Avi Yitzhak is determined to be Israel's first Ethiopian fashion designer. From a tiny room in his parents' Ashkelon apartment, the former paratrooper sews dresses with splashes of embroidered fabrics he brings from his native country, and hopes to some day clothe Michelle Obama.
Addis Ababa chic
Eyebrows rose in community, but Avi Yitzhak was determined to be Israel's first Ethiopian fashion designer. From a tiny room in his parents' Ashkelon flat, he sews dresses with splashes of embroidered fabrics he brings from his native country, promises to some day clothe Michelle Obama
Smadar Shir • Ynet
When Avi Yitzhak shed his paratroopers uniform, he packed up his portfolio, boarded a bus, and embarked on a round of interviews among Tel Aviv's fashion schools.
"I didn't wait for the red carpet," he emphasizes. "I sit in my community, and no one knows better than me that too many people treat Ethiopians like complete primitives. Truthfully? We, too, are a bit to blame for this situation. We grew accustomed of waiting for the Messiah. Here, too, in the Holy Land, we are waiting for someone to include us."
"Because I'm realistic, I wasn't insulted when people told me politely, 'You don't have a place in our college,' or from those whose body language said something like, 'We only accept native Israelis who have seen Paris.' I swallowed it. I took it. As someone who finished as a combat soldier, I understood that my job is to be a pioneer, to push forward, and mark targets. But there was one audition in which I lost it."
He refuses to reveal the name of the interviewer. "Someone high-ranking who looked through my sketches and asked, 'Who drew these? You drew these?' He looked at me as if I were an alien," recounts Yitzhak. "He asked me to swear that they are my drawings. For the first few minutes, I thought he was joking, so I messed around. I said, 'You're right. I didn't draw those. I stole them.'
"When I understood that he was serious, I felt the insult flood my veins. The tester took all my sketches, put them aside, and asked his assistant to bring him a pen and paper. 'Draw. Prove that these are your drawings.' Even though I was so insulted, I decided to go the distance. I etched something with half closed eyes, like I usually do. The interviewer was in shock. He outstretched his hand for a handshake. Only then did I look at him and say, 'Thank you, but I don't want to study with you.' And I left the room with my head held high.
"Welcome to my kingdom!" declares a 27-year-old Yitzhak. The "kingdom," also known as a "studio," is a small room in his parents' fifth-floor apartment in the neighborhood at the entrance to Ashkelon from which he sells his designs to a growing customer base. He painted the walls green. "It makes me feel like I am painting in nature. I painted bubbles on the walls that spark my imagination and make me hear to sound of waves breaking."
Below the window is a narrow, single bed on which he sleeps. The ceiling fan squeaks. In the corner is a long hanger, weighed down with dresses wrapped in nylon because "each one is a one-time creation." Because of a serious lack of space, he stores his sewing machine in the living room. The authentic embroidered pieces that he brought on his last trip to Ethiopia he tucks away in a drawer in the kitchen.
On his computer's screensaver are pictures of US President Barack Obama and Martin Luther King. "These are my two leaders," he explains. "Who is the leader in Israel I most admire? Bibi."
He bolts the door to his room, rummages through some computer files, and comes up with an old family portrait from Shire, the town he grew up in until the age of eight. "There was a definitive majority of Muslims and Christians. So, even though my father is the son of a Rabbi Eliso Yitzhak, who is like Israel's Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, we had to keep the fact that we are Jews a secret," he tells. "I remember as a child asking my parents, 'Is it a disgrace to be a Jew?' And they explained that we were liable to be harassed if people knew."
Operation Moses, during which many of their family members moved to Israel, passed them over. "It was my fault," he smiles. "I was in my mom's belly, and my dad, who worked as a musician at weddings and events, was afraid that something would happen to her on the way. I believe that everything is from above, but because of me it all got held up.
"When I was a baby, a vicious war broke out in the Tigray District following a regime change. When the missiles started falling, everyone – my parents and my four older siblings – hid underneath and around my crib. They told me that a miracle occurred. All the surrounding buildings collapsed and were destroyed; people were killed. There wasn't even as much as a hole in our roof. They decided it was because of me, and they gave me another name – Mawacha. Mucha is to take out. The name has a very strong meaning. Like, I brought them out of the disaster, and I will bring them to a new path."
Yitzhak discovered the world of drawing on his own even before he started attending the local school. "Today I understand that had I grown up in Israel, they would have taken me to the museum and signed me up for extra-curricular classes, but who heard about such a thing in Ethiopia? I took a pencil and drew my mom in the traditional 'building ceremony.' Everyday she would sit and roast coffee beans, crush them, cook them in a finjan, and pour into mugs. This is how she would sit and drink coffee with my dad before he left for work. I told her, 'Mom, I have a surprise for you.' I showed her the drawing that looked just like her, one to one, and she was very excited."
My parents received the green light to make aliyah from one day to the next. "A half a year earlier, my sister and three older brothers, who were already educated and working as teachers, had moved to Addis Ababa. They prepared the paperwork for us there. In the middle of the night, my parents woke me up, and everyone took a small travel bag. We didn't pack anything so as not to arouse suspicions. Only after we took our seats on the bus was I hit with the doozey.
"With a choked voice, my father told my mother that my brother, Solomon, had died in Addis Ababa. I have no idea what from. Dad knew that Solomon was gone, but was afraid that if my mother knew, she would refuse to leave Ethiopia. So he sat shiva for him in quiet without telling anyone. The moment my mother heard that Solomon is in heaven, she changed. From an active woman full of life who had raised six children, she broke down out of grief and longing."
Our stay in Addis Ababa was stretched into nine months. However, our family did not live in a transit camp, but in my older siblings' rented apartment. "In the streets of Addis Ababa, I saw a white person for the first time in my life," he smiles. "I looked at him in shock. What is this? Does he have a mutation? Strange. On the plane, all the stewardesses were white. Because they were nice and gave me tea and cookies, I wasn’t afraid of them. One of them brought me a juice box and showed me how to puncture it with the straw. That was strange, too."
A crowded bus took them to the absorption center in Ashkelon. Yitzhak examined the view with the wonderment of an eight year old. "A big building, we received an apartment with a few rooms. We had activities and counselors. I learned how to ride a bicycle and started to speak Hebrew. I felt like I was growing new roots. I started the second grade at the Or Hachaim School. I swear, even if I succeed in going far, to Paris or New York, I will never forget the teachers and assistances that helped me absorb with such warmth and love."
Israeli classrooms didn't seem so different to him. "A blackboard and chairs – the same thing. But I very quickly learned the differences," he says. "In Ethiopian schools, discipline is much stricter. The school day started at 8:30 am, and if you were a minute late, you would be locked out. In Israel, even if you are an hour late, its okay. In Ethiopia, the teacher is treated like a kind of parent and receives all the respect and authority possible. Whoever dared to chatter in class was punished by his fingers being bent back or with a slap of the ruler. But here, it is forbidden for the teacher to raise his hand against a student and noise abounds.
"In Ethiopia, there is no free public education law, and most families can't send all of their kids to school. My parents were the exception because they sent all of us. But in Israel, you don't need to pay for school, and everyone cuts class."
Where is it better to go to school?
"In Ethiopia. Though I received a lot of support and encouragement in Israel, and tutoring when I needed it, but the fact is that in Ethiopia, with few resources and a lot of discipline, they achieve more. In first grade, I already knew English at a much higher level than an Israeli student in sixth grade.
Avi's older sister Belaynesh, who currently works as a school counselor in Nes Tziona, prepared her little brother for his meeting with native Israelis, who were likely to be less sweet than what meets the eye.
"She told me that I am likely to be confronted with a question like why my skin is a different color. My siblings told me, 'If someone calls you kushi (a derogatory word in Hebrew for black people), tell them that kushi is the best because it's chocolate, and chocolate is the most-loved food in the world.'"
"I, from the very get-go, took everything with a sense of humor. When I saw people staring at me, I would kiss my arm as if I am taking a bite out of it and say, 'Mmmm. Tasty.' What do I have to be ashamed of? This chocolate is mine. This is me."
However, when he recounts a stare he received years later while serving in the paratroopers, his eyes well up. "We came to guard some Jewish town, to defend the settlers. I got out of the jeep and all of a sudden saw a little boy who looked at me and started to cry. Perhaps he was never told that there are non-white people in the world. But come on – I'm a soldier. I waved hello and smiled at him. The kid ran like a rocket to his father, who within seconds whisked him away. Yeah. That was a boom," he admits. "What's the sense in all the nice slogans about accepting the other when parents don't explain to their children that we are all human beings?"
After attending a religious middle school, Avi attended a secular high school. "Even in the religious middle school, I filled my notebooks with drawings of women's clothing. I would add a hat to this one, or swap the pants for a skirt on another one. The teachers didn't mind because they knew I would draw the holiday posters. But I wanted to study art. I promised my father that the fact I am studying at a secular high school doesn't make me not as good of a person or less of a believer. I received his blessing, and afterwards stopped wearing a kippah."
Memories from Africa
Already when he completed his military service, he started taking an interest in studying fashion. "I knew that I can't act like my friends who packed their backpacks for a trip to the East. I also wanted to clear my head and travel, but who would fund such a luxury? Who would help me get started?
"I took my portfolio and started to make the rounds. I received a lot of negative responses from people who didn't even bother looking at my portfolio. When I heard how much a year's tuition costs at Shenkar, I understood it's not for me. In the end, I got to Miriam College, a veteran institution, if a bit less glamorous. In a year and a half, I received a fashion designer certificate, and I studied corsets and wedding dresses for another half a year. I worked nights as a security guard in Ashdod, and at 9 am I would take the bus to Tel Aviv. I spent two years with nearly no sleep.
"Financially, it was also difficult. A dress form, equipment, materials – everything costs a lot. But my brother Mollo told me, 'You started studying, so you're going to finish.' He helped me with everything I needed. He helped me buy a sewing machine and would put money in my pocket without me feeling it. This is how it is in our family. The five kids are like the five fingers on a hand, and together we are like a fist. We are connected."
During his studies, Yitzhak's ethnic affinity strengthened. "Everyone made a big deal about me being the first Ethiopian designer," he recounts. "Instead of joining in, I asked myself what that means. Most naturally, I was attracted to embroidery. This is my specialty, and it is a way to integrate the old with the new.
"About a year ago, I flew to Ethiopia with my brother Mollo, both to visit family members who are still there and to learn the basics. I discovered an entire world. I always wondered why Ethiopian women are suffocating under so many layers. I learned that each article of clothing has its own logic behind it. Even non-religious Ethiopian women are meticulous about wearing closed garments out of respect for their husband. The belt is like a door that opens only to those allowed to enter.
"A great surprise awaited me in the streets of Addis Ababa. Young women are already wearing modern dress – skinny jeans and leggings and shirts with a bit of cleavage. Small touches of gathered fabric and embroidery connect them to tradition. I walked through the markets and filled a suitcase full of original, handmade embroideries.
"Fashion is an international language that combines everything. There are no ghettos like the pride parade and the fat girls' parade, but because of racism and prejudice, we have yet to see the sparks of fashion in the Ethiopian community," said Shalva Ben-Gal, a veteran fashion show producer. "Avi Yitzhak is worthy of exposure, not because he is the first Ethiopian designer, but simply because he is talented.
"He contacted me on Facebook and asked that I connect him with people from the industry. Because I won't send anyone on blind, I invited him for a meeting. The moment I saw his sketches, I knew I had a diamond in my hands. His patterns have a kind of naiveté. He is original. Because he doesn't think about the commercial side, he doesn't hold back on materials. He brings with him a fresh gust of wind that is hard to find among Shenkar graduates."
Yitzhak contacted Ben-Gal when she was in the midst of preparing for the Fashion City Festival that will take place during Sukkot with frontline fashion designers.
"I told him he arrived at the very last minute," Ben-Gal recounts, "when there was only a week left until the final pieces that would contend in the competition for 'national garment inspired by the Kinneret.' When Avi told me that he works nights as a security guard and takes care of his sick mother during the day, I was sure he wouldn't make it. But a week later, he brought me a stunning garment – a turquoise dress on which he wove naïve motifs like a boat and fish. I hope he wins the competition. Even if he doesn't, I plan on showing his pieces in Miami in April."
Yitzhak showed his first pieces at the Ethopiada in Eilat and during the Ethiopian Beauty Contest.
"Specifically in my community, there were a lot of people who raised an eyebrow," he admits. "I heard whispering. 'An Ethiopian who works in fashion? And a man? He must be gay.' But the Ethiopian ambassador to Israel came and shook my hand, and at the end of the show, the crowd showered me with love.
"One girl told me that she dreamt of working in fashion as a model and designer from the day she was born, but that everyone warned her that the field belongs to Ashkenazim. So she went the route of academia. Now, as a student receiving her masters' degree in social work, she feels like I am realizing her dream. That is encouraging. I was recently invited to take part in a competition of designers from Africa that will be held in the US. I told the producers that I will only participate if they present me as a designer from Africa who grew up in Israel."
The designer that influenced Yitzhak most is Donna Karan because "she goes deep into a person's character and matches the garment to the personality.
What do you think about Israeli fashion?
"Who am I to judge? I am so small. But I hear that Israeli fashion leads in the world."
What can Israeli women learn from Ethiopian women?
"Self-discipline and inner beauty, which is no less important than outer beauty. Ethiopian women are very dedicated – to their parents, to their men, to their children. They work very hard to achieve their objective. Even in the field of fashion, Israeli women can learn from Ethiopian women how to preserve tradition. I would be happy if every woman, no matter from what background, would choose one symbol of her roots and emphasize it as an advantage. Her culture is a reason to be proud."
Do you prefer designing for Ethiopian women?
"I go with the flow," says Yitzhak, who continues to work as a security guard in order to contribute to the family's income, spends hours on the bus between Ashkelon and Tel Aviv, and even finds time to volunteer in the community's youth clubs.
"A woman looking for an evening gown or a wedding dress will find something in my kingdom that no other studio has – two cultures in one garment."
From whom would you like to receive a phone call following this article?
"I am used to dreaming big. A phone call from Michelle Obama's office would be real closure."