Tel Aviv start-up fuels a T-shirt trend in Beirut

Artsetters is connecting artists and buyers in a global web, with love of art and design proving capable of crossing even hostile borders

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

Alex Schinasi, left, and Lee Rotenberg in their shop at the Brown TLV. (photo credit: Rafi Daloya)
Alex Schinasi, left, and Lee Rotenberg in their shop at the Brown TLV. (photo credit: Rafi Daloya)

Hipsters worldwide have long made it their business to seek out the most avant-garde trends. But if Alex Schinasi and Lee Rotenberg are to be believed, that quest for individuality has reached a fever pitch in Beirut, where it’s now an Israeli label, Pilpeled, that’s come to signify the ultimate in underground cool.

The duo are the creators of Artsetters, a website, pop-up shop and wider creative community that Schinasi and Rotenberg hope will create a global channel between emerging artists and discerning buyers who eschew commercialism and are hungry for the uber-unique.

“We have to ship [our Pilpeled products to Lebanon] through America and cut all the Israel labels. But they know it’s from Israel, and they tell us they love it,” says Schinasi, a Swiss-born, US-educated new immigrant to Israel. “That’s what makes it cool. That is a trend. A trendsetter in Beirut is someone walking down the street in an Israeli-designed shirt because no one else has it and very few people can access it.” (The word “Pilpel” is Hebrew for “pepper,” but can also mean “sass.”)

A former film producer at London’s Bedlam Productions, Schinasi came to Israel two years ago to work on the movie “Zaytoun,” which starred Stephen Dorff and was directed by Israeli helmer Eran Riklis. She was overwhelmed, she says, by the intensity of the creative community in Tel Aviv, and decided to stay.

A Pilpeled T-shirt
A Pilpeled T-shirt

Schinasi and Rotenberg, whose background is in finance, met soon after and realized they shared an admiration for Tel Aviv’s creative community and a desire to connect the emerging artists here with the broader artistic community around the world. With the help of the Tel Aviv Municipality, which offered them workspace in their start-up incubator at the city’s Mazeh 9 building, as well as a website designer willing to work on spec, four months after thinking up the concept, was born.

The website, which was launched on Monday and remains in its beta phase, currently offers goods from 19 cities including Brooklyn, Casablanca and Hong Kong. That’s just the beginning, Rotenberg says, in a broader plan to connect artists and buyers in a global web, operated from right here in Tel Aviv.

“Usually it’s two very distinct communities, Lebanon and Israel, but under the umbrella of Artsetters it becomes this unified community,” Schinasi says. “What’s uniting them is this love of art and design, and you know, cool content.”

Alex Schinasi, right, and Lee Rotenberg in their shop at the Brown TLV. (photo credit: Rafi Daloya)
Alex Schinasi, left, and Lee Rotenberg in their shop at the Brown TLV. (photo credit: Rafi Daloya)

Schinasi is willowy and blond, as is her business partner Rotenberg, who insists Artsetters is not about promoting peace, it’s about stoking creativity.

“We don’t even need to mention politics. It’s not in the picture,” Rotenberg says. “That really drives us. At the end of the day, artists and creatives they really just care about what’s being created.”

Politics definitely seemed to be the last thing on anyone’s mind last week, at the champagne-fueled Artsetters opening party at Tel Aviv’s Brown TLV Hotel. Schinasi and Rotenberg and a few hundred of their friends packed the swanky hotel’s outdoor bar to toast Artsetters and officially launch its sole brick-and-mortar operation, a pop-up shop in that hotel’s lobby featuring exclusively local artists. All of the products in the shop have been hand-selected by the duo, and the store, which will close in six weeks, is meant to serve as an amuse bouche to the much wider offerings on the ArtSetters website.

All products on the website are heavily curated and selected locally by so-called “Artsetters Ambassadors” — local emissaries who have earned the trust of both Schinasi and Rotenberg and help keep them in the loop about each city’s local art scene. About 80 artists are currently touting their wares for Artsetters, including a Moscow company that makes handmade wooden sunglasses ($200); a jewelry artist in Istanbul whose goods include a rose gold necklace with a Hamsa and evil eye pendant ($680); and a shoemaker in Madrid whose craft included handmade espadrilles ($110).

Schinasi and Rotenberg keep 20 percent of every sale and pass 80 percent on directly to the artist, a strategy, they say, that is meant to encourage loyalty and propel the manufacturers further in their own careers.

And it’s also good business.

“We’re investing in talent that is still young and emerging, because we really believe in them,” Schinasi says. “And we know that they’re going to become so much more successful. And if we can be along for the ride it not only helps them but it helps the Artsetters brand as well.”

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