Long, long ago, appearing partially unclad occasioned no greater agita in my mind than appearing fully dressed. At that time, wearing a bathing suit was a fashion opportunity rather than a moment of shame. But Gottex bathing suits were on a list of items well beyond my price range.
My bathing suits were mostly wilting eyesores left over from years of all-girls summer camps; designer clothes were wayout of my reach. Fortuitously, as I reached my mid-twenties, still unmarried, my father was more than happy to spring for clothing items which might enhance my eligibility, an investment in my future, you might say. And so I headed down to the Lower East Side, then a rather run-down bargain district, to get my bathing suit at discount.
I walked in and there was the bathing suit of dreams — a spanking white Gottex maillot with a bright green palm leaf emblazoned across the front, a palm stem for shoulder strap —and a matching sarong. If not quite what Gauguin had in mind, it was certainly appropriate for hotel lobbies and poolside flirting, and the made-in-Israel label gave it almost a religious imprimatur.
Which is all by way of introduction to the charming exhibit on Gottex now on display at the JCC in Manhattan. Lea Gottlieb, the founder of the iconic beachwear company (Gottex is a combination of two words: Gottlieb and textiles), arrived in Israel in 1949, having miraculously survived the Holocaust with her husband and family. Her husband Armin had owned a raincoat factory in Hungary, and at first they tried to revive that business. But Lea came to understand that they needed a different idea: “We used to look at the sky and pray for rain. That’s when we decided to make swimsuits.”
Gottlieb’s genius lay in changing the nature of swimwear from just practical garments for the water to glamorous, luxury-market fashion with street-worthy matching tops, dresses and sarongs. As the exhibit makes clear, Gottlieb took her inspiration from many sources ranging from innocent embroidered florals to exotic Pakistani motifs and even the occasional homage to such Modern masters as Chagall and Monet.
A highlight of the exhibit is the “Jerusalem of Gold” collection from 1992: varied white garments, laden with gold and turquoise beading, conjuring up “oriental clothing shapes such as caftans, galabias, harem pants and shalwars while the exquisite ornaments embedded in the clothes are drawn from Jewish symbolism and include the Star of David, the menorah, and the priestly breastplate…representing the tribes of Israel.” With its glued on jewels, the collection was never meant to be worn in the water but was created solely for the runway and the delight of its creator. After Gottlieb’s death, a trove of 30 “Jerusalem of Gold” creations were found in her bedroom cabinet, wrapped alongside a siddur.
Decades later, I unwrapped my own precious Gottex ensemble, thinking that my daughter, who was off for a week of fun in the sun, would love to wear this extraordinary work of art. She gave me a kind but pitying glance, and went off to find the wilting eyesores left over from her camp days, topped by an old shirt.
“What’s Under Your Pareo? Unraveling the Work of Lea Gottlieb” is on view in the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery at the JCC in Manhattan at 334 Amsterdam Avenue at 76th Street until August 2.
Gloria Kestenbaum is corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.