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Luxury Swimwear by Pioneering Jewish Designer Makes a Splash on UWS

By Emily Frost | April 28, 2015 6:04pm
 The swimsuit maker Lea Gottlieb created over-the-top suits inspired by other cultures and artists. 
Lea Gottlieb's Swimwear Fashion
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Just in time for summer, a new exhibit hopes to lure in winter-weary visitors to feast their eyes on elaborate swimwear pieces bursting with rich colors and textures from a pioneering Israeli designer.

Sixteen of Lea Gottlieb's high-end swim pieces — including suits, caftans and cover-ups from her 1990s collections — are on display at the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery at the JCC Manhattan. 

The collection represents not only the triumph of a woman designer who survived the Holocaust and built an internationally successful company, but also a vivid look at the work of an artist who helped define Israel's aesthetic, said JCC senior curator Megan Whitman.

Lea and her husband Armin launched the swimwear company Gottex, which grew into a multi-million dollar company favored by celebrities like Princess Diana, in 1956 in Israel, their new home country.

They'd previously owned a raincoat company in Hungary, where they lived before the Holocaust, but realized upon settling into the Middle East's dry climate that raincoats weren't going to be profitable. 

Gottlieb drew the inspiration for her lycra suits from traditional embroidery found in Hungary and Pakistan, as well as modern painters like Chagall and Monet.

She traveled the world in search of inspiration, explained exhibition curator Keren Ben-Horin, a designer and fashion historian. 

"She took the model of high fashion and elite fashion work and translated that to swimwear," she said.

The distinctive bathing suits Gottlieb created became strongly associated with Israeli style, and she drew on a melting pot of sources that mirrored Israel, Whitman added. 

The swimsuits — on display for the first time in the U.S. and on loan from the Design Museum Holon in Israel — were meant to be worn at resorts and clubs, not for lap-swimming sessions, Whitman said. 

"She brought a new approach to swimwear: You can go from the pool to a party in the evening without changing," Ben-Horin said. "No one did that before; no one put so much effort and so many resources into swimsuits."

Several of the suits in the exhibit show Gottlieb's fascination with Egypt. She debuted a collection called "Jewel of the Nile" in 1995 and one called "Nefertiti" in 1999.

Gottlieb embraced ornate designs, with one of the Egyptian-inspired suits featuring a replica of a wesekh, the thick necklace worn by Egyptian royalty around their necks like a collar.

In addition to honoring her past by replicating Hungarian peasant costumes in her modern bathing suit designs, Gottlieb also wanted to show her appreciation of her new home, Ben-Horin said.

For her 1992 collection "Jerusalem of Gold," Gottlieb created wraps, cover-ups and swimsuits all in white with gold and blue accents. She also stitched 12 squares into one bathing suit, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. Another piece features a beaded Star of David inlaid in the fabric. 

By the '90s, more than half of Gottex's $60 million in business came from the United States, The New York Times reported at the time.  

Longtime Upper West Side lingerie store The Town Shop sold Gottex bathing suits during that era and does to this day, which is part of the reason it chose to sponsor the exhibit, Whitman said  

Visitors who've already seen the exhibit say they feel a shot of nostalgia — either by recalling owning a Gottex bathing suit or wanting one — as well as an appreciation for the suits' maker, Whitman said.

"There was pride for the American Jewish community in owning something Israeli," Whitman added. 

And for Gottlieb, who died in 2012, there was pride in being Israeli, Ben-Horin said. 

"She felt that she was representing Israel. She wanted to show there’s beauty and happiness and not just wars that come out of Israel," she said.

The free exhibit is open now and runs through Aug. 2.