With its roots as a family-owned business, Gottex catapulted itself into one of the world’s premiere swimwear companies. The swimwear firm was founded in Tel Aviv in 1956 by Lea Gottlieb and her husband, Armin. Born in Budapest in 1918, Lea Gottlieb, along with Armin and their two daughters survived the Holocaust and emigrated in 1949 to Israel. The couple started making raincoats in a factory, before moving into swimwear — a better match for the climate there.
Although Gottlieb studied chemistry in school, she became a seamstress, sold her wedding ring to raise money to buy fabric, borrowed a sewing machine and produced swimsuits in their Jaffa apartment. They named their company Gottex, which was a combination of their last name and the word “textiles.”
Over the years, Gottex became known for injecting glamour into the swimwear and beachwear business. The brand retailed in 90 countries and was worn by such celebrities as Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana, Brooke Shields, Sophia Loren and Nancy Kissinger.
“She [Lea] really had a vision, and she stood for it, and no matter what, she didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” said their daughter, Miriam Ruzow, who established the U.S. office for Gottex, in an interview last week.
When the couple got started, swimsuits weren’t really a fashion item, but over time, they evolved as such, said Ruzow. With textile mills, Gottlieb helped develop Lycra spandex for the swimwear market, and worked closely with the company’s directly owned factories. Ruzow said her mother had a feeling for color and was very much inspired by the colors of Israel — the sea, the desert, sand and sun. “She was also very appreciative that she was doing this business in Israel. She was so proud of the country. She put Israel on the fashion map,” said Ruzow.
As chief designer, Gottlieb was involved in every aspect of design, from choosing the fabrics to overseeing the samples. Known as a workhorse who found design inspiration all over the world, Gottlieb would start her day at 5 a.m. by sketching new swimwear designs. “She was never home, and my grandmother was with us,” said Ruzow.
The collection, in bold eye-catching florals, prints and colors, expanded from swimwear to pareos, caftans, tunics, skirts, pants and jackets in fabrics that matched the swimwear.
Ruzow said her parents wanted her to go into business with them in Israel, but she wanted to go somewhere where Gottex wasn’t available yet and build a business.
“We decided on New York. Two years before, my mother brought me here and it looked like it would be a good place to develop it,” said Ruzow, who came to the U.S. in 1966. They opened a small showroom in 1407 Broadway, and eventually landed accounts including B. Altman, Gimbels, Burdines in Florida, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s. At the company’s peak, the U.S. accounted for 40 to 50 percent of the business.
The company only used Italian fabrics and was positioned at the high end of the swimwear market. Gottex would stage a big fashion show in New York annually at places such as Lincoln Center or the New York Public Library. “Everybody wanted to come,” said Ruzow. “It was a hot ticket.”
The swimwear was geared to a woman who appreciated quality, fit and nice prints, said Ruzow. “Whoever put on the suits once, they always came back. It was always original, beautiful and very much in fashion. The most important thing was the fit. It fits like a bra.”
Until 1997, Gottlieb remained at the helm, her husband was in charge of the company’s administration and finances, Ruzow ran the Gottex operations and showroom in the U.S., and her sister, Judith Gottfried, assisted her mother and designed a line for the local market. Under the family’s ownership, the company employed about 1,000 people.
Her mother stayed on two years after she sold the business in 1997 to Africa-Israel Group, a real estate conglomerate in Tel Aviv. At the time, Gottex was generating $60 million in sales. Ruzow also left in 1999. Gottlieb died in 2012 at age 94.
In 2009, private investors took over the group.
Ruzow added that Ron Grundland, chief executive officer of Gottex Swimwear Brands, who runs the business now, used to work for her parents.
“He was like my parents’ son,” said Ruzow. “His boss bought it and he’s working there. He’s doing an amazing job.”