Meet Maskit: Romantic, Desert-Inspired Fashion from One of Israel's Top Designers

By Danielle Crittenden Frum

I first happened upon one of Maskit's dresses a few years ago in a beachside Tel Aviv boutique. I'd never heard of the label, but was intrigued by the dress: a sheathy, gold silk number with a beaten-up looking leather belt. The belt made an edgy contrast to the otherwise simple, elegantly draped dress.  

When I tried it on, the dress fell over my body, seeming to know exactly where it should cling and where it should fall loose. And although it was a full-length dress, it was not formal. It exuded that stylish, go-anywhere Tel-Aviv vibe: a showstopper you could wear with sandals, from a casual dinner out to a summer cocktail party. 

As I paid for it at the register, I noticed that the "Maskit" label was signed with a scrawl in permanent marker.  I didn't pay much attention to it at the time -- not realizing that the mysterious signature was a clue to the Israeli fashion brand's amazing history and its recent revival under designer Sharon Tal.  

Later I'd learn more about Maskit: Founded in 1945 by Ruth Dayan – wife of Moishe – Maskit was originally conceived as a way to employ the skills of female refugees flooding into Palestine. Initially these immigrants were survivors of the Holocaust from all over Europe; after Israel’s formation in 1948, thousands of Jews escaping Muslim countries in Africa and Asia followed. While most of these women were poor and uneducated, Ruth Dayan recognized that they possessed valuable talents -- in sewing, embroidery, weaving, etc. – that, if put to use, could help save their families from falling into poverty in their new country.
 
Indeed they could. Soon the immigrant employees of the (at the time, state-owned) Maskit were producing popular decorative arts and crafts pieces and finely woven textiles that reflected their various Jewish ethnic heritages. Then Dayan -- who had no background in fashion herself -- hired a head designer, Fini Leitersdorf, in 1955. From then on, Leitersdorf turned the unique, ethnic-inspired patterns and textiles into a brand that would catch the attention of fashionistas and celebrities worldwide.

One of Maskit's most famous designs, launched in 1958, was the "desert coat" -- a one-size-fits-all, wool cape/coat trimmed in leather.  International clients loved its exotic versatility and the whiff of nomadic romance it brought to urban streets.  In the 1960s -- during the height of "Lawrence of Arabia" mania -- Maskit went on to do collaborations with major designers including Givenchy, Dior, and YSL that celebrated the new Middle Eastern chic. 

Top, the original desert coats. Below, desert fever hits in the 1960s.

By the time Maskit closed its doors in 1994, it had created more than 2,000 jobs for new immigrants while preserving dozens of ethnic crafts and cultural traditions.  Ruth Dayan became one of Israel's most lauded and influential advocates for women's and children's welfare, as well as the rights of Bedouin women; along the way, she also created an important Jewish-Arab social group. The Maskit brand would be remembered in museum retrospectives -- but Dayan never imagined it would be given an entirely new life.

Meanwhile, more than a decade after Maskit folded, Israeli-born designer Sharon Tal returned to Tel Aviv from London, where she'd been working for fashion legend Alexander McQueen.  A graduate of Tel Aviv's prestigious design school, Shenkar College, Tal had previously interned for Alber Elbaz, head designer for Lanvin, before being hired as McQueen's head designer responsible for embroideries.  

While at McQueen, Tal became pregnant with her first child. She cut back on her demanding duties to work on special, elaborate dresses for celebrities and wealthy clients, including royalty and actresses such as Cate Blanchett. 

But after McQueen's suicide in 2010, a devastated Tal -- together with her Israeli-born husband Nir, then a businessman working for a luxury group in based in the UK -- decided to return to Tel Aviv and raise their family in their home country.

Then one day, when Tal was a new mother at home, she came across what would turn out to be a life-changing article about the history of Maskit, including an interview with the (still living) Ruth Dayan. 

"I'd been looking to do something on my own," Tal told me when I interviewed her last spring, over mint tea in her Tel Aviv headquarters. "But whatever it was going to be, it had to meet three conditions: it had to be international, it had to be unique, and it had to bring something new to design."

The concept of reviving Maskit -- Israel's only major and legendary fashion house -- intrigued her. Its mission --centered around helping and celebrating the crafts of immigrant and indigenous women -- sold her.  She showed the article to Nir, and he grew excited too. "Look, everything you want to do is here," he said.

The first thing Tal did was to arrange a visit with Dayan. Even though Dayan had retired in 1978, Tal understood any revival should happen only with Dayan's blessing. Tal was also humble enough to realize that she could learn a lot from the wise matriarch. They booked a coffee together, but the conversation ended up lasting eight hours.

"She was the first female entrepreneur in Israel," Tal said admiringly, before adding. "She was skeptical of what we wanted to do. Now it's really brought her back to life."

Sharon Tal with Ruth Dayan

As part of her research, Tal travelled all over Israel, seeking out groups of talented immigrant women whose skills might be employed. It speaks to Israel's success that there were now few compared to Dayan's time. 

"There are not a lot of ethnic women who still do this," Tal acknowledged. "The Yemenites and Moroccan women -- they died. Their children are assimilated.  A lot of our team is now Russian, where they still have the knowledge and old skills." 

Tal also found female artists in the Bedouin community, who were eager to set aside domestic duties and work together in a communal workshop Maskit built in the Negev, where, among other things, they now produce Tal's new line of desert-inspired housewares, carried by Fig Tree & Vine. 

Wooden "Caeserea" candle holders, leather-trimmed bowls and plates, and Negev rock bud vases from FT&V's MASKIT Home collection.

Tal's first fashion collection, launched in 2013, was entitled "Homage" -- a tribute to Dayan and the history of Maskit. It included many designs pulled from the Maskit archive, including multiple versions of the desert coat.

"It was inspired by, and honored by, the past," Sharon said. ""I could not just start with entirely my own thing. The desert coats were original, and then we did 120 new pieces. Ruth herself signed all of the labels of the Homage collection ..."

I started in my chair. The scrawl on the label! Now it made sense. I owned an original "Ruth..."

Since that first collection, Sharon Tal has brought her own creative, unique, and beautiful sensibility to Maskit designs. Her background in embroidery has resulted in simply stunning patterns of beads and shells delicately hand-sewn on fabrics textiles and leathers. Her recent line of shell-embossed dresses and accessories pay tribute to the Dead Sea -- and retain Maskit's connection to the peoples and landscape of Israel.

And Tal is fulfilling her original vow to bring something new to international design. That wholly Israeli vibe I encountered in my first Maskit dress is the DNA of all her creations. Tal works mostly in natural silks -- except for the coats, which are crafted from fine wool or summer-weight linen. She's keenly intuitive of the female form, and every variation of it. The skinny and the zaftig alike can find common ground in her floating, draped, perfectly cut pieces in colors that play off moods of desert and ocean. 

The new look of Maskit.

Tal is now a fashion rock star in Israel. She and husband Nir -- who quit his job to run the business-side of the operation -- recently opened a glamorous new flagship store and headquarters in historic Jaffa, overlooking the world’s oldest port. They're looking to expand into markets across North America and Europe. 

Practically, that means a lot of schlepping back and forth across the Atlantic for Tal, now a mother of two young daughters. And it's grueling.  The last time I saw her was earlier this fall, when I hosted a Maskit trunk show in my Washington, D. C. home for Fig Tree & Vine.  Tal and an assistant arrived by rental car, after having spent three days manning a trade show booth at the 2016 Lion of Judah convention (the women’s philanthropic arm of the Jewish Federations of North America).  

My event, which started at 6 p.m., was supposed to end at 8 p.m. but the last shoppers didn't leave until close to 10. The guests were as delighted and excited by Maskit as I was that first time when I met the gold dress. The diminutive Tal -- jet-lagged and running on only a few hours sleep -- patiently helped everyone discover the right dress or coat and showed them how to tie her Hermes-sized silk scarves. 

After the guests had left, Tal and her assistant collapsed in side chairs. The clothes still needed to be packed up again for the next morning, where Tal was scheduled to appear at a Georgetown boutique. Each packing and repacking session required all the garments to be rehung and steamed. The boutique would be Tal's last event before returning to Tel Aviv later in the same day. Since arriving for the Lion event, the two women had been up at 6 a.m. and hadn't gone to bed before 10 p.m. every night. Tal still wasn't really sure what time zone she was in.

I offered them both a glass of wine as they rested for a rare moment, and picked at some take-out food from plastic containers -- their first meal since breakfast. I told Tal she dispelled any notions I'd held about the glamorousness of the fashion industry. 

Until Maskit finds a home in a luxury department store, or stores, on this side of the Atlantic, clients will only be able to find her clothes (outside of Israel) in these private, pop-up events. I suspect this will only be a short window of inconvenience for those of us who've discovered, and love, the brand.

Meanwhile I enjoy the fact that when I walk down a street wearing one of Tal's designs  -- as I did just the other day, in an armless black desert cape that made me feel vaguely empowered, like a super hero -- several women unfailingly stop me and say, "Where did you get that?!"

You can meet Sharon Tal and shop Maskit at Fig Tree & Vine's Hanukkah Trunk Show this Sunday, November 13, in Washington, D.C. Invitation below. Join us for a glass of Yarden, gourmet challah and olive oil tastings, and in addition browse FT&V's artisans for original gifts, jewelry, and Judaica.

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