When the fashion house Maskit originally flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, no one probably thought about it as a brand; actually, not many back then thought about ‘brands’ in general, at least not in Israel of those years. Yet if we look at Maskit retrospectively according to the standards of brands known today, it would be acknowledged as a name brand in fashion. The contemporary fashion house of Maskit, revived after a long recess of two decades, has adopted not only the name but also the genuine styling ideation and design creativity of the former fashion house, thus deserving the ‘license’ to exist again. Maskit of our days has already been planned to be a luxury brand based on current knowledge in marketing and management.
Maskit was unlikely to be regarded as a brand in the 1950s-1960s for two conspicuous reasons: First, brands and their functions in modern marketing came to recognition some thirty years later; Second, Israel had a heavy-laden socialist economy with little competitiveness and a just nascent consumer culture (evolving through the 1960s). Furthermore, Maskit was not run in its prime years as a business enterprise: it started in 1954 as a government agency, turned a decade later (1964) into a governmental company. Only in the 1970s has the government loosened its hold on the company and gradually handed it over to private hands. However, that move has more than anything led to the decline and demise of the former Maskit in 1994.
Maskit is very much the story of the people who built it, then and now. The fashion house was founded in 1954 by Ruth Dayan almost incidentally, but with a great spirit for initiative. She was actually asked by government officials to help in identifying and creating employment opportunities in agriculture for new Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. However, Dayan noticed that women from North African countries had a special talent and skills in weaving, sewing and embroidery; she also identified that men from Yemen excelled in jewellery. From there the idea of a fashion house employing immigrants started to take form. Since Dayan was not a fashion designer herself, she teamed-up with Fini Leitersdorf, nominated as the house chief designer. Together they developed a unique and genuine concept for fashion design that is at the same time multi-cultural and Israeli-native. Albeit the unusual circumstances of her enterprise, Ruth Dayan was by our current understanding an early woman entrepreneur in Israel of that period. The privatised company did not manage to continue in the footsteps of Dayan and Leitersdorf following their retirement from the fashion house in the late 1970s. Dayan who just celebrated in mid-March this year (2018) her 101st birthday also belongs nonetheless to the present of Maskit as she has helped in creating the newly born fashion house.
‘Maskit’ can have multiple meanings, such as ‘image’ and ‘figure’, but the most appropriate meaning of this old Hebrew word in relation to what the fashion house does would be ‘ornament’.
Sharon Tal, a fashion designer, re-founded Maskit together with her husband Nir Tal in 2014, following more than two years of preparation, research and planning. Sharon Tal is the fashion house chief designer whereas Nir Tal (CEO) is in charge of the business side, specialising in entrepreneurship. Sharon Tal is a graduate in fashion design from Shenkar College of Engineering, Design & Art in Israel. She has subsequently worked in internship for Lanvin in Paris and for Alexander McQueen in London, where she acquired experience in international fashion design. At McQueen in particular she has learned and later advanced to specialise in embroidery, which would prove especially relevant and important for her professional and business venture of re-launching Maskit. On her return to Israel in 2010 she developed interest in starting a fashion house, and with the help of her husband Nir they discovered that the ideals or goals she has been aspiring for in a fashion house had existed in Maskit of Dayan and Leitersdorf.
Sharon Tal met with Ruth Dayan to talk about her interest in reviving Maskit, and it seems that they connected quite quickly — their first meeting extended into several hours, and they continued to work closely together on the initiative thereafter. It appears that shared thinking, the commitment of Sharon Tal to respect and maintain the original vision of Maskit, and the relevance of Tal’s specialisation as well as international exposure for continuing the heritage of Maskit have helped to convince Dayan that Tal was the right person to revive the fashion house. Ruth Dayan has given her blessing to the Tal couple, and has joined them in guidance during the research and planning process. Indeed the success of Maksit to re-establish itself depends greatly on reviving the heritage of Maskit, which Sharon Tal seems to fully recognise and appreciate, as she also respects the personal legacy of Ruth Dayan.
Maskit has made different types of garments in the days of Leitersdorf and Dayan. The concept that was special in many of them was mounting quality fabrics with motives of different ethnic cultures in embroidery. They combined modern styles of the times with design traditions of embroidery embellishments “made by immigrants, as well as by Druze, Bedouin, Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian women” [E1; also see Maskit.com: About]. They used for decoration articles like buttons (e.g., made from river stones and shells), some were initially brought by immigrants from their countries of birth. Maskit also produced jewellery, pillow covers, and other home artifacts. Silver and gold for jewellery were also used in decorating garments. The Hungarian-born Leitefsdorf created the integration of Western (European) practices, materials, and design styles known to her with ethnic styles of different communities she came familiar with in Israel. It was a unique way of adopting cross-cultural ethnic fashion styles and designs, fabrics and colours, and fitting them to the Israeli habitat (nature, climate, and contemporary culture), hence making their clothing and other products ‘Israeli native’.
Ruth Dayan provided employment to the immigrants and hence has given them an opportunity to assimilate in the country, as well as helping them to preserve their traditions. It should be noted, however, that immigrants fleeing from Arab countries were at great disadvantage with limited choices compared with more veteran immigrants, mostly from European countries, who formed the dominant classes in the young state. Dayan benefitted from belonging to the latter (‘elite’) classes and was close also to ruling political circles (married at the time to General and later Defence Minister Moshe Dayan), which further helped in obtaining funding.
Sharon Tal has the will and intention to proceed along the same guiding lines of design and craftsmanship set by Dayan and Leitersdorf. But the aim of the renewed Maskit is not to relive the past; instead, the Tals strive to fit the concepts and practices of former Maskit to contemporary styles and tastes of our days. Their priority is to keep the fashion house being Israeli-native, representing its culture and nature, but that also means expressing the multiple original ethnic cultures that make up the Israeli society. Their emphasis also appears to be on handwork production and authenticity in everything they do. These implied ‘values’ could be key to achieving high quality, uniqueness and luxury positioning. Authenticity is seen as a basis for differentiation of the fashion brand; it is also approached as a way of establishing luxury in the sense that authenticity has become hard to find in many areas, and in fashionable clothing in particular. Maskit may be authentic in the fabrics and other materials they use, the methods they apply, and the personal and attentive treatment and service they would provide to their customers (including personally customised designs).
Here are some aspects in which Sharon Tal works to continue the heritage of Maskit. The fashion house uses, for instance, soft fabrics as in the past (including silk, linen as well as leather). Weaving in-house is no longer feasible as in the past so quality fabrics are imported (e.g., from the same suppliers as those Lanvin and McQueen work with). Yet Tal still sees hope that it will be possible to acquire quality fabrics made locally, and perhaps produce at Maskit, in the future [H1]. Among the creations of Leitersdorf, one that has given Maskit greater fame is the desert coat (or cloak) — Sharon Tal designed a new ‘desert collection‘ that is “re-interpreted for today’s woman and her lifestyle”. One of the differences in the desert coat of today from the previous is in its being made in linen rather than wool [E1]. Embroidery designed and prepared in-house remains an identifying signature of Maskit. However, the renewed Maskit is ready to give more credit to artisans working with the fashion house, unlike in the past.
Sharon and Nir Tal are clear about their high ambitions. They want Maskit to be an international leading luxury fashion brand. It is meant to compete on a world stage against international fashion super-brands and challenge renowned fashion retail chains. They do not see their competition against fashion designers in Israel since they look forward to see more Israeli designers succeed and the whole fashion industry in the country developing (H2). That may sound a little co-descending but it can also be interpreted as saying that they hope Maskit will be able to pull the fashion industry in Israel up with them, as Maskit has done before in its earlier life. Accordingly, while they aspire to reach overseas, they intend to extend their efforts to global markets only after establishing Maskit in Israel [E1], and wish to be able to return Maskit into being an international fashion house operating from Tel-Aviv [E2], apparently keeping this home base as their anchor.
Maskit led by Dayan has already reached overseas, mainly to the United States. Since 1956 the fashion house presented in fashion exhibitions in New-York and other American cities. Their designs sold at department stores of Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, and Saks Fifth Avenue, and they featured in leading magazines like Vogue. Sharon and Nir Tal expect to take the renewed Maskit in the same direction, and their emphasis at least at start also is on the US. Targets are shifting with time, however: many female customers turn to fashion chains to buy their casual and less costly clothing, then invest in more special dressing, higher quality and enduring, from name designers or specialty boutiques — the latter is where Sharon Tal seems to be aiming. As a luxury brand, Maskit would also target women who buy primarily from famed designers [H2]. In addition, Maskit of the past attracted in Israel tourists visiting the country and their relatives (i.e., mostly Jewish, American, and more wealthy). Yet, Israeli customers also used to buy gifts from Maskit, mostly when they wanted to bring or send them to their relatives abroad to leave a good impression on them. This should stay valid today as then. Maskit may also be able to tap a growing desire in Israel to return to its roots (‘authentic Israeli’) or to connect generations of customers wearing Maskit then and now.
The prices of Maskit to end customers are in the mid- to high-range, not for every occasion. Their blouse shirts or dresses can be even expensive relatively for their categories. Evening dresses or gowns may cost, for instance, from just below 2,000 shekels ($570, €465) up to a few tens of thousands shekels (e.g., a dress with handmade embroidery in a unique technique was sold for 25,000 shekels or more than $7,000)[H2]. The price of a bridal dress may cost (selling only) in the range of 7,500 to 25,000 shekels (~$2,000-7,000)[H3]. Bridal dresses and customised dresses are the more expensive on offer. A blouse could cost, for example, 900 shekels (leather-trimmed tunic blouse — ~$260, €185)[E1]. The items of Maskit, according to Nir Tal, are made to appeal to women who are “pretty sophisticated, and appreciate the art of this clothing” [E1]. The prices are clearly set to support perceived high quality of garments, and in particular the investments in craftsmanship and dedicated handwork.
The flagship shop and studio of Maskit are located in the American-German Colony in the old city of Yaffo adjacent to Tel-Aviv. The place is designed to resemble an atelier of many years in business, and includes museum-like displays next to selling areas (also see photos in H3].
From the business perspective, the Tals approached the launching of Maskit as when creating a start-up, guided primarily by Nir Tal. They wanted the revival of Maskit to be special and different, following the model of revival of brands like Burberry and Lanvin [E1]; it had to reflect the significant achievements of Maskit as a leading fashion house in the country in past years [H2]. It meant that greater effort and resources would have to be invested in the initiative, as in a start-up. The Tal couple gained major funding from key Israeli industrialist Stef Wertheimer, together with his invaluable business wisdom. Launching Maskit as a start-up sounds reasonable in order to recruit the energy needed and concentrate financial and organisational resources in launching the business. However, soon enough comes the time that the fashion house is established and has to realign itself to run for the long-term. There are good indications Maskit could be near that time, if they have not passed it already, and it does not require that they should be established off-shore first. For the long-running fashion house, sustained creativity and innovation are important as much as persistence and discipline. Maskit would be wise not to push itself too far too fast, so as not to burn itself like a start-up.
Note: Start-ups in hi-tech, particularly in Israel, do not have too good a reputation in holding for long, hence it would not be wise to use them as a model if the fashion house desires to exist in the long haul and does not plan an ‘exit’.
The brand of Maskit in fashion was not properly valued nor appreciated by the establishment in Israel more than forty years ago (Ruth Dayan noted jokingly in interviews that she lives on a monthly pension of 5,000 shekels as a former worker of the Labour Ministry). But Dayan together with Leitersdorf have demonstrated that a successful brand can be created even without having their minds set to it. Sharon and Nir Tal now have the opportunity to show how high Maskit can reach, and to develop and strengthen its brand, with the much greater marketing and management knowledge and best practices they can now employ. Reborn Maskit is positioned as a luxury brand for women with fine taste in fashion and appeal to nostalgia. The brand’s distinction remains dependent on their commitment to an Israeli-native identity with original creative design in high quality, and keeping their base in Israel even as an international brand.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
References in Hebrew:
[H1] Interview with Ruth Dayan & Sharon Tal at Maskit Studio, Xnet, 18 October 2015 (Xnet is an online ‘magazine’ section of Ynet news website, fashion section)
[H2] The New Life of Maskit, Calcalist (economics and business newspaper), 13 December 2017
[H3] New home for Maskit fashion house, Xnet, 28 June 2016
References in English:
[E1] “A Ready-to-Wear Fashion House in Israel’s Ethnic Past“, Jessica Steinberg, Times of Israel, 26 May 2014
[E2] “How the Israeli Fashion Brand Maskit Delivers Authentic Luxury“, Joseph DeAcetis, Forbes’ Opinions, 16 May 2017