Jewish Journal

Israel’s Design World Faces a Shoe-Making Dilemma

by Meredith Price

Posted on Feb. 19, 2009 at 12:59 am

Thanks to the foundation of The Guild, a new shoe and accessory school in Tel Aviv, a new generation of talented Israeli shoe designers is flourishing. But despite the growing number of handmade shoes in the Holy Land, many new designers are facing real challenges in getting their work made.

“Young people today don’t want to make shoes. They want better careers that earn more money, and they don’t want to get their hands dirty,” said Nina Rozin, who co-founded The Guild with her business partner, Gal Shukroon-Ganon. “Once upon a time, this skill was passed from generation to generation, but the Israeli way is to earn a quick buck without labor-intensive work.”

As we toured the school’s uber-modern workshop and classroom, Rozin explained that Israel’s shoemaking industry has a rich and colorful history. In the 1950s, waves of skilled North African immigrants set up small shops in Tel Aviv and Yaffo. By the 1980s, the number of cobblers had drastically fallen due to lower import taxes and less demand. In the 1990s, more professional shoemakers arrived from the former Soviet Union, but today they, too, are retiring.

So while Israel’s large shoemaking factories are successfully producing and selling their well-known brands all over the world — from Naot and Beautifeel to Shoresh and Moran — the skilled cobblers necessary to produce the small lines that new designers require are disappearing. And no one is stepping in to replace them.

Another critical challenge for new shoe designers who want to produce small lines of handmade shoes is the consignment system in Israel.

“We have a huge amount of talent and creativity here, but it’s hard to survive because the stores here borrow your collection instead of buying it. If they sell your shoes, they give you the money months later. If they don’t, you get them back at the end of the season,” Rozin explained. “It doesn’t work this way anywhere else in the world, and it makes it terribly difficult for young designers to enter the market and succeed.”

Nevertheless, despite the challenges, Israel has witnessed an undeniable boom in the handmade shoe industry over the last several years. From traditional, classic lines with a twist to wildly colorful vintage collections, this winter’s shoes offer a style to suit every taste.

“I’ve known I wanted to make shoes since I was a teenager,” said Inbal Yosifon of the Shoemaker label. “I play around with different forms and materials to come up with new collections twice a year.” This winter, the designs range from brightly colored retro heels to ultra modern knee-high suede boots. “The theme for this winter is color, but there is not a unifying factor for the collection. A pair of shoes is not like a clothing line. Each pair stands alone.” 

On the opposite end of the color spectrum this winter is Michal Miller, a former student of Rozin’s. Miller places great emphasis on technique in her designs and eschews color in her black-and-brown winter boots that have wide flaps and large silver snaps along the side. 

“I spend a lot of time perfecting my shoes to ensure that they are comfortable, durable and high quality,” she said. “I like classy, clean lines without a lot of fluff. This winter, the designs reflect an interest in what you see peeping out of the shoe, but my underlying goal is to make a pretty shoe that will last.”

For Shani Bar, who opened her store in Tel Aviv’s hip Gan HaHashmal neighborhood in 2005, this winter’s collection is a fusion of the old with the new. “I took classic ballerina shoes and put a pattern in them with holes to give them a more modern look,” she said. Her boots were inspired by metallurgy techniques that weave metal into fabric. “Shape is very important to me,” she explained, pointing out the resemblance to an ostrich feather in a pair of white leather boots with a small heel. “This collection has a lot of animal elements. You can see it in the metal button that looks like a bird’s eye on some of my boots and in the texture, which recalls classic riding boots but incorporates the look of a pony’s mane.” 

Shape and comfort are also critical elements for graphic designer Yafit Riklin of Tifaarts, who started designing shoes after searching in vain for a pair that would look good on her foot. “I have wide ankles, and I could never find anything feminine enough to compliment the shape of my legs,” she said. “I’ve always dreamed of making shoes, so I decided to design something that would suit me, fill a void and be comfortable.” Made to order and imprinted with any one of her unique, hand-drawn patterns, Riklin’s shoes have asymmetrical forms and lacy overlays that blend contemporary style with nostalgic femininity. “I also design shoes for brides and they can choose their pattern and color,” she said.

The Achad Achad label, which translates from Hebrew into “one one,” is created by Mira Gafni and Almog Weiss. “We chose this name because it represents a pair of shoes and the fact that we work together on our collections,” Gafni said. Masculine elements dominate their winter shoe collection, which includes largely flat soles in dark colors — from black and gray to olive green and deep brown. The wide sole on a pair of lace-up loafers that protrudes from the upper part of the shoe and their suede moccasins with a wide buckle have an unusual edge that attracts clients with an artistic penchant.

Thanks to the blooming industry, a new store on Dizengoff Street called Imuma that sells exclusively Israeli shoe designers was recently opened. Most of these handcrafted shoes can only be purchased in Israel, but many of the designers have Web sites. The downside of small production lines made in Israel by skilled cobblers is the price. These designer shoes start at about $150 and go up to $350 for boots.

“The expense to make these shoes is something we would like to help with in the future,” Rozin said. “Part of our manifesto is to become a true guild that connects designers with manufacturers, suppliers and exhibitions abroad. Education alone is not enough. By unifying our voices, we hope to get stronger and forge new opportunities in Israel for emerging designers that will help them succeed.”     

For more information on The Guild, visit www.theguild.co.il.

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