In many ways, it is a familiar scene: A long runway flanked by bleacher seats crammed with beautiful people, phones buzzing with alerts and ready to snap into action. Dozens of professional photographers elbow for position. Late-comers scramble and music plays in the background, barely audible above the din of conversation. The first perceptible difference is that the ambient conversation is in Hebrew and I’m sitting in the not-yet-open-to-the-public Gindi TLV Fashion Mall—headquarters this March week for some 80 bloggers, editors, influencers, and buyers who have been invited to see the sights and spread the word about Israel and its food and fashion scenes.

Outside of fashion’s major leagues, there are many other fashion weeks in secondary (and tertiary) markets that get very little attention in the international press—and with good reason. Most of the exceptional, young talent moves up to the majors where the money and prestige is, leaving their home countries constantly struggling to compete. Israel’s Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, for example, is one of the world’s highest-rated fashion schools turning out great young talent. The talent pool that starts in Ukraine or Poland or India or Israel, for that matter, often move on to establish themselves in one of the fashion capitals. Probably the most famous example of this in Israel is Shenkar graduate Alber Elbaz, who assisted America’s great designer Geoffrey Beene before becoming head designer at Lanvin. Sharon Tal, now head designer of Maskit, perhaps Israel’s best-known fashion house, founded by Ruth Dayan (Moshe’s wife, now 100), left Israel to work first for Lanvin (with Elbaz) and then as head embroiderer for Alexander McQueen. She returned for family reasons, not because she saw it as an opportunity to make a splash in the fashion world. She knows better. There are no textile factories in Israel, manufacturing is outsourced, and there’s little infrastructure to support a true industry.

But there is a Fashion Week, thanks to the tireless efforts of Mottie Reif, the producer and head-cheerleader who has made it his mission to put Israel on the global fashion map. I was here as part of a junket sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, ostensibly to see whether he was succeeding. Instead I left wondering not just whether that was an achievable goal, but whether it was even what anyone—including the organizers—should want.

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By way of self-disclosure, I should say I am not a fashion critic, but I do know more than the average Yankel. I’m the founder of Paper, a New York-based style-centric magazine and have been to hundreds of fashion shows in the more than 30 years we have been publishing. When the email invitation to visit Israel arrived, I jumped at the opportunity because I have a personal connection with the country, besides being Jewish. I’m a native Israeli, a sabra whose father fought in the War of Independence. We left when I was 5 years old and moved to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where my mother’s Holocaust-surviving family members had already settled.

I was raised Orthodox and had a Jewish education all the way through Yeshiva University, but the truth is that after my bar mitzvah I was never again down with the program. I’d watch TV on Shabbat when my parents left the house and remove my yarmulke as soon as I was out of sight of my yeshiva. I was once caught sans kipa by a carload of rabbis—the Hasidic one, Rabbi Shapiro, jumped out and slapped me around, and called me an apikoras, the worst kind of sinner, one who knows better but still does the wrong thing. Over the years, as the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects proceeded to hijack my community, I felt further and further removed from the foundational principles of my upbringing.

I returned to Israel in my 20s as part of a European summer jaunt I took while teaching at the University of New Orleans (now LSUNO). A latter-day hippie, I lasted one day in Jerusalem before running off to the Sinai where I could sleep under the starlit sky, snorkel, and mingle with the Bedouins and international travelers high on desert living and its magical properties.

Some 40 years later I was finally returning.

Even as we gather in the modern city of Tel Aviv, rich with enterprising young men and women who dress good and eat healthy Mediterranean meals, there’s an elephant in the room that cannot be forever ignored. We are co-proprietors of this New Jersey-sized piece of land with the Palestinians. For the most part, it’s out-of-sight but not out-of-mind, not for me, for any of my colleagues on the trip, or even the Israelis who go about their daily life. Terrorist attacks, more settlements, growing anti-Israel sentiment in the United States played on my conscience and made me uncomfortable with the politics of the region. Coming back to my homeland to look at the work of Israeli fashion designers, I was curious to see how unease—mine, and everyone else’s—manifests itself.

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With the first show, a retrospective from the swimwear brand Gottex celebrating 60 years in business, I could immediately tell we were in a different neighborhood. Swimwear doesn’t usually merit this kind of attention, but here a full house had come out to pay tribute to this iconic Israeli company—whose suits were worn by the likes of Jackie O. and Grace Kelly. This is Israel, I reminded myself, where people have a lot of pride in what they can accomplish on a sliver of land with few resources. It is important to boost local heroes.

We were told that the show would feature classic Gottex from over the years worn by the brand’s original models—a heartwarming and commendable gesture. Yet it is still somewhat disconcerting to see them confidently striding down the runway many years after their modeling careers have ended.

As the younger models stepped out for another show, another thing felt new, but I was not immediately sure what it was. I looked again and confirmed my initial reaction: Something was different. Then it hit me: Israel has outlawed underweight models (with a BMI below 18.5) from walking the runway or appearing in print ads. It took some getting used to, the women fleshier than the barely-legal, borderline (or over the line) anorexic fashion model that we’ve grown accustomed to. But after a few minutes it became the new normal, and further proof—for those of us who sadly still need it—that the time has come to move on from that demeaning prototype.

In the morning, we were back at the Gindi fashion mall, a source of pride for the developer but a problem for the local scene and the subject of an article in Haaretz, which asks the question that had been on the mind of the Israeli fashion world: “Just how much does Tel Aviv Fashion Week, financed by a real estate company, really help the small local fashion industry, if at all?” I heard this from the Israelis I met throughout the week who complained that the mall wouldn’t offer any platform for independent designers.

As we moved into the second day, I felt like I was seeing a fashion version of Groundhog Day, each show another variation of the same movie, telling the same story with different actors in different outfits. The clothes were beautifully made, easy on the eye, perfect for a certain occasion, but otherwise uninteresting. From Victor Bellaish’s muted seriousness to Tamara Salem’s ingenuity to Once Upon A Dream’s long dresses made for women from another era, I’m impressed by the workmanship and design. But where’s the frisson?

Galia Lahav makes beautiful couture-quality wedding dresses and statement pieces that have been worn by fashion icons like Beyoncé and J-Lo, which is great, but it’s not enough to make you part of the conversation the way Alexander McQueen was or even Kanye West is. Gender, race, and identity politics are all the rage, but where was it reflected in a country where those issues are on the top of everyone’s agenda?

At some point, I thought I’d caught the thread of something genuinely interesting: Chana Marelus, the designer of choice for the high-end women of the Orthodox community. The audience at this show was visibly different, sheitels on the wives, their daughters fashionably modest. In a strange way, Marelus’ designs are more central to the conversation than the other, more worldly designers who are comfortable with women showing off their bodies. We were treated to beautiful ball gowns, their sleeves adorned with elaborate beaded work to give the obligatory cover of the shoulders required of all Orthodox women.

But the show disappointed, because it didn’t go far enough. The rise of the religious right has brought modesty in dress into the discourse. Muslim women’s covered looks are becoming more fashionable and less intimidating. Hipsters wear skirts down to midcalf just as commonly as short ones. It is too embedded in its own religious myopia to even nod at their fellow Semites’ traditional modesty.

When fashion makes a difference, it’s because it tells a story and engages the culture. One can play safe, finding a sweet spot in the mainstream, but to be a player on the world fashion stage you need to hit a nerve. Therein lies the problem. But maybe, I thought, also the promise.

***

Taking a break from the Gindi mall’s air conditioning, I met a friend of a friend who writes for one of the daily papers. We took a walk around Tel Aviv, which I had only seen from the windows of the bus that took us to the shows in the morning and brought us back at night. My friend is gay and hip and tuned in to the backstory of almost everything in Israel. He’d started one of Israel’s first fashion blogs for men and he’s been in the thick of the scene ever since. I told him that I was looking to buy a Chai necklace for my son and he nodded, saying that where we were going on Allenby has many jewelry stores. He wanted me to see a clothing store he liked that’s near a restaurant where we could get a bite before going back to the evening show.

We arrived at Ata, a heritage brand that was founded in Haifa in 1934, specializing in workwear and children’s school uniforms. Ben-Gurion wore Ata almost exclusively, its open-necked Shabbat shirt and khaki pants becoming his virtual trademark.

The brand was recently revived by stylist Yael Shenberger and businessman/restaurateur Shahar Segal, who opened a shop on Allenby Street in an unpretentious neighborhood where the old Israel and the new live in apparent harmony, a nice mix of hip new shops with the old-timers who have been there for decades. The Ata store clothes reminded me of APC in its attention to fabric and detail, the design generic but knowingly chic at the same time. I was immediately attracted to a blue jacket in the mold of the original popular when Zionism was socialist and working on the kibbutz attracted volunteers who wanted to participate in this social experiment from all over the world. Wearing it made me feel like I was connecting with the Idealistic Israel of old—a quiet political statement. Fashion working its subtle magic.

Continuing on Allenby, I began to imagine what it might be like to live like an Israeli, at least for a few minutes. Walking past the shops, small talk among neighbors, catching up on the latest gossip. We were hungry so he suggested Port Said, an unpretentious foodie destination across the street from the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv. It’s part of an empire owned by celebrity chef Eyal Shani, a TV personality mocked and beloved for his excessive ardor when it comes to food, especially the tomatoes he covets and caresses. The restaurant’s justifiably famous minute steak and tahini doesn’t look like much, but try getting a table at night and, failing that, just hang out with a drink and join the street party scene.

I was enjoying the vibe and meeting interesting people. Most of my needs were provided for, so that I could remain—as privileged journalists on junkets often are—ostentatiously unfulfilled. I feel bad because I sympathize with Israel’s ambition to became a player on the global fashion scene, yet I have to be honest: I don’t see it happening any time soon.

Just as I was about to settle into this comfortable malaise, I sat down for a show made up of “Upcoming Designers.” And then I heard:

Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!

It went on for a full three minutes of what became total bliss for me, bringing it all full circle. And the show hadn’t even started.

I recognized the verses immediately. Before leaving for Israel, I’d attended a benefit for Jonas Mekas’ Anthology Film Archives, where Patti Smith opened her set with a reading of the very same poem. Here, it was a recording of Allen Ginsberg reading from Howl, every scatological word.

(Photo courtesy Holyland Civilians.)

When the chant was done, I saw what I’d been waiting for. Male and female models were wearing Holyland Civilians, a streetwear brand designed by Anat Meshulam and Dor Chen, Shenkar graduates who’ve returned from working in high-end fashion companies abroad to take on the elephant in the room. More than a clothing line, it’s a political option. Eyal de Leeuw, writing for Telavivian, asks the designers about the political and religious context of fashion: “Holyland is a multicultural brand—it looks at Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with the same admiration. It looks for the holy beauty existing in each one of these religions, in its symbols and ceremonies, and puts it into a new every day wardrobe.”

I thought back a few days. Before coming to Tel Aviv, we were treated to a tour of Jerusalem and Masada and the Dead Sea. We took a Jeep trail into the Judean Desert and soaked in as much history as our guide could deliver. We effectively went back in time to a different present. If Jerusalem is where people go to pray and Tel Aviv where they go to play, as our guide put it, then Jerusalem is also the anti-fashion capital. How could it be otherwise, mired as it is in the past and determined to keep it that way? The odd lot of local zealots and religious pilgrims that flood the Old City, the ones who claim not to care about fashion as change, literally wear their politics on their sleeve. Clothes as uniform, as meaning, matter here: the monks, rabbis, imams, priests, et al., united in opposition to the sybaritic life force running wild only an hour away in Tel Aviv.

“Help put us on the fashion map,” we were urged at a press conference for the assembled media. We have problems, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Tourism acknowledged. But there’s a “special energy that comes from living on the edge. Not knowing what the future brings makes you want to swallow life.”

There is a special energy in Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem, even in the desert largely devoid of human life. But instead of running away from these rich local force fields in favor of emulating the lifestyles of the West, Israelis might be better served embracing who they are, including the parts of their lives that are controversial. The foodie scene, for example, has been up to the challenge. Granted, the issues aren’t as explosive or life threatening as its political and security issues, but Israel has established its food bona fides by embracing its Mediterranean roots, not by running away from them.

Here’s a radical idea. Instead of trying to be Paris or Milan, why not settle for … Israel? Those other cities may have a host of advantages that you don’t have, but they definitely don’t have what you do—and, in fashion as in all art, one’s challenges are often (or more so) as generative as one’s privileges. Remember what they say: There’s a special energy that comes from living on the edge.

***

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