Israeli designs for stars, women with chutzpah

Shahar Avnet has designed dresses for Beyoncé and Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai in her studio in Tel Aviv. (Kobi Richter/TPS)

Walk into Shahar Avnet’s south Tel Aviv studio and a cacophony of colors hits the senses. Sparkling rainbow-hued tulle dresses, Swarovski crystals, and colorful sketches adorn the walls of the atelier.

Two years ago the 30-year-old designer was a student at the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design, and Art; now American pop icon Beyoncé is wearing one of her creations on tour, and she has dressed American actress and singer Zendaya and Israel’s Eurovision song contest winner Netta Barzilai.

Celebrity stylist Zerina Akers, who works with Beyoncé, noticed Avnet in W Magazine, which featured the collection she produced for Zendaya, and asked her to design a nude-colored tulle creation for the diva’s current world tour.

As a lifelong fan of Beyoncé, Avnet was thrilled. “I have admired Beyoncé since I was a teenager, because she is a strong woman, and when she sings I believe her words,” says Avnet. “But I couldn’t imagine that one day she would wear one of my dresses.”

What she could imagine, though, was exactly what Beyoncé needed on stage. “When I worked on the dress, I thought about her performing and how she needed something short so that she could move around with ease, but how at the same time she needed something dramatic.”

Avnet was born in Kibbutz Eilon, near the Lebanese border, and grew up in Kfar Vradim, a small town also in northern Israel. She says her passion for design is in her DNA: “My grandmother on my father’s side established the kibbutz’s sewing workshop, while my other grandmother loved all kind of handicraft, and she taught me how to knit.”

Avnet was 15 years old when she knitted her first scarf and knew immediately that she wanted to become a fashion designer. “I was very excited to see a product that turned out exactly how I had conceived it,” she says.

The colors of Avnet’s studio contrast with the long dark corridor of the greyish industrial building in Kibbutz Galuyot, in south Tel Aviv, where it is located. The pink couch, a giant colorful kimono, a fuchsia wind jacket hanging on the wall, the sketches — everything in the studio is there to be noticed.

“My dresses are conceived for women that want to be noticed when they enter a room,” she says. “I don’t design for women of a particular age, but for a particular character: spicy, creative, funny. The women who wear my dresses are very self-confident and love themselves.”

“Love yourself” is Avnet’s slogan that she always tags in her Instagram account.

“I grew up surrounded by women: my mother, both grandmothers, and my two sisters. They have always taught me to be happy for what you are, and to love yourself,” says Avnet. “I like women that get dressed because they love themselves. Every woman should look at herself in the mirror and think: ‘I am so beautiful.’”

Eurovision song contest winner Netta Barzilai wear’s a multi-colored kimono dress by Avnet in the official Eurovision album and video for her winning song, TOY.

“The messages of Neta’s song are inspired by the #MeToo movement, which is very important,” Avnet said. “Dresses are a tool to show who you are, and I am very proud she wore one of my dresses.”

While Avnet aims to break into the European market, her studio is staying firmly put in Israel.

“I am proud to represent the young Israeli generation. There is a lot of creativity in Israel, and it is important that the world will see all the sides of Israel,” she says. “I grew up in a very Zionist family; the choice to open my studio in Israel comes from the love I feel for my country.”

A few months ago a store in Saudi Arabia had contacted Avnet to buy some of her dresses. “I never hid my Israeli identity, but in the end we couldn’t make the deal because of logistical problems,” she said.

For now, Avnet sells only customized dresses that come with a hefty price tag of up to 30,000 shekels — more than $8,000. But she says she is planning in the “very near future” to present a ready-to-wear collection with the aim of reaching a broader circle of women.

“The colors will be quieter and the outfits more wearable,” she said. “But my customers will still need some typical Israeli chutzpah to wear my models.”