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When Nait Rosenfeld opened her clothing boutique, Nait, in Tel Aviv’s Gan Hahashmal in 2002, she was something of a pioneer. At the time, she was the only designer in the southern Tel Aviv neighborhood, which was home to mostly electrical supply stores (hence its name, which loosely translates as Electrical Garden or District).
Selling her decidedly old-fashioned look — pleated A-line skirts, prim cotton blouses and wide-legged trousers — in a small studio-store full of doilies and overstuffed chairs, she convinced another designer friend, Idit Barak, to open her studio, Delicatessen, in the same neighborhood. And so Barak followed suit, with her retro, subtle skirts, tops and dresses in a more minimalist space, with a studio in back.
“It took until the third year for Gan Hahashmal to become what it is today,” said Rosenfeld, who recently reinvented Nait as an atelier, with sleeker, European-style clothing that is geared toward more serious shoppers, and is now located on the second floor of one of Gan Hahashmal’s Bauhaus-designed buildings.
Now there are nearly two dozen designer boutiques, as well as several cafes and an organic hummus eatery in the once-gritty district. The early designers generally opened a combination studio-store, looking for an alternative to their cramped apartment work spaces as well as the more standard storefronts on Dizengoff Boulevard and Sheinkin Street, two neighborhoods that have long been home to Israel’s burgeoning fashion scene. But now this more alternative district has become the “in” location, with established designers opening their own Electrical District storefronts.
On HaRakevet, the street that acts as the border between the district and the next neighborhood, several larger, professionally designed stores have opened in the last few months, creating what Rosenfeld calls the “new SoHo.” These include Closet, Sharon Brunsher, Tes and Shine, which present typical Tel Aviv offerings, a blend of casual sophistication.
Sharon Brunsher sells what she terms “lifestyle objects,” mixing old and new pieces all in monochromatic tones, from sweaters and pants to blankets, pillows and notebooks, with each piece tied to the next. Tes, a handbag shop, is next door, while Shine, owned by designer Alice Dahan, also offers a monochromatic theme for its spare line of tissue-thin cottons and narrow jodhpur pants. Closet, at the end of the block, is designer Mirit Singer’s version of a complete wardrobe, with a focus on fine knits and embroidered accessories.
While Shine is the only shop that had its own storefront prior to its Gan Hahashmal addition, these boutiques are far grander in size and look than the neighborhood’s first design tenants, who tended toward smaller, simpler spaces.
“The earlier people were more experimental, more studio,” said Rosenfeld.
Yet even Rosenfeld has changed her focus with her new space. With a more centered, “grown-up” focus on collections of pieces that work together, she is working with a different client base — customers who will purchase several pieces or the majority of a collection, rather than just one shirt.
Singer, the owner of Closet, also aims for more serious, repeat customers, and is slowly building a coterie of regulars who will make the effort to come to Gan Hahashmal. As Singer pointed out, the neighborhood is certainly authentic, but it is also farther from the city center and the action, and lacks traffic.
Singer reels in her customers with a number of now-familiar sales techniques in Israel, from a customer club to start-of-season sales and club discounts.
“My success is in how much I bring the customers to me,” said Singer, who is opening another Closet store in an upscale mall in Ra’anana, a suburb outside of Tel Aviv. “I sell a unique, very European look, and I want to get to the customer who I’m trying to reach. My customers get fashion, but they’re not sacrificial lambs to the current trends. They know what they like.”
What the Israeli consumer also demands — besides the specific creations produced by each of these designers — is variety, even during a particular season. With less distinct changes of weather in Israel, particularly in Tel Aviv, where a winter day can bring temperatures in the 60s, designers tend to create several collections within a given season, and their customers are pleased to see something new. That said, designers found that the short Israeli winter is still their best season because there’s a wider range to offer in terms of styles and designs.
“Israelis hate to see the same things for a long time,” said Tal Brunsher, who likes to call customers “individuals.” “But with us, it’s an entire collection of almost 20 different items that have to be renewed with every change, which is very challenging.”
The Brunshers, Sharon and her husband and partner, Tal, always sold their products to stores and boutiques, but never as an entire collection or concept, something they can do with their own store. While they also sell their collection through a distributor in the U.S., the Gan Hahashmal location is their first store, and offers what they seek to display in Sharon’s designs, a melding of the old and the new.
“This is the place for us,” she said, pointing at the still-to-be-restored former tax Bauhaus-style building across the street. “It’s alternative, it’s interesting.”
Nearly all of the Gan Hahashmal stores are owned by designers who are selling their own work, or that of other local designers, whether it’s shoes, bags, jewelry or clothing. Shani Bar, a shoe designer, is across the street from Eva Teffner, a costume jewelry shop owned by Or Cohen, who specializes in recycled pieces. A couple of doors down is M, the studio where Michal Bassad makes her recycled T-shirts for Shine and Banot, another Tel Aviv boutique.
Adjacent to the recently refurbished park that centers the district are Hagar Sattat, who works with leather, silver and gold in her jewelry collection; Kisim, a handbag store, and Frau Blau, named for designer Helena Blaunstein’s grandmother and known for its whimsical, humorous designs, as well as several other stores.
“This place fell into my lap,” said Sattat, who has doubled her output with the store and distribution of her designs to 30 stores in Israel, and 50 in Japan, Canada and the U.S.
With a wide range of ages in her mostly Israeli clientele, Sattat finds the store has become her signature, making her less anonymous on one hand, but more beholden to the demands of her customers who always want something new and different.
“I like it because it allows me to be close to my customers while still in my workshop,” she said. “It’s my house and I’m the host.”