Galia Lahav is one of the internationally most successful Tel Aviv designers of haute couture. In the 1950s, while still a child, she immigrated to Israel with her family. She subsequently trained as an arts and needlework teacher, and in 1985 she opened her first store for handmade lace trimming – which was to be the beginning of her career in the fashion industry. Today she specializes in wedding and evening gowns. Her studio located in the center of Tel Aviv employs a staff of more than 100. Lahav’s luxurious wedding gowns made of exquisite lace, tulle and delicate embroidery are mainly worn by international celebrities and European nobility. Her creations are known for their low-cut and artfully decorated backs and flowing skirts. This aspect is also highlighted in this photograph from Lahav’s website, which shows a voluminous and richly embroidered tulle skirt. Despite their smooth silhouette her dresses look dramatic and romantic. In order to achieve this effect, she adopts stylistic elements from earlier periods in her collections. The “Corina” design shown in the photograph features a slim-fitting waist that imitates the “New Look” of the 1950s. In combination with the elaborate trimming, embroidery and voluminous skirt the wedding gown takes on a grand look, like a dress out of a fairy tale. On the fashion label’s website the photograph is meant to catch the eye and thus advertise for the fashion business. Young women are invited to identify with the models shown wearing the wedding gowns and to imagine themselves wearing one of Galia Lahav’s dresses on their wedding day in front of a rapt audience in a grand hall. It is suggested to them that when wearing the right dress they can feel “majestic” or like a “fairy tale princess” – after all, “Corina” is part of a collection called “le secret royal” [the royal secret], which certainly suggests such an association.
In 2016 Galia Lahav’s fashion house was invited to join the Paris association “Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.” This means that it now has the right to refer to its creations as “couture” in France as well and thus distinguish itself from Prêt-à-porter [ready to wear] fashion, meaning industrially produced clothing. It is an honor that highlights superior tailoring using luxurious materials.
Lahav’s international success is symbolic for the rise of this young Israeli beach town to a fashion metropolis. Since the 1930s a growing number of central European Jews settled in Tel Aviv, and in addition to their language and culture they also brought their dress style with them. Many of these immigrants had worked in the European garment industry and went on to establish fashion businesses in their new home as well. Despite difficult beginnings due to material shortages, Tel Aviv became an export city for exclusive fashion items in the 1950s. By contrast, clothing produced for the local market initially remained mostly of basic quality and was not very fashionable. The great majority of Israeli women were unable to afford expensive and extravagant clothes in times of national austerity measures. Meanwhile Israeli clothing destined for export conformed to European and especially French standards. Lola Ber, one of the first famous Tel Aviv designers, was strongly influenced by Christian Dior. Ber was born in 1910 in Moravia, in today’s Czech Republic, and migrated to Palestine in 1939. She had received her professional training in Europe before she left, however. In her designs she combined perfect craftsmanship with simple elegance and stylistic complexity.
Before the National Socialist regime there had been a number of Jewish garment businesses and clothing stores in Hamburg. Among those were the clothing stores Gebr. Hirschfeld, Gebr. Robinsohn, and the East India house Heinrich Colm located at Neuer Wall, the ladies’ clothing store owned by the Feldberg brothers, and the textile factory Rappolt & Sons on Mönckebergstraße. Hamburg’s Jewish citizens were also known as manufacturers of raincoats, such as the coat factory of Hans Steinberg & Co. on Bellalliancestraße. Frank Bajohr’s research has shown that more than 40 percent of all stores that specialized in ladies’ and girls’ clothing had been owned by Jews. Jewish fashion boutiques had a long tradition in Hamburg. In 1892 Leo Robinsohn opened the first clothing store owned by his family at Bleichenbrücke. When the business moved to its new location at Neuer Wall in 1901, it had more than 150 employees. Gebr. Hischfeld sold high-end women’s clothing to its Hamburg clientele since 1893. Due to the rapid success of the Hirschfeld family business, further branches in Bremen, Lübeck, Hannover and Leipzig were opened in the following years. Meanwhile the Gebr. Feldberg store was known all over Germany as a specialist for women’s coats.
Other German cities, and especially Berlin, had been home to well-known Jewish fashion boutiques as well. The Nathan Israel department store on Spandauer Straße, whose beginnings date back to 1815, was very popular, for instance. Hermann Gerson’s clothing store had been purveyor to the Prussian Royal and Imperial court since the middle of the 19th century. Both houses also sold haute couture from Paris and custom-designed ready-to-wear clothing based on French fashions. They also invited their customers to “fashion teas” and larger fashion shows at which well-known actresses modeled the designs.
In Hamburg Jewish fashion boutiques presented the latest collections in much the same way. This report from the local paper Hamburger Nachrichten dated March 23, 1927 describes the course of a fashion show at Gebr. Robinsohn. The author particularly points out the elegant evening and wedding gowns, whose description is reminiscent of Galia Lahav’s designs: “Among the evening gowns there were some precious pieces to be seen, which certainly will have stirred a wistful craving in many a woman due to their splendor and grandeur. There was a dress made of silver brocade with silver lace and embroidered with dusky pink pearls that was pretty as a picture.” The show closed with a design for “a wedding gown of white satin crepe silk with a veil and lace trim.”
Beginning in 1933 Jewish fashion store owners were discriminated against and forced to either withdraw from or sell their businesses because the National Socialists considered the fashion industry particularly “infested with Jews” [verjudet]. Antisemitic propaganda accused fashion made or sold by Jews of seducing “German women” and called their clothes a “disgrace” and a “debasement of German taste.” On April 1, 1933, the day on which the NSDAP had called for a nationwide boycott against Jewish stores, law and medical offices, members of the SA positioned themselves outside Jewish clothing stores in Hamburg as well, trying to prevent customers from entering by spreading antisemitic slogans such as “Don’t buy from Jews” [Kauft nicht bei Juden]. Non-Jews who showed themselves undeterred were photographed and publicly shamed by having their names published on lists. In June 1933 the “Working Group of German / Aryan Manufacturers in the Garment Industry,” or Adefa Arbeitsgemeinschaft deutsch/arischer Fabrikanten der Bekleidungsindustrie was founded. It set itself the goal of ridding the German fashion industry of Jews. The companies united in this group marked their clothing with a label that read “Adefa – das Zeichen für Ware aus arischer Hand” [Adefa – the label for Aryan-made clothing]. Adefa systematically excluded Jewish fashion businesses and threatened retailers with denunciation if they continued selling clothes made by Jewish companies. During the pogrom of November 9, 1938 there was open violence against Hamburg’s Jewish fashion stores. For example, SA and SS units stormed the Gebr. Robinsohn store, vandalized it deliberately and plundered some of its wares. They threw mannequins and bolts of cloth into the nearby Alster canal. The damage done to the Gebr. Hirschfeld store by vandalism and plundering amounted to 100,000 Reichsmark. By 1939 the forced “Aryanization” of Hamburg’s Jewish businesses was complete, which put an end to the tradition of Jewish fashion stores who had been renowned for their competence, quality and elegance. Many of their former owners who were unable to emigrate were murdered in the systematic extermination of European Jews. At the same time, the National Socialists often took advantage of their tailoring skills in the ghettos and concentration camps by having Jewish inmates sew custom-made clothing for high-ranking party officials and their wives, for the military or for German companies.
Since the opening of Galia Lahav’s wedding gown boutique a few years ago, there now is a Jewish fashion store in Hamburg again. Lahav’s boutique at Mittelweg and the presentation of new designs in wedding catalogs and occasionally at fashion shows such as the one held for the store opening pick up on the tradition of Hamburg’s Jewish fashion stores, and they serve to remind us of a part of the rich cultural heritage destroyed by the National Socialists. However, Lahav herself does not make this connection, and her Hamburg flagship store even expressly rejects this notion.
On the one hand, this image can be interpreted in a German-Jewish context. It documents the important economic and cultural role the Jewish population once played in the fashion industry in both Hamburg and Germany. In the context of German-Israeli relations, it also illustrates the history of Jewish immigrants to Israel. Knowing how to use their creative talents in their new home as well, they managed to establish an internationally successful branch of the fashion industry.
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Julie Grimmeisen, Dr., is the academic director at the Consulate General of the State of Israel in Munich. She gained her PhD at the Chair for Jewish History and Culture at LMU Munich. In 2017, the publishing house Wallstein published her dissertation “Pioneers and Beauty Queens. Female Role Models in Israel. 1948 to 1967.“
Julie Grimmeisen, Haute Couture from Israel. Designer Galia Lahav and Hamburg’s Past as a Place for Jewish Fashion Houses (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, December 07, 2018. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-246.en.v1> [September 18, 2020].