"Vibrant intense colours. Stunning prints. Magnetic forms," claimed a 1985 advert for the swimwear collection designed by Israel-based company Gottex. Launched by Lea Gottlieb and her husband Armin, the house was extremely successful at the time, having injected a healthy dose of glamour into swimsuits while elevating beachwear to resort statement.
An exhibition that opened a month ago at Design Museum Holon traces back the history of the company and celebrates its founder.
Curated by Ayala Raz, "Lady of the Daisies: Homage to the late designer and entrepreneur Lea Gottlieb", features key looks carefully selected from 1,000 designs, together with photographs, films and catalogues.
Born in Hungary in 1918, Gottlieb emigrated to Israel in 1949 after World War II together with her family. Husband Armin ran a raincoat factory in Czechoslovakia, but his products were not appropriate for the climate of the Middle East, so, in 1956, they decided to switch onto swimsuits founding Gottex Swimwear Brands Inc.
Soon Gottex (the name is a combination of two words - "Gottlieb" and "textiles") earned a reputation as a fashion leader: Gottlieb was the first fashion designer to think about transforming beachwear into a 24 hour total look, complementing swimsuits with matching tops, dresses, tunics, pareos and skirts.
Gottlieb's sophisticated designs were characterised by bold graphics or prints drawn by hand. The latter were often inspired by her passion for floral motifs that came from her war memories: the designer often used to hide her head in a bouquet of flowers to avoid being recognized as a Jew at Nazi checkpoints.
The other key selling point of Gottlieb's designs was the fact that all the shapes were engineered around the body and thought with one main aim in mind - flattering the female body with pieces that offered great bust support (check out early Gottex adverts, they even mention mastectomy swimsuits - which fashion company nowadays ever mentions such products that may actually help women regaining their self-esteem?).
In the '70s Gottex was favoured by prominent figures and celebrities and sold its products in over 75 countries. In 1972, Gottlieb won first prize in the International Fashion Show in Cannes competing against 186 manufacturers from around the world.
A year later, while the Yom Kippur War broke out, Gottlieb cancelled a European tour, took over daily operations at Gottex and kept on producing her garments, sending cars to pick up the workers living in suburban communities where there was no bus service, while arranging fashion shows for the troops. Her efforts were rewarded: The Calgary Herald from November 1973 reports that, even in such conditions, the company managed to double the exports.
Gottex prospered in the years that followed: the leading exporter of fashion swimwear to the United States in the '80s, the company hit its biggest success in this decade thanks to a strapless one-piece swimsuit that became the most widely sold style in the world.
Failing to adapt to fashion trends, Gottlieb’s designs lost their appeal in the '90s and she was forced to sell her company in 1997.
Yet the indomitable and unstoppable Gottlieb continued to design a new collection every year up to 2002 for an eponymous swimwear company she had launched when she was 85. The designer passed away last November in Tel Aviv.
The exhibition looks at Gottex as a key figure in the international fashion scene, homaging her through her achievements and vision and highlighting her merit in innovating materials and opening new markets while putting Israel on the fashion map.
The main part of the event includes some of the most stunning designs Gottlieb created, from one piece swimsuits and bikinis to kaftans and harem pants in rich in colours, densely embroidered with appliqued motifs or decorated with symbols such as the star of David, the seven-branched candelabrum or hamsa hands; other beautiful designs are inspired by Egypt and worth of Cleopatra or move from painters of the 19th and 20th centuries from Van Gogh to Paul Gaugin (Gottlieb's "Jamaica" collection features prints of Gaugin's Tahitian women). These arty pieces are showcased next to artworks or illustrations by Leah Cohen for Gottex.
The second gallery focuses on Gottex's contemporary history with new Creative Director Molly Grad, who prior to Gottex designed for international fashion houses including Stella McCartney, Yves Saint Laurent and Gianfranco Ferré, and features her illustrations and a new piece especially designed for this event, a long evening silk bronze dress.
The exhibition is complemented with video clips documenting selected fashion shows by the brand and Lea Gottlieb will be celebrated further next year with a volume focused on her work and style.
While putting together this exhibition, what kind of impression did you get about Lea Gottlieb, what kind of woman was she and did you get the chance of working alongside her while sorting and selecting the materials from the archives?
Ayala Raz: I started working on this exhibition in 2004, when it was meant to be in the Israeli Art Museum in Tel Aviv. We focused on it for half a year, but then the work was stopped. At that time Ms Gottlieb was 87 and she was very active. She was always around and she couldn't stand the fact that we had to make choices. She loved every single thing she had done, so everyday we finished and put signs about what wouldn't go into the exhibition and she would leave extremely upset. The next day we would go back to work and discover she had taken all the outsiders and put them back into the exhibition list. It was a sort of tango - one step forward, one step backward. We didn't want to offend her, but the wor k had to be done. Eventually, we found a way to collaborate and put all the garments together, highlighting which were the selected ones so that we could coherently see what was in and what was out. From that moment I realised that this lady wouldn't let you do what you wanted, she wanted the work to be done her way because she was an absolute perfectionist.
How did the exhibition at Holon Design Museum happen?
Ayala Raz: Work on that previous event in Tel Aviv stopped after six months and I didn't see her for 3 years. Then there was an initiative organised by Holon Municipality, a special evening in honour of Lea Gottieb to celebrate her 90th birthday with a fashion show featuring the latest designs she created, her models and all the people who worked with her throughout the years; it was a very special experience. I remember she was very happy when she stepped on the stage to receive a huge bouquet of flowers. In October 2012, the Design Museum in Holon contacted me and asked if I could take over the job of putting together an exhibition for Lea Gottlieb. They wanted to finish in March, which meant I had about 4 months to work on it. It wouldn't have been possible to work on this exhibition on such as short time if I hadn't carried out my researches years before.
Can you tell us more about the selecting process for this exhibition - did you find it challenging?
Ayala Raz: Most of the time an exhibition curator has to deal with finding objects; this time I had too many objects, but it was a very nice experience all the same. The research was almost done, I knew each garment by heart and I also knew from the very beginning what I wanted to put in and what I wanted to put out as I had all the time of absorbing each garment since 2004, so I had genuinely grasped the essence of each collection. I worked day and night because I wanted it to be the best. I had great help from the museum, from anybody at Gottex, from two girls who worked together with me and from a student who had started working with me when we had done the work for the Art Museum in Tel Aviv, and who is now in New York developing a research about Gottex. They all gave their contribution to the event and the best thing was that, after Lea's daughter Miriam Ruzow saw the exhibition, she sent me a bouquet of flowers and said that no important garment had been left out and this meant a lot to me.
What is Lea Gottlieb's merit in fashion history – innovating swim and beachwear and putting Israeli fashion on the map?
Ayala Raz: She added glam to beachwear and, while some may claim that this doesn't change the history of fashion, before her beachwear was conceived as practical garments that you used when you were out in the water. When she arrived on the scene, she brought with her another attitude - the idea that you can wear beachwear all day long. To make sure this happened she added all kinds of outfits that before her were not part of the beachwear wardrobe, but they were considered as casualwear. In Israel she was the greatest fashion designer of all times, she was a genuine trendsetter. In the '90s things changed: fashion turned to basic and minimalist garments leaving behind glamour, so she sold the company and then went on to create some magnificent pieces under her own name, Lea, without caring about costs, but just thinking about the most perfect creation.
In your opinion which contemporary designers are somehow getting inspired by Gottlieb's heritage?
Ayala Raz: I can't think of anybody who may be taking inspiration from her in a striking way. Molly Grad, the current Creative Director at Gottex, has obviously absorbed Gottlieb's heritage and style, but things have changed, from fabrics to tastes and markets as well. In her designs Molly Grad often takes the glam side of Lea Gottlieb, but reworks it acording her own inspirations, she is a young designer and artist, but she knows her market very well and also understands that today you have to focus on pieces that sell.
There is a strong connection between Gottlieb's pieces and art: apart from taking inspiration from art, Gottlieb's catalogues also featured colourful illustrations that could have been paintings. In your opinion, when does fashion turn into art?
Ayala Raz: I often ask myself this question, when does fashion ends and art start? When you look at Alexander McQueen's beautiful outfits you know that's art because that's far away from functional. Lea Gottlieb's works were mainly functional, yet art was a strong and energetic force in her creations, especially in her designs that took inspiration from masters such as Van Gogh, Matisse or Toulouse-Lautrec. She transferred for example in her pareos motifs from paintings and this was a kind of art, because these weren't just functional garments, but you could have hung them up a wall and they would still look beautiful. The other important thing that some may connect with art is the fact that she always had the female body in mind when she designed and always knew how to put a design in the right way so that the garment would fit beautifully and the wearer would look good. She knew how to flatter the female body and this was also one of her bestselling secrets.
In 1985 Gottex sold over one million pieces of the Seven Suit, this is an amazing record for today's standards, we live indeed in a world divided between expensive luxury items and cheap garments often made exploiting labour forces. There are a lot of successful brands out there, but there is no designer/brand who can boast about selling so many pieces of one garment, why do you think such a goal is impossible to achieve nowadays?
Ayala Raz: It's a combination of many things which work well for somebody who shows up at the right time. Coco Chanel wouldn't have done what she did if she didn't live at the end of the 19th century. All fashion designers whose contributions are remembered for generations had the chance to work at the time that was best for them. If Lea Gottlieb with all her talent and innovation had lived now, things may have not worked so well for her.
Where would you like to take this exhibition in future?
Ayala Raz: The first call should be New York also because the American market was the best foreign market for Gottex; the next stop should then be Paris or London. I hope that will happen because Lea Gottlieb's legacy should be preserved and cherished.
"Lady of the Daisies: Homage to the late designer and entrepreneur Lea Gottlieb", Design Museum Holon, Israel, until 4th May 2013.
All image courtesy of Design Museum Holon. The number refers to the image order in this post.
1, 2, 5, 14 Lea Gottlieb. Photography credit: Lea Gottlieb Archive.
3, 4, 6, 7 Gottex designs donned by models Louise & Shlomit Amir; models Nechama Lev & Louise; unknown models; Louise and unknown model. Photographer Ben Lam.
8 Molly Grad Sketches, Biarritz, 2011.
9, 10, 11, 19 "Lady of the Daisies" exhibition, Design Museum Holon. Photographs by Yael Engelhart.
12, 13 Design and illustrations by Gottex Creative Director Molly Grad, "Lady of the Daisies" exhibition, Design Museum Holon. Photographs by Yael Engelhart.
15,16 Details from Gottex catalogue, 1977. Production Turnowsky Ltd. Illustration Lea Cohen.
17 Detail from Gottex catalogue, 1979. Production Turnowsky Ltd. Illustration Lea Cohen.
18 Molly Grad Sketches, 3 Women, 2012.
20, 21 "Lady of the Daisies" exhibition, Design Museum Holon. Photographs by Keren Lachman.
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