By Avigayil Kadesh
Squares, circles and triangles. For Israeli designer Ronen Chen, fashion is about geometry.
“There was absolutely nothing in my background that pointed to fashion design,” says Chen, born in 1965 in Ramat Gan just east of Tel Aviv. “I thought I would be an architect, because I liked lines and geometric shapes and I knew how to draw.” A combination of convenience and coincidence took him instead to the renowned Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. By his fourth year he had started selling his simple, sophisticated dresses.
“Today I have 17 Ronen Chen stores in Israel and one in London. Apart from that, we sell to other designer stores – 40 to 50 in Israel and 400 others throughout the world.” The United States constitutes his biggest market.
Chen believes his understated, simply constructed pieces for modern 30-plus women filled an unmet need.
“After I graduated, I worked for a year for a couture house as an assistant, and then went in the exact opposite direction and designed for a cheap mass market company,” Chen relates. “In those years in Israel, there was nothing in between. I wanted to make well-designed, inexpensive clothing to fill that gap.”
He’s often asked why he did not go into menswear. “Men’s clothes never tickled me,” he says. “In women’s wear, there are always new shapes and fabrics – it’s more vivid.”
‘You sell a dream’
Chen doesn’t design on paper. “I go into my design room with a piece of fabric I like and start draping on a mannequin,” he says. “Sometimes a beautiful thing comes out in five minutes; sometimes I’m stuck. It always starts with a squarish, roundish, or triangular shape. Then I ask my pattern-maker to take it off the mannequin and put it on paper.”
Once a prototype is sewed, one of his employees will wear it around the office. “Everything is tried on for a few hours to see how it feels and fits,” Chen says. “We wash it and live in it to be sure it’s flattering and comfortable.
The fabrics are chosen by Chen or his representative at trade shows. The materials may be Italian or French, Israeli or Indian. He and his two designers then put ideas onto an “inspiration board” including distinctive color palettes for each style, be it retro, feminine or career-oriented.
Sensitive to the differences in taste among women in different places, Chen used to target his creations geographically – more black for New York, more color for Los Angeles, more warmth for Canada and Holland. “Now I just make a big collection and buyers can choose from it,” he says, adding that fashion tastes in Israel run closer to California than New York.
His overall aim is that working women anywhere can wear his pieces with confidence anywhere they travel. “In fashion, you don’t sell just the clothes. You sell a dream,” says Chen.
This spring, his characteristically monochromatic line will include splashes of mustard, rust and lime green, along with abstract prints.
“The new fashion is less clinging to the body, with more oversized shapes in jackets and tunics, plus some cocoon shapes,” says Chen, who took part in Fashion Week Montreal in September and does twice-yearly trade shows in London and New York, plus smaller shows in LA, Dallas, Boston and Chicago, where he has agents representing his line. “We always participate in Israeli shows, too,” he says.
How Chen fell into fashion design
One day Chen was speaking with an old friend who told him of her intention to apply to Shenkar and to Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. “Why don’t you register me as well?” he asked her. Following an entrance exam, he was accepted to Shenkar.
“That is the very naïve, stupid way I got in, and I decided to give it a chance because the Technion [Institute of Technology in Haifa] for architecture was a long trip from home,” admits Chen. “The first few months were hard, but after awhile I found myself liking the rhythm of designing things and seeing them after a few days rather than a few years.”
By his third year he was designing belts and shoes for stores in Tel Aviv, and during his final year he began selling clothing. After graduating in 1993, he set up shop in his apartment. It was a one-man affair. “In the morning I would design, make a pattern and cut the fabric. Then I took a bus to my seamstress with what I had cut. When she sewed it together, I would go back home, press it and make buttons and buttonholes - and then go sell it.”
Chen relates that when he moved two weeks ago, he found a bag containing some never-ironed dresses from that era. “They’re still in fashion!” he exclaims.
In 1994, Chen opened his first small store and studio, on trendy Sheinkin Street. “I don’t think a young graduate in Paris could go rent a store on the main fashion avenue,” he observes. “Here everything is more accessible and quick.”
Chen and his girlfriend, a TV producer, share parenting responsibilities for their two daughters, ages 2½ and 5½. “I make clothes for them,” he says. “Sometimes they come to work with me and choose fabrics for me to use for their dresses. Other parents ask me to make clothes for their kids too, but I don’t want to do it as a business. It’s only for my children.”