.
“We’re still a very small company but all of a sudden we find ourselves trying to amend our designs to different markets,” he said. “It’s a wide collection, and customers choose what they like. Certain cuts work everywhere, but it’s colors that differ from place to place, with some countries preferring the bolder colors, while others tend toward more mild shades. We can’t make separate collections, so we play with the things that people love.”
There tend to be more people trying to sell than there are people who want to buy at Coterie, said Chitayat, adding that the Ronen Chen team uses the opportunity to open the season, gathering all six of the Ronen Chen showrooms to meet, brainstorm and show the new collection.
For the Israelis, the trade fair also comes at a difficult time of year, always falling on or around Rosh Hashanah, a matter of some consternation for the Israelis and their American Jewish colleagues.
“You have to gauge whether it’s worth your while, whether your label will retail well,” said Chitayat. “If you had a good collection in the store for the winter, then you know they’re going to come see your summer collection now.”