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The High Fashion of Gottex Swimwear

New exhibit highlights Lea Gottlieb’s designs, unlikely runway to success

Gabriela Geselowitz
April 22, 2015
Gottex swimsuits. (JCC Manhattan)

Gottex swimsuits. (JCC Manhattan)

Just in time for summer, the JCC in Manhattan’s Laurie M. Tisch gallery has opened “What’s Under Your Pareo?: Unraveling the Work of Lea Gottlieb.” And if the name doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps her work will: Gottlieb was the mastermind being Gottex, the Israeli company that brought swimwear into the world of high fashion. From Princess Diana to the cast of The Love Boat, it seems that everyone took a turn in Gottex from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Gottlieb, who diedin 2012 at the age of 94, walked an unusual runway to success. Born in Hungary, she survived the Holocaust with her daughters by hiding from the Nazis (her husband survived a labor camp). After the war, the family reunited, moved to Israel, and founded Gottex (a portmanteau of Gottlieb and textiles). They began by producing raincoats, but, finding Tel Aviv more sunny than stormy, switched to swimsuits. All four Gottliebs worked on the business together, but Lea was the chief designer. (Gottlieb sold the company in 1997, but kept her title until 2001.)

Gottlieb’s signature swimsuits were bright and bold, perfect for beaches of Tel Aviv. She experimented with shape and accoutrements, and utilized new techniques of producing patterns. As a designer, she was unafraid.

The exhibit boasts several pieces from Gottlieb’s artistic height, as well as photographs from her career, notes and sketches, and items that inspired her work. Gottlieb’s works are collages of influences from fine art to folk history. This exhibit includes pieces inspired both by the work of Marc Chagall and Hungarian folk costumes. Gottlieb told her own life story through her works, as well as larger history of the places she went.

One notable part of the installation includes samples from the “Jerusalem of Gold” series in which Gottlieb took particular pride. The clothing included in this series are made of white, light fabrics, with gold and turquoise adornments; the gold calls to the Biblical splendor of Jerusalem, and turquoise traditionally guards against the evil eye. One piece even includes a panel on its chest with a grid of twelve Jewish elements: menorahs, stars of David, hamsas. It looks as though a High Priest were a woman, and also on her way to Fashion Week. It’s chic, a bit transgressive, and explicitly Jewish—a reflection of Israeli culture.

While Gottex might not boast the same zeitgeist it once did, the company still produces boldly-designed, high-end swimwear—a piece can run in the $100-$200 range—out of Israel.

The exhibit runs through August 2.

Gabriela Geselowitz is a writer and the former editor of

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