Before each runway show began during Tel Aviv Fashion Week this month, a Hebrew-language video played featuring a diverse selection of women declaring that they love themselves. The clip was meant to underscore an overarching theme of the week; a broad strokes goal to, as Tel Aviv Fashion Week founder Motty Reif noted in a press statement, "introduce a different beauty standard."
Designers grappled with this directive in differing ways. The casting at Dror Kontento's bridal and evening gown outing was noticeably size-inclusive, and the handful of plus-sized models he employed each received a round of applause as they entered the catwalk. Israeli streetwear upstarts Holyland Civilians, in a trend-averse move, decided to shift away from their gender-neutral debut collection, instead introducing designs they described as more feminine, including a full-length T-shirt dress with the word "HELP" written upside-down across the chest. As a trap remix of Neil Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" briefly played on the soundtrack, Moscow-born designer Lara Rosnovsky presented clothing that emphasized comfort over all else; instead of heels, the models wore red, rubber Birkenstock-esque sandals.
"I believe I'm involved in great changes happening today in the fashion world and beyond," Reif said.
Despite that admirable goal and its various interpretations, when taken as a whole, the work presented didn't offer an especially progressive worldview; most of the clothes were delicate and pretty, most of the models thin and light-skinned. The most affecting statement about beauty, acceptance and self-love, in fact, was made by a show held Sunday night, during which the quality of design was more or less an afterthought.
In keeping with the Tel Aviv Fashion Week tradition of partnering with a different charitable organization each season, local nonprofit Turning the Tables was given a prime Day 2 slot on the calendar to showcase a collection designed in its entirety by Israeli women seeking to exit life in prostitution. Roughly 25 women — some former prostitutes, some still participating in sex work — received a year of vocational training in fashion design, sewing and pattern-making courtesy of Turning the Tables. The show, sponsored by Yvel Jewelry, was their graduate thesis of sorts, and it was an emotional, and at times quite raucous shot of energy into the Fashion Week proceedings.
Each graduate was asked to name their dream woman to model their designs, and many of the women they listed obliged. The show featured a slew of Israel's most famous personalities and public figures walking in front of a faux cable news feed that included headlines like, "The World is Only Mine" and "I Am Not for Sale." Yael Huldai, the wife of the mayor of Tel Aviv appeared, as did Gila Gamliel, Israel's Minister of Gender Equality. The 77-year-old singer Josie Katz skipped down the runway, followed by actress and comedian Hana Laszlo, who received the evening's loudest welcome as she frenetically tap-danced and side-stepped to cheers and applause. Israel's first Miss Trans World, the Arab-Christian model and dancer Talleen Abu Hanna, wore a skin-tight dress created specifically for her by a trans Turning the Tables graduate named Natalie. In terms of age, size and ethnicity, it was easily the most inclusive presentation of the week — and the most fun.
The charity's founder, Lilach Tzur Ben Moshe, has been organizing a fashion show for Turning the Tables graduates for the past three years, but this was the first time the show was produced in conjunction with Tel Aviv Fashion Week. "Everything in preparation for the show was bigger than everything that we do," she told a gathering of international press after the show, before she introduced Lia, a graduate who designed a dress worn on the runway that evening.
"I want to tell [you] that I'm not in prostitution today," Lia said. "I was in prostitution four years ago. I met Lilach and I learned how to start [making] choices. The choice of color, the choice of material. I chose something. And when you choose something, something else opens up. Choices are not limited when you choose what you want, what you really want."
While Sunday's celeb-studded affair was a high-profile showcase for the graduates' work, Ben Moshe emphasizes that it is just one piece of the organization's mission; providing practical skills for the roughly 50 women Turning the Tables mentors each year is another. An apparel and accessories collection featuring slogans of empowerment is produced by graduates and sold via the organization's website. It provides the opportunity for graduates to obtain hands-on experience in the industry. "They get involved with all of the surrounding people, like suppliers and customers," Ben Moshe says. "We give them the ability to gradually be prepared for life out of prostitution."
In addition to fashion design education, Turning the Tables also provides training in digital marketing, as well as physical and mental health support and opportunities for social integration into Tel Aviv society as equals to other women, not outcasts. "It's about showing ability, talent, inner self," Ben Moshe says. "Nothing like in prostitution. In prostitution, you're nothing. You're zero. No one cares about you or what's inside you. Here, on a daily basis, we care about what's inside."
Lia represents the approximately 60 percent of graduates who successfully exit prostitution; she now works as an event planner in Tel Aviv. "Everybody says prostitution is a choice," she says. "It's not a choice. It's a choice from no choice."
Ben Mosher agrees. "Fashion is the skill of creation," she explains. "You make a garment and you start to feel like you have a choice."
Disclosure: Tel Aviv Fashion Week provided travel and accommodations to cover the event.