While I was in Israel for Tel Aviv Fashion Week, I noticed that the young guns — the emerging designers who showed their collections on the runway for the first time as well as the graduate students from Shenkar College — not only presented the freshest ideas, but also took extra care when it came to the craftsmanship of their clothing and paying attention to what is trending globally. Despite the fact that Tel Aviv Fashion Week is one of the newest events on the worldwide fashion calendar (it was founded by producer Motty Reif in 2011), it already has ambitions to compete with more established capitals like New York, Milan and Paris. The same can be said about the handful of of up-and-coming fashion tech start-up companies I met while visiting the Israeli city.
There is an impressive amount of literature dedicated to why Tel Aviv is such a popular place for tech start-ups, including its proximity to venture capital, its welcoming start-up community, and its nonstop lifestyle — with businesses open around the clock and widely accessible free Wi-Fi throughout the city — that encourages extended working hours. Many of these points were echoed by the founders of the fashion tech companies I met in Tel Aviv, and surprisingly, none of them felt that they were at a large disadvantage on account of their distance from bigger start-up hubs like San Francisco, New York, Tokyo and London.
Yoav Caspi, the CEO and co-founder of Julbox, a nine-month-old online design platform founded in February that allows shoppers to create one-of-a-kind jewelry at a mass-production price point, says that Tel Aviv's popularity among fashion tech entrepreneurs starts with the people. "We improvise, we innovate, we help each other," he explains. "It's a younger [community] and there are modern venture capitalists who help gain access to global markets. And they not only provide funds, but also guidance."
Caspi says that many start-ups based in Tel Aviv use the city as a beta-testing site for new products before releasing them into the global market; while the small Israeli hub is a viable testing ground for user behavior, most entrepreneurs in the space have their sights set on a larger, more international customer base — though few have achieved notable success outside of the country thus far. A couple of fashion apps, including WiShi — which allows users to upload photos of their own clothing in order to get personal styling advice — and Donde, an online shopping tool, were launched in Israel and have since received sizable funding and opened offices in San Francisco.
According to a publicist who regularly works with the start-up community in Tel Aviv, there are about 40 fashion-centric tech start-ups on the scene right now, with more retail and style-focused companies popping up every year. "I think there is something very special in Israel that makes people risk-lovers," says Yael Chojnowski, the Israeli-born co-founder of Nettelo, a 3D body scanner and analysis tool that can make a precise clone your body with just an iPhone camera. She moved from Paris to Tel Aviv when she got serious about building her business, which was founded in 2012, raising money from friends and family to fund it. "People here are used to risks; they have a way of enjoying life that's different than I experienced in Europe. Each day you could [potentially] die, so every day must be a big party and you can't be shy... People are accessible and very direct — if they don’t like something, they will tell you right away."
Chojnowski also takes advantage of the events frequently hosted by tech start-ups and venture capitalists, saying that they provide good opportunities to get her app in front of the big tech companies — HP, Intel, Facebook, Apple and Google all have extensions in Israel because they know it's an innovation hub. On account of these factors, she believes being based in Tel Aviv is more of an opportunity than a challenge when it comes to starting a fashion tech business. "Having a start-up anywhere is a challenge, but being here has taught me how to be direct, which is a great thing to learn for both my life and career," Chojnowski says. "It's a very small community but it's good for start-ups. There are many problems and challenges in this country, but every day I see Israelis turn something negative into something positive."
Disclosure: The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided my travel and accommodations to cover Tel Aviv Fashion Week.