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Lea Gottlieb, who injected glamour into the swimwear industry as founder and designer of Gottex, died Saturday at her home in Tel Aviv of natural causes. She was 94.
Born in Budapest, Gottlieb, her late husband, Armin, and their two daughters were survivors of the Holocaust. In 1949, the family emigrated to Israel, where they started selling rainwear before moving onto swimwear, which better matched the country’s climate. They founded Gottex (a combination of their last name and the word “textiles”) in 1956 and built it into one of the world’s most successful swimwear companies. Gottex was sold in more than 100 countries and was worn by such celebrities as Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana, Brooke Shields, Sophia Loren and Nancy Kissinger.
As chief designer, Gottlieb was actively involved in every facet of design, from choosing the fabrics to overseeing the samples. Her collection, in bold eye-catching colors, florals and prints, expanded from swimwear to pareos, caftans, tunics, skirts, pants and jackets in fabrics that matched the swimwear. The line staged elaborate fashion shows and became an important resource at stores such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s.
“Lea certainly was one of the giants of the industry who had the vision, courage and fortitude that created a totally new bar. She was someone that combined the passion of her work with compassion for people and we will miss her dearly,” said Michael Gould, chairman and chief executive officer of Bloomingdale’s.
For much of its history, Gottex remained a family business. Lea Gottlieb was at the helm, her late husband was in charge of the company’s administration and finances; her daughter Miriam Ruzow ran the Gottex operations and showroom in the U.S., and her late daughter Judith Gottfried assisted her mother and designed a line for the local market.
In 1997, Gottex, which was generating $60 million in sales, was sold to Africa-Israel Group, a real estate conglomerate in Tel Aviv. After a year heading the design team, Gottlieb left the company, and once her non-compete expired, at the age of 85, she founded a new swimwear line under her own name for Tefron.
Known as a workhorse who found design inspiration all over the world, Gottlieb would start her day at five in the morning by sketching new swimwear designs. Gottlieb, then 87, told WWD in 2004: “I like to be busy. I am happy when I have a lot to do.”
Gottex is establishing an archive and exhibition at the Design Museum of Holon in Israel, planned to open in March.
Gottlieb was honored both in Israel and around the world for her accomplishments. In 2005, she was voted one of the 200 greatest Israelis of all time and was included in the book “Great Jewish Women” by Elinor Slater for her contribution in helping Israel develop its fashion industry.
In addition to her daughter Miriam, Gottlieb is survived by her son-in-law, Stephen I. Ruzow, six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Her daughter Judith died in 2003.