The Silk Road
Gili Matza (Lempel)
From an article in the At women’s magazine, Israel
In two crowded rooms with decaying ceilings that let in the rain in winter at Kibbutz Beit Haemek in Western Galilee, fifteen women work at Formica-topped tables on patterns of women’s silk clothing. But this scene is deceptive. These two less-than-glamorous rooms house a successful enterprise with an annual sales turnover of NIS 2,000,000 and which exports to the United States, Norway, Holland and England, and one of its products is even owned by a member of the Norwegian royal family.
Galilee Silks, the only silk clothing factory in Israel, is not only a profitable branch of the kibbutz but also a valued ambassador of Israeli applied art. The factory is the life work of one woman, Shlomit Azati, who without the help of PR and celebrity-ridden fashion shows but with daring and resolve and the diligence of an industrious silkworm, established a creative enterprise. She was recently awarded a certificate of merit by the Kibbutz Movement Department for the Advancement of Women. One of seven recipients of the framed certificate at a noontime ceremony accompanied by orange juice and marble cake, Azati opened the door of the Galilee Silks factory outlet, a small room reminiscent of a 1960s bra shop. The clothes were arranged on hangers with additional merchandise in drawers and on shelves, so that it took some time to take in the choice in turquoise, maroon and green, which aroused the urge to finger them. We enthused over the blouses with butterfly or dolphin appliqué on a black background, table runners and elaborately crafted table linen. The David’s lyre, peace doves, fruits, and Seven Species motifs are aimed at the Reform and Conservative communities that are prepared to spend on raw silk from China. The designs are reminiscent of the work of Maskit, the leading Israeli art chain in the 1970s. After questioning Azati it transpires that she had business dealings with Maskit: “We supplied them with open tops and scarves until they went bankrupt.”
The products are handmade in several stages by immigrant women from the former Soviet Union, women members of the kibbutz, and Arab women from the neighboring villages. In the two abovementioned rooms the silk is hand painted in accordance with the exemplar prepared by designer Hadara Zaks, a graduate of Oranim Academic College. Azati oversees the whole operation that includes a great deal of logistics: ordering the raw material, production, marketing, deliveries and payment collection. Approximately two thirds of the factory’s sales, which was established in 1992, come from export to American Jewish communities and stores in Norway, Holland and the UK. The New York Jewish Museum has challah covers and tallitot made at the Galilean factory. The enterprise is gaining a reputation in Israel too: the factory made 1,500 ties for Bank Leumi, 800 matza covers for Israel Military Industries and 700 orange-colored scarves for Mizrahi Bank. The Israel Museum is also a customer, and recently, to mark the opening of Ben-Gurion International Airport’s new terminal, 2,400 blue scarves purchased by the Israel Airports Authority were distributed.
Giving From a Happy Place
Azati, 51, is a former nurse who ran the kibbutz clinic. Exactly ten years ago her mother was diagnosed with cancer and passed away six months later. “As an only child the need to cope with my mother’s illness intensified my lust for life and the need for moral stocktaking,” she says. “I was filled with mental strength that drove me to seek a dramatic change. My mother’s decline and passing made me realize that I didn’t want to work with sickness any longer. I wanted to give from a happier, more creative and artistic place.
“Together with my work in the clinic and visiting my mother in hospital, I traveled to Tel Aviv every week where I attended Batya Uziel’s handicrafts class. I was attracted to the softness and beauty of silk and began making brooches and earrings, which are in stock to this day. I went to stores and bazaars by bus, carrying a huge backpack. I had four children and viewed silk as the fifth. The living room of my apartment, which is only 66 square meters in area and is home to six people, became my studio and I kept the boxes under the couch. After long and grueling negotiation, I was allocated NIS 200 to buy raw material. At first I worked on a voluntary basis. When the kibbutz economic coordinator showed me a survey showing that all the small kibbutz businesses based on art had failed, his message was clear.”
When did you realize that you were on the way to a business?
“A woman who did embroidery and had this vision of a building that would house art workshops in various spheres, pushed me into sharing a room with her. Some time later she left the scene, the room became two, and that’s where the factory is today. I gradually brought in other women kibbutz members who were looking for a place to work. While I was sitting shiva for my mother I received an order for 300 scarves from the Gras chain, so together with my deep bereavement a reason to continue creating was born, along with the ability to make a living.”
Where do the business acumen and the motivation to make money in a communal society come from?
“Back when there really was equality in the kibbutz, it wasn’t clear to me where it came from. When I was in the Noar HaOved youth movement I was the treasurer, I loved calculating and organizing. I took various courses on business entrepreneurship. If you’re asking me to delve really deeply, it could be that the motivation stemmed from the need to be meaningful and make my dream come true.”
But time did its work and the credits gradually mounted up. A member of the Norwegian royal family bought a tunic through a sales representative in Oslo; the commanding officer of the Indian Artillery Corps, who was in Israel on an official visit, also became a customer. “He bought a howitzer from the Ministry of Defense and a scarf for his wife from us. He came along and homed in on a small scarf,” Azati relates.
An Existential Crisis
Azati’s most complex challenge came with the outbreak of the second intifada, when she had to let half of her workforce go. “In October tourism dried up, which included the pilgrims on which our business was based. All at once everything fell apart. Souvenir shops, which were our main customers, either closed down or returned merchandise, I was left with big stocks and 20 employees I didn’t have the money to pay. I was in an existential crisis. I took out a loan from the kibbutz and at the same time presented it with a recovery plan. I was forced to send people home, people who found it hard to find alternative work.”
How do you live with a decision like that?
“I didn’t sleep at night and the days were dark with distress. Some of the women I had to let go were kibbutz members I see every day in the dining room. I took it personally.”
How long did it take to get your head back above water?
“I began looking for new markets. By chance the opportunity of attending a gift exhibition in New York, the biggest of its kind in the world, presented itself. Within a week our designer Hadara developed a line of modern tallitot for women, men and bar-mitzvah children. I took a stock of 20 tallitot with me. I didn’t have an official stand, so I went to a bathroom accessory store and bought hangers and rails, which proved to be a successful improvisation. I came back from the exhibition with 10,000 dollars worth of orders. Within a year we developed a line of Judaica products, including some magnificent wedding canopies that were an upgrade of the tallitot. Since then, I’ve been going to New York regularly to show our merchandise at the exhibition.”
Who helped you with export?
“I tried to forge export ties with every volunteer that came to the kibbutz, and it was through one such person that we got to Norway. We got to Holland, for instance, through a relative of a kibbutz member who established contact for us with the leading catalog company for Israeli products. The Fund for the
Promotion of Overseas Marketing, the Israel Export Institute and the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor all helped me in my fight to convince the kibbutz economic committee that I needed help in exporting. An entire delegation from the Export Institute came to the kibbutz to persuade them that the factory had potential.”
But the difficulties weren’t over and Azati was hit by a further crisis. “About three years ago the entire collection ordered by the Dutch catalog company, valued at NIS 60,000, was stolen. I reported the theft to the police and informed the client that we would be unable to meet their order. Fortunately, half of the stolen merchandise was found in a market in Ramla.”
Why is it that people in this country aren’t familiar with your merchandise?
“Because it’s too expensive for the local market. It costs 200-300 dollars per item of clothing or tallit, and 500 dollars for a wedding canopy. They’re unsuitable for women looking for form-fitting clothes. Silk is a flowing material that’s more suitable for relatively fuller figures, with which women of 40-plus can connect.”