Despite Israel’s distance from global fashion centers, the fashion department at Shenkar College is world-renowned and made the list of the world’s Top 50 fashion schools.
Leah Peretz was not surprised that Shenkar College of Engineering and Design made Fashionista’s December list of the top 50 fashion schools in the world. She knows that Shenkar’s fashion department and its graduates enjoy a world-class reputation, consistently garnering awards at prestigious international competitions.
Yet even Peretz, who has been head of the fashion design department at the Ramat Gan-based college near Tel Aviv for the past 14 years, couldn’t help marveling at the accomplishment, given that many of the other schools on the list are master’s degree level and are located in places more conducive to fashion design.
"We are in Israel and not in Paris, Tokyo, London or New York," she points out. "Israel is not yet a fashion center and students are not exposed to fashion houses here. In Paris, they can walk in the street and see all the best designers first hand. The few collections that are brought to Israel are not complete, so they don’t see everything. It’s also problematic that we don’t have plenty of materials to choose from here, and the available trimmings are so limited as well."
Moreover, continues the woman whom many believe is largely responsible for the esteem in which the school is held around the globe, "We don’t have a long history in fashion design; we came from a culture that denied making images. This is a new development."
Despite all that, Lanvin haute couture creative director Alber Elbaz in Paris, Nili Lotan in New York, and Elie Tahari’s chief designer Kobi Halperin are among well-known Shenkar graduates, along with Israeli designers Ronen Chen, Mirit Weinstock and Naama Bezalel.
Donna Karan, Roberto Cavalli and Diane von Furstenberg are among the fashion icons who have scooped up Shenkar creations and creators alike over the past few years.
Disadvantage becomes advantage
With a lack of access to raw materials, Shenkar students have to turn disadvantages into advantages, by tailoring their own.
The secret of Shenkar’s success lies in turning every disadvantage into an advantage, and capitalizing on every advantage it does have. Lacking what Peretz calls "the burden of tradition," Shenkar’s fashion students are forced to be inventive. Lacking access to raw materials, they tailor their own. As part of an engineering school, they have in-house talent teaching them how to do things like build accessories from plastics and manipulate virtual reality software.
It is difficult to be accepted into Shenkar’s fashion program. And a portfolio won’t help much. "We are looking for talent, but not necessarily experience in fashion," Peretz explains. "We even prefer those who want to do fashion but have no idea how to sew or cut, because then they are a ‘tabula rasa’ and don’t have any preconceptions."
Peretz herself fits this description. When she was an art historian at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, she was invited to teach a course on the history of design at Shenkar, which was founded in 1970 in Ramat Gan, adjacent to Tel Aviv. Eventually, she was offered the department directorship. With an outsider’s perspective and no experience in fashion, she envisioned a plan for transforming the program completely.
"Shenkar was very good at teaching the technical know-how and I still think it’s very important to have a solid technical background," she remarks. "We did not change that. But on the other hand, I realized what would make it special would be to bring in art courses by prominent artists to show how they express themselves in painting, drawing, sculpture, photography. The program is really interdisciplinary and very thorough."
Over the course of their four years, Shenkar fashion design students are exposed to the gamut of fashion: Children’s clothes, underwear, swimwear, menswear, eveningwear and bridal wear, casual wear, extreme sportswear, knitwear, bags, shoes, jeans and tailored clothing. They can choose elective courses in fashion journalism, advertising, production, photography, styling, drawing, sculpture, product design, embroidery and knitting. Prominent guest lecturers often give master classes.
Middle East’s only fashion archives
"What also helps a lot is our amazing fashion and textile archive where they can see historical clothes, touch them – with white gloves – and see the inside of them," Peretz says. "There is no other such archive in all the Middle East, with hundreds and hundreds of dresses and shoes, bags and scarves from the 17th to 20th centuries." Many of the donated items come from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
Between the third and fourth year, most students embark on internships in Israel or abroad at places like Elie Tahari in the United States, Marks and Spencer in London, Lanvin in Paris and Cavalli in Italy. Von Furstenberg takes four Shenkar interns over the course of every academic year. Two years ago she began awarding a prize to the best collection from the graduation show and offering the winner a job.
The final project is so decisive that the entire fourth year is dedicated to its preparation. Every spring, at least eight big names in fashion are invited to fly to Israel to participate in the all-important "crits" (critiques), including designers from New York, Milan and London as well as London Times fashion editor Lisa Armstrong. "They come only because it interests them, and they disregard all the political issues," says Peretz, who cannot recall a single instance of boycott with respect to Shenkar. "We are not in the center of the fashion world, so it’s a testimony to the respect that people pay us."
This intense process forges lifelong personal and professional relationships, Peretz says, and keeps even far-flung graduates coming back. "We become very close to one another as we work on projects. It’s so difficult to say goodbye and they feel attached, so they keep in touch," she relates. "Those working abroad come to help with our crits at the end of each year."
Full professionals upon graduation
This March, Tahari’s Halperin will come for four days to review the students’ work for the final collection. "His studio is full of our graduates," Peretz states.
A Hong Kong-New York design firm recruited seven 2010 Shenkar grads to exclusively staff a new studio called Manchu in China. Two more will be added at the end of the next school year, as Manchu starts producing goods for several American labels. "In many other schools, when you graduate with a B.A. you go and do internships and only after that introduce yourself for employment. But our students are recruited immediately because they are full professionals when they graduate," Peretz says.
Married to career diplomat Yair Recanati, Peretz has served as a cultural attaché for Israel and puts a strong emphasis on multiculturalism and diversity. Of the 220 current fashion design students from both religious and secular families, 20 percent are male, five are Arab and many are of Russian descent. "We make a point to have students from different cultures, and we encourage them to express their worlds."
Yuli Tamir, president of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design,
with one of her students.
Last spring, 17 Shenkar students participated in an Internet-based cultural exchange program with 17 students at Japan’s Bunka Fashion College, another Fashionista Top 50 school. Following five months of mostly visual communication, the two groups met in Shinjuku for a fashion and lifestyle show along with their teachers.
Adapting to change
"Now we are doing a project with refugee women from Africa, exposing our students to people who are usually transparent in Israeli society," Peretz explains. "They come and show their traditional clothes and tell stories of their lives over there and how they maintain their culture here. Our students are designing collections inspired by these women."
Fashion is fickle, and according to Peretz, Shenkar is likewise constantly evolving. "The world is changing rapidly, and you cannot have two successive years with the same program. You have to be alert and adapt all the time to the changes around us."
When Peretz became head of the department, manufacturing was still based in Israel and England. Now that production has moved to China and other developing countries, Shenkar students learn how to communicate with these factories using special software that transmits exact details of how the garments should be made. "It’s like learning a new language," she concludes.
In May 2007, American designer Donna Karan came to Ramat Gan to receive a Shenkar College Honorary Fellowship Award. While at Shenkar, she taught a master class and opened an exhibit of her work, "Journey of a Woman," in the college’s Lorber Galleries. When she returned to New York on her private plane, she took along all 10 projects executed by students in the textile design department, and offered a summer internship to one of these students.
On a visit in 2005, Karan had extended the same invitation to Shenkar design student Avshalom Gur, who has gone on to fashion fame and fortune. Gur won the British Fashion Council’s New Generation award for three consecutive seasons and his pieces have appeared at London Fashion Week. He launched his own Avsh Alom Gur label and re-launched the fashion house of 1960s cult designer Ossie Clark in 2007.
In May 2009, renowned red-carpet shoe designer Stuart Weitzman toured Shenkar’s graduate exhibition the evening before its public opening. Weitzman, who was in Israel not on business but as part of the US table tennis team for the 18th Maccabiah games, also agreed to take on a student intern in his company’s offices in Spain.
Weitzman and his wife, Jane, are members of the Shenkar Board of Governors and also donate scholarships to Shenkar students. At the initiative of the American Friends of Shenkar and with the cooperation of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee-Israel, Jane Weitzman was the spirit behind the Weitzman-Albert Education Initiative several years ago at a Bat Yam elementary school where Shenkar students instructed the children and introduced them to various art fields.