Design Notes

This Is Why Israeli Fashion Is So Political

An exhibition of Israeli fashion in New York City shows a range of responses to growing up in that country, from loudly political to quietly subversive.

Koon, JCC Manhattan

As civil war gripped Ethiopia, an entire community of Ethiopian Jews was airlifted out of the country by the Israeli government in an audacious 1984 covert operation to rescue and resettle the ancient Jewish people in Israel.

Five-year-old Hirut Yosef was among them. Her village in Ethiopia, she said, was “very religious, they were dreaming of coming to Israel for thousands of years and didn’t even realize that there were other Jewish people until the 1950s, and that was when we first realized there were white Jews.”

Growing up as an African Jew in Israel, Yosef wanted to belong but felt she never quite fit in. “Being Israeli for me is a big question because it’s a lot of things all together and I’ve been asking myself this question for years…for years I’ve been asking myself what makes me Israeli, what will make me belong,” she said “especially as a young girl nobody explained how, and I was trying so hard to be like the people around me.”  

After college she moved to Turkey, sometimes forced to hide her national identity, she came to a new feeling of herself as an Israeli. Then she moved to America.  

Yosef is also, among other things, one of 30 Israeli designers whose work is part of an exhibition of modern Israeli fashion and design, Cutting Edges, at the JCC Manhattan.  

On the surface, the small show on the ground floor gallery beneath the bustling crowds attending classes at the community center upstairs might look like just another show about fashion and the creative process, but aside from the election of Donald Trump, and the removal of confederate statues, there are few things more controversial to politically minded Americans than anything to do with Israel. If you think this is an exaggeration, go to pretty much any bar in NYC and state any strong sentiment about Israel.

“I didn’t set out to do a political show, but it’s Israel so it always ends up being political” said Keren Ben-Horin, the curator of Cutting Edges. She has mixed feelings on the seemingly inescapable undercurrents running through her exhibition and has her own tenuous relationship with Israel.  

As she put it, “I live here, and there are reasons for that. I didn’t want to whitewash things that are going on in Israel, but at the same time, I felt these designers and their perspectives were very interesting and powerful, and I wanted to show that.”  

The question of why Israeli fashion is so political is a hard one to resist asking while walking through this gallery. Speaking about living in Israel, Ben-Horin said, “You don’t even realize it, how rough your reality is, until you come somewhere like here where your life is kinda normal.”  

The exhibition contains military-inspired pieces--apposite since compulsory military service is a part of all Israeli citizens' lives, and the environment of the small country is one that is indicative of both triumph and strife.

The inspiration from the show came from a piece by Eliran Nargassi: a T-shirt covered in the printed image of Jerusalem stone, a type of limestone that is ubiquitous in Jerusalem hence the name.  

Ben-Horin said: "What I loved about it and gave me the inspiration was the contrast between the hard stone and the softness of the material it was printed on, and that really gave me the inspiration for the show and how to organize it. It was the contrast.”  

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The inherent contrast, so apparent in that shirt, is also what the curator highlighted as the unifying quality and aesthetic among all the pieces in the exhibition.

Nargassi’s own life embodies the contrast in his T-shirt. He is a gay man who grew up in an orthodox Jewish home and now lives a modern secular life. Also on exhibition is a piece by him representing this duality: a men’s button up dress shirt—the sort that would be worn to Shabbat services—but made up of sewn together pieces of printed images of Jerusalem stone.

Some of the pieces are made of wool and some are linen, which makes it seem at first glance like “shatnez," the word for mixed textile clothing that is forbidden by Jewish law.

But look closer and the garment is not quite “shatnez”, as that term speaks to the yarns of the different fibers being spun or woven together, and since this shirt is pieced together in a way that is almost like appliqué it’s technically not “shatnez.” In orthodoxy of any sort it’s always about the details.

Nargassi told The Beast,“the idea was to create an article of clothing that will have the appearance of a Jewish, Israeli look. The use of the Jerusalem stone symbolizes to me my past as a boy growing up in a religious home.

"Overall, it's two fabrics that are attached with their fibers, and there's a bit of a cynical and humorous attitude to it," said Nargassi. "In addition, this is also a move that represents an aspect in my personality: the preoccupation with religion from a respectable place but also from a modern place that comes to show that everything is possible and can be both, and not just in one way.”

Another theme running through the exhibition is not quite realizing how much you are of a place or a group, until you leave. Yosef experienced this first in Israel, then in Turkey and now in America—where she says this is the first time in her life she has truly able to embrace all of herself.  

There’s also some really cheeky takes on complicated subjects in the show, including pieces by the design duo “Muslin Brothers”, who make unisex clothing that challenges Israel’s traditional sense of gender roles...but also, you know, the name.  

Eccentric oversized jewelry by Sara Bacsh incorporate mixed materials from nature and “found” objects to tell the tale of growing up on a farm next door to Israel's largest landfill, colloquially referred to as “Trash Mountain.” In a strange twist of fate, the landfill has now become “Ariel Sharon Park,” a tourist attraction.

Throughout, the exhibition fashion is chic and daring, but layered with undercurrents of subtext and knowing sadness—it’s very Israeli and also very human, filled with contradictions and nuance.  

Political fashion has always been present, and is very much apart of our current American fashion world.  This past New York Fashion Week hosted many politically motivated shows from designers like Chromat and Pyer Moss, just to name a few.

The political force in Israeli fashion is much more understated and less forceful.

An ensemble by young Israeli-Arab-Christian designer Pauline Nahara contains a gold metallic knitted shirt and sculptural harem style pants with a mock sleeve waistband that on the surface seem very modern and avant garde.  

But the pants, in fact, are representations of the haste in which she had to leave her homeland and the metallic shirt is a nod to fences she had to cross when coming to Israel as a refugee from the conflict in Lebanon in the early 2000s.

There is also a dress by Maskit Design House, which served as the gold standard of Israeli couture houses in the 1960s and 1970s. It was known for using the wide-ranging embroidery traditions of Israelis from difference backgrounds as inspiration.  

The house’s new designer, Sharon Tal, has kept this tradition, drawing upon a men’s tallit (prayer shawl) for embroidery inspiration on a women’s evening gown.

Through the garments each designer and even the curator herself tell a story about the complexity of their identity--of being Israeli--which is spun from their varied life experience and woven together as an identifiable Israeli aesthetic. If this show were located in Israel instead of New York, it would likely feel much less provocative.  

Speaking about the binary terms Israel is so often viewed, Ben-Horin said, “There almost is anticipation or expectation of what Israel is, or what an Israeli aesthetic is or even what an Israeli is. If you then start to look at these designers and where they draw inspiration from, and the aesthetic they put forth, you find there is much more complexity.”