What drives an Israeli, who has just finished his three years of military service, to settle in Europe? “My friends all wanted to backpack around Asia,” says 38-year-old Itamar Zechoval, “but I wanted to go to Europe to study fashion. Europe is where the culture is, and it was culture that I was after.”
There is no doubt that his flamboyant fashion house – Dandy of the Grotesque – would be wholly out of place in his native Tel Aviv. And yet it seems perfectly placed in the bohemian back streets of the former East German area of Berlin, the “Mitte” district, where Zechoval has lived for the past three years. Mitte, meaning “middle”, is a large area encompassing many landmarks from Berlin’s cathedral to the Brandenburg gate and the much-visited Reichstag, the federal German parliament, with its modern dome designed by British architect Norman Foster.
Before reunification in 1990, the Mitte was a small, rundown area, a western outpost of East Berlin. When the Berlin Wall came down, the district had a renaissance as an artists’ district. A Bohemian community moved in to take advantage of cheap rents and set up cafés and galleries on Oranienburger Strasse. Then in 2001, when Berlin’s districts were redrawn, Mitte was expanded to include the districts of Tiergarten and Wedding in old West Berlin, thereby incorporating all the favourite tourist haunts.
“Berlin is not really in the centre of the fashion business, but for the nature of the business I am in, it has a deep sense of experimentation, and I was looking for a place that is a bit raw,” says Zechoval. He learnt his trade in Milan, spending 10 years studying fashion at the Istituto Marangoni and working with small fashion houses to get a feel for the quality and variety of Italian fabrics.
He admits that Italy was the place where he cultivated his fashion brand. “My style was always a bit dark, and when I got a chance to create designs that weren’t influenced by market needs, it offered me the freedom to open a door in my design.” His creations also attracted the attention of the American cult rock icon Marilyn Manson, who is currently on tour in Europe.
“I have designed a number of pieces for him and other members of the band since we were first in contact in 2003,” says Zechoval. “The most recent of which he wore as the host to the Scream Horror Awards in Los Angeles.” For this Zechoval created a costume handmade in velvet black cotton with leather and brass metal rivets.
In Milan, Zechoval also met his German wife, Nora, who was keen to try working in Asia before settling down in Europe. In 2006, the couple left Milan to spend a few years in Shanghai. “Nora led the adventure because she is an interior architect and kept reading stories in magazines about grand projects happening in Shanghai, where the budgets were large and the schedule was ‘as soon as possible’.” After Italy, Zechoval describes China as “a clean sheet – Milan was suddenly very set in its ways, and Shanghai seemed like the new world where everything was possible”.
Work for a qualified fashion designer was easy to come by at the time since American fashion brands were keen to launch into the Chinese market and needed designers to modify their creations. “We met many architects, artists, industrial designers, fashion designers, advertising executives and creative thinkers in Shanghai – it was a tight expat community. In the end it was hard to leave. You get spoiled by the lifestyle, and foreigners earn good money.”
Returning to Europe to settle in Berlin in 2009, Zechoval was encouraged by his experience in China to set up his brand. “I wanted a city that was under development, and where art and culture were dominant, and where the fashion industry was not dominated by tycoons. Berliners have acceptance and curiosity. And yet, unlike a lot of cities in Europe, the pace is slow and laid back.” Not that the transition was easy. “It was an emotional and cultural shock,” admits Zechoval, “particularly the language barrier. I didn’t speak any German at all, so the first thing I did was to enrol on a course. There were moments when I said to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ But you are accepted more easily than in LA or Paris, and this city is very inviting.”
The couple found an apartment to rent in the Mitte district. “It’s still up and coming, and prices have doubled since we arrived. Rents have increased in line with demand, because the place is becoming so hip.”
Zechoval’s rented accommodation initially encompassed a ground floor apartment as the shop, and next door to it the atelier, where three fashion assistants now work.
As the business expanded they decided to rent another office next door, giving them 30 metres of shop frontage on to the street. The couple moved to the fourth floor of a nearby house and have an apartment of 110 sq metres, with an open-plan kitchen, living room, bedroom and a studio.
So is there anything that this fully paid-up member of Berlin’s alternative establishment misses about life in Israel? “I miss speaking the language, although everyone speaks such good English in Berlin that I don’t feel like an outsider,” says Zechoval. Anything else? “The food”, he adds. “The tastiest vegetables in the world are in Israel, and I miss the houmous – particularly my mother’s cooking.”
● In spring and summer there are parks in the town where everyone convenes, and festivals in the streets
● The Mitte district has an established art scene, and galleries spring up weekly
● Berlin is relaxed in its culture and values
● During winter the city receives few hours of sunshine
● The recent hike in rents “from €6-8 per sq metre to €20-22 in recent months”
● Berlin is becoming attractive to foreign investors, particularly Americans and Russians, making real estate too expensive for locals to buy