Final graduation work by Guild
A thriving beach city, a bastion of good times and good looks, Tel Aviv can feel like an anachronism in these serious times, in this troubled region. In addition to a thriving nightlife, a burgeoning gay tourism culture, and restaurants worth writing home about, the last five years have seen the birth of no less than ten home grown designer shoe labels. How does one account for such sudden prolificacy in a city of just 400,000?
A look back to Israel's once flourishing shoe manufacturing industry is needed - though, based on the profusion of "made in China" stickers in the last 20 years, most would be hard pressed to know there ever was an Israeli shoe industry.
In the late 1940's, immigration from Casablanca and Marrakesh brought thousands of shoemakers into the newly established State of Israel. Over the next 40 years "almost every pair of shoes purchased in Israel was made in Israel," says shoe designer Lior Livne, co-founder of Liebling, one of Israel's new brands. "The industry was huge, employing thousands of workers in hundreds of factories." In the early 1980's, the first foreign-made shoes landed on Israeli shelves. "But the shoes imported in those early years were very expensive," recalls Livne, "and taxed so heavily that they didn't have much effect on the Israeli industry."
In fact, throughout most of the 1980's, Israeli's were by and large still proud purchasers of "blue and white" products, as they called Israeli made goods. Locally manufactured shoes were considered high quality, with around 80% of production exported for sale abroad. The 1985 Economic Stabilization Program started the changing of tides. Import regulations were loosened and import taxes gradually slashed. By the early 1990's, dramatic change had occurred. An enormous selection of cheap imported products changed both the market and the consumer mindset - Israelis preferred to buy a range of inexpensive imports, rather than paying the now comparatively high price for local goods. The numbers tell the story: in 1975, $3 million worth of shoes were imported into Israel, by 2009 the figure had skyrocketed to $318 million (the vast majority from the Far East).
As a result, most factories were forced into closure with only a few of the largest companies staying in business. Teva-Naot, known for their Birkenstock-like sandals, was among the remaining handful of producers but none seemed to be making what urban, stylish Tel Avivians sought. It became the norm for young Israeli consumers, frustrated by the homogeneity they saw in stores, to wait for vacations abroad to buy unique items that "every other woman" wouldn't also be wearing.
Then, in the early 2000's, seemingly out of nowhere, a new wave of independent designers started producing limited edition, handmade, and unreservedly cool shoes.
Some say the initial sprout was Adina Schonberg, a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, the most prestigious art and design school in Israel. Schonberg established the first Israeli "designer" shoe label. She called it Achilles - a name she would also give to Israel's first school of shoe design, which Schonberg opened in 2005. Though the school closed only two years later (in 2007), Achilles had major impact, spawning a number of gifted designers.
Lior Livne, co-founder of Liebling, is one of them. He discusses the recent re-birth of Israel's shoe industry: "Around the same period that Adina [Schonberg] was active [as a shoe designer], Couple Of arrived on the market." Couple Of is now the veteran brand of the new wave of shoe designers. "Three or four years later, Couple Of was followed by Shani Bar and Shoemaker, both brands from Bezalel graduates. Our generation [graduates of the short-lived Achilles] came two to three years after that, including Ahat Ahat, Olive Thomas and Michal Miller. A year or two after that, a number graduates from The Guild joined the industry."
Student working on a project at The Guild
The Guild? With Achilles closed and no shoe design school to speak of, former Achilles teachers Nina Rozin and Gal Shukroon Ganon made some syllabus changes and founded The Guild. Today, "90% of Israeli designers who work in shoes are graduates of Achilles or The Guild," says Rozin, who has great faith that that the "market will grow and develop and that many lines will mature into international brands."
Rozin, who worked as a designer in Europe for a decade before returning to Israel, explains her faith: Unlike Israeli designers, "European designers must be up to date on what all the other designers are doing, what the international trends are, and only then consider how to express themselves while facing immense competition and market forces. With virtually no fashion industry to speak of, the most obvious benefit of Israeli design is the ingenuity and the ability to design freely and intuitively, disconnected from fashion trends."
Liebling co-founders Livne and Karni Reshef tend to agree, offering that they "aren't especially interested in fashion trends." Livne admits that "all the fashion talk sort of bores me. Of course we are exposed to what goes on around us, but it happens naturally, not because we think that a certain look or colour will sell better." This sentiment is shared by many of their contemporaries. The new wave of designers cites placing emphasis on things like "practicality and uniqueness", working to blend "the design world and the fashion world", searching for "harmony between the shoe and the wearer's sole" and aiming to "blur the boundaries between innovation and reality and a graceful vulnerability."
These shoe designers, many of whom have artistic or industrial design backgrounds, seem to value art and design above fashion, while working within the fashion medium. Based on the industry's rapid growth, the perspective seems to be working.
One of the many women in Tel Aviv seeking cool yet comfortable, interesting but elegant footwear, Atalia Hoshea was inspired by many of these young designers working and selling out of small studios in the south end of the city. She founded the Imuma shoe store in 2008, providing fledgling designers with a city-centre location to showcase their wares. But just three years later the store closed, much to the shock and dismay of loyal clientele. Is the closing indicative of a barely off the ground industry already on the verge of collapse?
"It was a rough year for young fashion designers in general, including the shoe designers," says Hoshea. "I think we felt the significant influence of the recession only this year. Israeli shoe making is small scale, one winter without rain and unsold expensive-to-produce boots can be enough hinder a summer collection. But, I'm an optimist because I witnessed the industry grow from being known only to esoteric fashion enthusiasts to being widely discussed and also because of what I saw just last month at Shoofuni [a biennial shoe fair she started with designer Maya Levi] - 10,000 people came out to buy!"
Livne is equally optimistic about his brand and the industry: "We have grown dramatically since we opened our shop [on a side street off a main shopping artery in central Tel Aviv] in 2007. The majority of customers who come into the store do so intentionally. Through our site, we ship all over the world: Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, the US - we even have a following in the Philippines!"
Many of the Israeli designers mentioned in this article sell online and ship internationally.
Shani Bar: http://shanibar.com
Couple Of: http://www.coupleof.co.il/
Ahat Ahat: http://www.una-una.com/index.html
Oliver Thomas: http://www.olive-thomas.com/indexEng.html
Michal Miller: http://michalmillershoes.blogspot.com/
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