Photo: Pascale Richard
Journalist Jeanne Beker has shaped fashion as much as the designers she’s covered. As longtime host of Canada’s much-missed Fashion Television, her zingy runway reports and designer interviews aired in more than 130 countries; she still hosts a spinoff on a Canadian cable channel, and has opined on fashion for The Toronto Star. Now, she’s added “curator” to her resume. “Politics of Fashion | Fashion of Politics,” which she guest-curated, opens at Toronto’s Design Exchange museum this week; it’s a provocative look at fashion “as a mirror of society by highlighting how clothing has been used as a tool for communicating identity and political expression.”
With 200 pieces, from PETA t-shirts to Stella McCartney’s 2000 plastic-and-glass jacket to historic pieces from ‘60s icons Rudi Gernreich and Mary Quant, the exhibition is a provocative look at subversive clothing at a volatile time in history. Beker herself carries an especially keen sense of personal politics to the show; she’s the daughter of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Toronto in 1948. Educated at Toronto’s Talmud Torah Jewish schools, Beker’s a mainstay on the Jewish-giving circuit, most recently as producer of a fashion-show benefit for Zareinu, a school for children with severe developmental issues. The Forward caught up with her from her Toronto home.
Michael Kaminer: The exhibition’s called “Politics of Fashion | Fashion of Politics.” How much of the political content in fashion is part of someone’s agenda, versus an accident or subconscious expression?
Jeanne Beker: That’s exactly what’s at the crux of the show. It is deliberate. I’ve worked with and interviewed designers, and covered their collections, for nearly three decades. I’ve met many who wanted to say more through their garments than just a perfect design or something that makes a woman look sexy. A lot of designers have a point of view, and want to enlighten people. It’s the power of fashion to communicate all kinds of ideas. Those can come from political beliefs and convictions. Those are the types of garments we’re featuring.
But some controversial collections, like Jean-Paul Gaultier’s infamous 1993 take on Orthodox garb, didn’t make the cut.
Musician Rosanne Cash reminisces about a purple shirt that once belonged to her legendary father. Designer Cynthia Rowley rhapsodizes about the Girl Scouts sash that helped ignite her entrepreneurial spark. And an octogenarian Holocaust survivor named Dorothy Finger shares memories of a suit made with a bolt of cloth she took from her childhood home — her only possession touched by her late mother.
Their stories are among 67 “sartorial memoirs” in “Worn Stories” (Princeton Architectural Press), a new book inspired by the blog where visitors share their stories about clothing and life experiences. A stark, simple image of an article of clothing — many in an advanced state of wear — accompanies each testimonial.
“Most of the garments aren’t particularly extraordinary by themselves,” says Worn Stories creator Emily Spivack. “It’s only by hearing each story that you recognize the significance. And even though the memories are all very specific, the themes they touch on are universal — family, relationships, a funny moment. They’re all moments in time from a personal and cultural perspective.”
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
It so happened this year that Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, coincided with New York’s Fashion Week, prompting some eagle-eyed observers to trumpet the possibility of a showdown between the “shofar and the shows,” a clash between the “Goddess of Fashion” and the God of the patriarchs and matriarchs.
That didn’t happen, of course. For the most part, those participants who were directly affected by the calendrical conflict made their peace with it. Some stayed away from the runway, others adjusted their schedules and still others clucked their tongues in dismay.
What no one did, near as I can tell, was launch a public protest. What a missed opportunity! Way back in May, when Fashion Week’s schedule was first announced, its sponsors issued the following, rather tepid, statement:
The CFDA greatly respects and understands the importance of this holiday but, given the international calendar of European shows directly after New York, we do not have the option to shift the dates later. We realize that the observance of the holiday will impact some in their ability to attend or present shows — but we are asking that everyone please work with us to make this situation work as best as possible.
It’s a striking experience to enter a hall dating to the Crusader period deep in the bowels of the Tower of David in the Old City of Jerusalem, and to encounter mannequins draped in haute couture by some of the Israel’s top contemporary fashion designers.
This is exactly the effect desired by new museum director Eilat Lieber and the exhibition’s curator, fashion photographer Tamar Karavan. “It’s a groundbreaking exhibition for this museum,” said Tower of David spokeswoman Caroline Shapiro, about the institution, which is known more for its archeologically excavated layers of the Holy City than for layers of fabric draped over models.
“Threads,” as the exhibition is titled, invites visitors to “experience contemporary fashion embroidered by history.” On view are exquisite garments created by 10 of Israel’s leading fashion designers — all women — inspired by 10 remarkable women from Jerusalem’s past. It’s a fashion show and feminist history lesson all rolled in to one.
“The brief to the designers was, ‘This historical character walks into your studio — dress her,’” explained Shapiro. “That’s it. The designer did not have to be historically accurate in any way, or even be historically inspired. She was free to interpret the woman in any way she wished.”
“The genius of the Satmar rebbe,” Williamsburg-based artist Michael Levin says of the late Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the post-Holocaust leader of Williamsburg’s Satmar Hasidic community, “was to say that if you wear a shtreimel and long peyes, everyone will be freaked out and hate you and stay away from you. But in the end, they’ll also respect you.”
Whether or not the Satmars have gained the respect of the world is up for debate, but the Satmar Rebbe’s ideology of separatism has proven effective at preserving the Hasidic lifestyle. Hasidic garb, the subject of a new art exhibit by Levin called “Jews of Today,” as well as a book called “Jews of Today: A Primer on Hasidic Dress,” has perhaps been the most important factor of that ideology.
The exhibit, which opened July 20 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is at once an expression of the artist’s fascination with Hasidim as well as a recognition of his outsider status. His work, while deeply respectful — even reverent at times — includes imaginative interpretations of Hasidic life that would strike Hasidim themselves as alien.
Raised in Los Angeles, Calif., with what he calls “Hollywood-style” Reform Judaism, Levin, 28, moved to Brooklyn in 2007 and developed an interest in the Hasidic community. “I was jealous,” he says. While not religiously observant, Levin says that as a Jew he identifies with the Hasidim in a powerful way. “If there were a race war in this city, I’d run to the Hasidim.”
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
One of the most exciting — certainly among the most crowded — of exhibitions in New York at the moment is the Met’s “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity.” And for good reason. Training its sights on the triangulated relationship among these three mighty cultural forces of the late 19th century, the exhibition opens our eyes to what makes us truly modern: our clothes.
As visitors in casual attire take in the somber black suits, oversized cashmere shawls, dainty shoes, upstanding hats, ever-so-tight bodices and enormous bustles that inhabit this exhibition both visually and artifactually, they’re hard pressed at first to associate them with modernity. Exercises in modulation and constraint, these articles of dress seen anything but modern.
Thanks, though, to the smart and allusive writing on the wall and to the canny juxtapositions between painting and object, which echo and reverberate, we come away with an entirely fresh perspective on late 19th-century dress and, more broadly still, on why clothing matters as much as it does. As Anatole France put it, “If I were permitted to choose amidst the jumble of books that will be published a hundred years after my death, do you know which one I would pick? … A fashion magazine in order to see how women will dress a century after my passing. And these rags would tell me more about humanity’s future than philosophers, novelists, preachers, or scholars.”
Fashion mavens treasure the memory of a 2006 Yeshiva University Museum exhibit, “A Perfect Fit: The Garment Industry and American Jewry, 1860-1960,” which inspired a slim catalogue. Earlier this year, Texas Tech University Press published an augmented new book featuring high drama, as in a chapter by economist Bernard Smith about the growth of the turn-of-the-century ready-made menswear industry.
When German Jewish émigré families excelled in making and marketing clothes, goyish competitors were not always thrilled. In 1890, Ed Huntley, a Chicago menswear vendor, printed a catalogue hawking “Honest Gentile Clothing,” also featuring caricatures of Jews as “plundering, parasitic, vulgar, fraudulent, and loathsome.” Huntley claimed he was providing a public service by offering an alternative to the “exorbitant prices charged by the Jews.” Jewish publications across the country reacted, with one terming Huntley a “drunkard, debauchee, thief, and swindler.” A traveling salesman named Rosenbaum was quoted as saying about the brouhaha: “I forgot for an instant that I was living in the closing quarter of the nineteenth century, and was carried back… to the blackest midnight of the middle ages, when ignorance, superstition, and crime hung, like a pall, over all Europe.”
Another chapter in “A Perfect Fit” by historian Rob Schorman underlines how Jewish merchants opted for trendy, up-to-the-minute advertising pitches. In 1898, just after the sinking of the U. S. S. Maine, which led to the Spanish-American War, “Yiddishe Tageblatt,” the New York daily, ran an ad by one retailer appealing to patriotic sentiments:
“Remember and don’t forget what the Spaniards have done to you with the ship Maine. And take revenge on them! While the entire public, however, is so busy remembering the Maine, we would like to point out that in all your boundless remembrance you should not forget that there are many other important things that one mustn’t forget, namely that the famous businessman M. Yachnin, 55 Canal St…has just received a brand-new stack of the finest gents furnishing goods for spring.”
Years later, the precedent of wheedling schmatta salesmen may have led Hollywood’s acclaimed Jewish costume designers, such as Adrian (born Adrian Adolph Greenberg; 1903-1959) and Edith Head (born Edith Posener; 1897-1981) to be discreet about their family origins. Before such discretion became the rule, Samuel Goldwyn, who like several other Hollywood pioneers started out in the clothes trade, produced a silent comedy, “Potash and Perlmutter” (1923) about mishaps in the garment industry, based on stories by the UK Jewish humorist Montague Glass..
Watch the trailer for the 2009 HBO documentary, “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags” here.
Crossposted from Haaretz
Designer Yossi Katzav’s fashion show for his men’s fashion brand, Sketch, was an intimate affair. At least in the atmosphere prevailing in the showroom and the adjacent balcony, it was reminiscent of fashion shows in Paris before celebrities and the masses began flocking to catwalks in recent decades. Taking place in a central Tel Aviv gallery, it was a calm, well-run show, which in its own way demonstrated the essence of local male fashion, with most of the clothing easy to wear and easy to digest — without trying to mark out new territory or challenge the audience with far-fetched and unfeasible styles and trends.
On the one hand this show could be seen as an overly arrogant display by the young brand, which has four seasons and three stores behind it. The collection is sedate and conveys the feeling that this is almost a veteran brand that is already established and etched in our collective memory. On the other hand the small and intimate show could also be seen as a sign of maturity and a desire to become established without grandiose aspirations, which for the most part alienate their target audience. Added to that is the difficult financial situation that many brands are experiencing, and the greater difficulty in selling fashion to a local male clientele, which buys rarely and is afraid to take risks.
Photo by Neta Alonim
The iconography of fashion is perhaps not the most obvious tool with which to parse the complexities of the Middle East. Still, everything else seems to have failed; more to the point, style does shares a common vocabulary. So, why not?
“InSALAAM, InSHALOM,” a fashion collection and multimedia exhibit curated by the New York based fashion house threeASFOUR, is an ambitious exploration of the visual cues that establish a kinship between the diverse cultures of the eastern Mediterranean. That “visual vocabulary” is the starting point for a consideration of the less-obvious ties between Jewish and Arab cultures; “by presenting these different cultural talismans as a unity, the collection forms an aesthetic expression of sensitive coexistence.”
There’s no harm in observing that “InSALAAM, InSHALOM” states something of the obvious — at least up to a point. Despite the fractious relationship between the two tribes through the ages, it’s only reasonable to expect some cultural cross-pollination. To its credit, however, the exhibition — spread across four floors of Beit Ha’ir, the elegant mandate-era building in Tel Aviv that was the home of the city’s first mayors — doesn’t merely join the dots, but strives towards a meaningful statement about relations across the cultural and political divide.
Today, there are any number of ways one can make it in America, yet generations of Jews still gravitate toward the shmatte business.
HBO’s “How To Make It In America,” which starts its second season October 2, is the story of a Fashion Institute of Technology dropout named Ben Epstein (played by Bryan Greenberg), struggling to break into New York City’s ultra-competitive fashion scene. He and his Dominican sidekick, Cam Calderon (Victor Rasuk), hustle their way through gangsters, designers and Manhattan nightlife in hopes of making a name for their budding denim and t-shirt line, Crisp.
“Ian Edelman, the creator of the show, is Jewish,” noted Greenberg, who was raised Conservative. “I think he was just fascinated with the story of Ralph Lauren — a Jewish guy from the Bronx who changed fashion, and changed it so much that he became a fashion icon.”
How many 90-year-old women start designing their own fashion accessories line for the Home Shopping Network and get to be the subject of a new documentary by a renowned filmmaker? Not many. But then again, Iris Apfel is not your usual nonagenarian.
In the sunset of her life Apfel, style icon and interior designer, has received the most attention and been the most appreciated. As much as you may dislike her exotic and riotous taste (“A more-is-more mix of haute couture and hippie trimmings that appears at a glance to have been blended in a Cuisinart,” is how Ruth La Ferla referred to it in The New York Times), it is hard to take your eyes off her eye-popping outfits and oversized round eyeglasses.
While those glasses are going to be the inspiration for a line of scarves that Apfel will be hocking on HSN, it is her larger-than-life personality that has attracted Albert Maysles (director of “Grey Gardens”) and his production company. Apfel is a woman with a lot of moxie, a lot to say, and lots and lots of clothes — most of them stored in a huge warehouse. “She’s wonderfully strong-willed, opinionated and single-minded,” Bradley Kaplan, president of products at Maysles Films, told the Times. “She’s not a waffler.”
High heels are a great way of attracting attention — think of Carrie Bradshaw teetering on vertiginous Manolo Blahniks in “Sex and the City.” But even she might have balked at slipping on one of Kobi Levi’s more imaginative designs. There’s “Chewing Gum,” for instance, capturing the moment just after the wearer has “stepped” in a wad of gum, or “Mother and Daughter,” a cute and whimsical observation on that most basic — and complicated — of relationships. On the other hand, there’s “Blow,” which resembles a blow-up doll apparently engaged in the act of… I’ll skip the details, in deference to readers of more sensitive dispositions.
But for all this, Kobi Levi’s unique designs are not about attracting attention; rather, it is all about creative expression and enjoyment. “People should enjoy what they wear,” he insists. One-off prototypes, the designs are perhaps something of a foil for his conventional work as a professional shoe designer with a respected international portfolio.
Crossposted from Haaretz
For Yotam Raz-Friedman, 21, shoe design is intuitive. He began to acquire his skills at age 12 in Haifa. He would take apart his family’s shoes and put them back together again, and he diligently studied shoemakers at work.
At 16, he had already customized sneakers for clients. Two years later, he created the label Nouveau Riche Dog with Maoz Dahan. The two used black or white pairs of sneakers made by Nike, Adidas and Reebok and colored them with special leather dyes, removed parts and sewed them back in new places, tore out tongues and linings and added panels and strips of Velcro.
“When I was 4-years-old, I saw the movie ‘Bambi’ with my mother, and I asked her how animals knew when they were supposed to reproduce or run from fire. She told me they inherited instincts. That’s how it is with me and shoes. It comes to me naturally,” he says.
It is safe to wager that New York City has seen it all when an art rave fashion show spirals into an impromptu hora on an open, desolate warehouse block. These men’s dancing feet may have been inspired by a sudden spiritual impulse to be closer to God. But the sudden shakedown also could have been a reaction to the recent display of Jewish girls strutting down a catwalk wearing little more than their grandfather’s tallis.
On December 1, in a 20,000-square-foot loft in Brooklyn, Hanukkah was promoted from the festival of lights to the festival of art, music, and fashion. The event kicked off the sixth annual Sephardic Music Festival, which has been throwing light on Sephardic culture for the last six years through diverse artistic events in venues around the city. With a sumptuous arsenal of musical and artistic talent, the Sephardic Music Festival strives to revitalize a spiritually thrilling aspect of Jewish history.
The Strasbourg-born French Jewish novelist Eliette Abécassis has been inspired by themes from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Shoah. Yet Abécassis, daughter of the noted Morocco-born French historian of philosophy Armand Abécassis, seemed to switch subject matter in 2008 when she wrote “Mother and Daughter: a Novel” (Les éditions Albin Michel) about the fashion superstar mother-and-daughter team, Sonia and Nathalie Rykiel. This too, however, turned out to be a story filled with Yiddishkeit, after all.
Based on a year spent observing the Rykiels at their fashion company, from which Sonia, born in 1930, just retired, Abécassis produced what she called an “elaboration” rather than biography of the two women. Now Nathalie Rykiel offers her own viewpoint in “You Will be a Woman, my Daughter” from Les éditions Calmann-Lévy, a compelling family memoir.
As much maternal as daughterly, Nathalie Rykiel, whose book’s title is addressed to her own young offspring, is very much the Jewish mother, even offering remedies for migraine. She expresses admiration for Jewish singers like Monique Andrée Serf, known as Barbara, and Leonard Cohen, especially the latter’s song “In My Secret Life.”