From the choreography of gestures to national color schemes in outfits, international relations have been governed by style and decorum protocols which let the public know the state of the union(s). Then came the “I don’t care” jacket and walking in front of the Queen. Given severity of the blunders, the New York Times formally announced “the death of fashion diplomacy” in 2019. Luckily, it was a premature eulogy. The Biden’s administration ushered in a new era of well-tailored sartorial communication. Pandemic mask mandates highlighted the intersection of “function, fashion, and politics” as world leaders navigated the subtleties of keeping face without showing a face.
Nowadays fashion diplomacy thrives in three areas. It is increasingly becoming a means of mobilizing collective action and a platform for artists to express solidarity in times of crisis. It serves as a way of supporting domestic economic growth while positioning national brands in the global marketspace. Finally, fashion diplomacy can create opportunities for historic breakthroughs and a radical change of cultural status quo. Preparing for Kornit Fashion Week Tel Aviv, I was curious how one of the most dynamic events on the industry circuit would address the world’s pressing diplomatic concerns. Turns out fashion diplomacy is not only alive, it is thriving!
Solidarity with Ukraine
From Balenciaga dedicating its fall-winter show to Ukraine to Vogue Poland publishing its April issue with a focus on Ukrainian design talents, the tragedy unfolding in this Eastern European nation has united the creative industries in their supportive response. In Tel Aviv, designers Tovale and Naama Chasin placed Ukrainian flags on all the front row seats and had models sing Ukrainian songs on the runway. A poignant moment was made even more emotional by the fact that this collection highlighted Chasin’s Lifetime Achievement Award for creative longevity in fashion.
An Israeli-Ukrainian brand Para Ruk featured accessories, scarves, and bags handmade in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. Most artisans managed to get their last-minute deliveries out just as the supply lines were coming under fire across the country. A T-shirt collection We Ukraine designed by Ukrainian artists was sold at a showroom curated by the fashion producer Roza Sinaysky. “Many Jewish people have long history of family ties to Ukraine. The Ukrainian Israeli diaspora is strong here, so we had to give this matter with all the attention it needs and deserves,” said Motty Reif, founder of Kornit Fashion Week Tel Aviv. Purchasing an item made me reflect on Madeleine Albright’s recent passing and the late Secretary’s legacy of fashion diplomacy. A collection of jewelry which accompanied her in official state travels became an exhibition Read My Pins celebrating the soft power of intention. Gestures big and small count at a time like this.
Pride in Domestic Product
Meanwhile, Jewish and Israeli designers have been continuously making fashion media headlines for pioneering creative concepts and business practices in cruelty-free design, faith-driven style as well as NFTs and fashion tech. Oh, and for dressing Beyoncé! After one of the shows, I asked Michal Herzog, the First Lady of Israel, what role fashion played in Israel’s cultural diplomacy. “Israeli fashion has always been one of our greatest ambassadors in the world. I grew up as a great admirer of Maskit led by the late Ruth Dayan and the incredible Gottex swimwear. They brought the Made in Israel label to every major store worldwide. Young designers are taking the lead and making us proud.”
New talent includes Aharon Genish who stood out for his fascinating take on gender (non)conformity. His collection featured identical items based on the strict Haredi dress code of his childhood. Garments were then customized with unique digitally printed landscape elements emphasizing the blurring feminine/masculine boundaries.
YANKY & NATAF is a brand by the creative power couple Yanki Golian and Nataf Hirschberg Golian. Their collection was one of the week’s most fun to see and imagine oneself wearing. Inspired by the 1980’s and the 2030’s, they infused their time traveling nostalgia with a touch of the metaverse hype. Israel’s leading design institutions such as Shenkar, the Bezalel Academy and the Holon Institute of Technology focus on new textiles development alongside traditional fashion education. No surprise that their alumni are among the most innovative designers working today.
Young couturier Alon Livné began his path into fashion by cutting and re-sewing his grandmother’s old tablecloths. Now he works with 3D printed leather patterns and laser-cut couture textiles to create contemporary fashion sculptures admired by the likes of Cardi B, Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian and Naomi Campbell. Blending proud heritage with future-savvy vision is a signature mix that makes Israeli style appealing to the global audience. “I love contemporary designs that integrate traditional motifs and ornamentations into modern pieces. Our designers offer daring modern designs with a taste of the Middle East. Internationally, that’s an attractive combination with an interesting twist,” noted the First Lady Michal Herzog.
The week’s most powerful fashion diplomacy statement was its most ambitious yet. A year ago, fashion magazines L’Officiel Arabia and Laisha exchanged gestures of good will by putting the first Israeli and the first Arab model on their respective covers. “But will this last?” I asked in my report about that incredible moment. Fast forward to spring 2022 and Emirati luxury couturier Mona al Mansouri made history by becoming the first Arab designer to showcase in Israel! The meticulously crafted collection of gorgeous gowns would have impressed the most decerning haute couture audience anywhere in the world. Dr. Mona (as she is known to a million fans on Instagram) is based in Abu Dhabi. An engineer with a successful career in the petroleum industry, she was inspired to pursue fashion by the late Gianni Versace. “I was very sad when he was assassinated because I used to consider him a part of me. His work was different, innovative, stimulating.”
Israeli singer Miri Mesika opened the show. A coach on The Voice Israel and a judge on the Israeli version of American Idol, her presence added pop gravity to an already powerful moment. By the time Dr. Mona walked out for the requisite bow, the entire audience was on its feet for a standing ovation. A song by Arik Einstein was playing with lyrics in Hebrew: “You and I will change the world together.” Many were moved to tears. Dr. Mona was also encouraged by the support from her Emirati, Saudi and Qatari clients. Motty Reif, founder of Kornit Fashion Week, noted that “it was a dream come true to finally host the first show by an Arab designer in Tel Aviv! Dr. Mona always understood this was bigger than politics. It was about peace, and she was very brave to be the first to make this step.”
Following the cooperation mandate of 2020 Abrahamic Accords by Israel, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, fashion is becoming one of the most eloquent voices for sustainable peace in the region. “As a luxury brand, I compete with the largest fashion houses not only in the Middle East, but at the global level. Tel Aviv surpassed my experience of fashion events in France, Italy, Spain. From the creativity of the designers to professionalism in directing, lighting, organizing, it was beyond imagination,” remarked Dr. Mona.