By: Itay Ya’akov, Ynet, September 2023.
Translated by: Helena Bester
This article is a voyage into the world of Ronen Chen, exploring his unique perspective on fashion. It delves into his unwavering commitment to the art of measurements, the turning point that led him beyond the shores of Israel, and his eventual decision to return home.
It is, at its core, a special interview—a conversation that spans the past, dances in the present, and gazes into the future.
‘How not to make a skirt.’
At age 58, Ronen Chen resides in central Tel Aviv, where he shares his home with his two daughters. Engaging with him is like taking a stroll through time, as his dialogue seamlessly meanders between past, present, and future.
The story of how Ronen Chen became a fashion designer is marked by serendipity.
Initially envisioning a career as a carpenter, product designer, or architect, life took him down an unexpected path, leading him to the fashion department at Shenkar College.
Ronen's origins trace back to a modest upbringing as the middle child of a pharmacist father and a mother employed in a bank. His early years lacked exposure to art, fashion, or business education.
After concluding his military service as an instructor in a military prison, an experience that he describes as ‘transformative,' Ronen found himself at the doorstep of Shenkar's fashion department. The contrast between his prison service and the world of fashion could not have been starker.
Reflecting on those early days at Shenkar, Ronen recounts his first assignment—designing a skirt. With his characteristic creativity, he fashioned an oversized skirt complete with a pocket. Each student worked at their individual table, and like a scene from a reality TV show, the teacher would stroll by to evaluate their progress. When she reached Ronen, her verdict was clear: 'That's not how you make a skirt.'
Unfazed, Ronen continued. An hour later, the entire class was summoned around his table, where the teacher boldly declared, 'Let's all see how not to make a skirt.'
How to be a fashion designer.
The path to becoming a fashion designer may seem enigmatic, but for Ronen, it transformed into not only a profession but also a profound blessing in his life.
Upon completing his tenure at Shenkar, Ronen found himself with a job offer from Gideon Oberson, one of Israel's leading fashion designers at the time.
Reflecting on this transition, Ronen describes Oberson's fashion house as the "practical school" that complemented the theoretical foundation he had gained at Shenkar. Here, he assumed the role of a size adjuster, bridging the gap between the garment on the hanger and its perfect fit on the customer's body.
"It was there that I learned the trade from seasoned professionals," Ronen recalls. "Oberson was a designer, and our task was to take precise measurements and tailor the perfect fit for each customer. It was an entirely different world for me, having grown up in a modest home, while the clientele there paid a substantial sum, around $1800 in today’s terms, for a single dress."
Ronen's journey took an influential turn when he later visited Japan, an experience that left an indelible mark on his design philosophy.
The vibrant diversity of Japanese aesthetics collided with the minimalism of the 1990s, a fusion Ronen masterfully adapted to fit his trade. His creations came to be characterized by their simplicity, monochromatic palettes, and an artful touch that seemed as delicate as a feather.
"Sometimes, your preferences crystallize when you stumble upon a particular style," Ronen reflects. "I was drawn to minimalism and clean lines, what we now refer to as Scandinavian design."Despite the media labeling him the "clothing architect" and the "minimalist," Ronen's primary aspiration was simply to craft exquisite clothing that resonated with his artistic vision.
From Personal Designer to Fashion House.
“During that period, our approach was rather straightforward: dresses on the hanger were all sized as ‘Small’, and we tailored each dress to fit the customer's specific size. It was actually a customer who came up with an idea that hadn't crossed my mind. She suggested creating dresses in Medium sizes as well.”
Ironically, Ronen was not thinking about mass production at all. However, this was a tipping point in his career.
“Our sales grew remarkably once we made that shift and started offering Medium sizes."
A year later, Ronen took a significant step by opening his first store. To his pleasant surprise, customers responded enthusiastically.
"I was astonished to find that many young women were already familiar with my name, thanks to boutiques where my designs were available. It was an eye-opener to realize that my name had begun to stand on its own," he reflects.
“I didn't perceive myself as a trailblazer or a rebellious designer; instead, creating fashion was the only craft I was well-versed in. I possessed the determination and the necessary skills, and I aspired to establish my own identity.
My focus has always been on creating commercially viable clothing. While numerous designers excel at crafting aesthetically pleasing garments, what has sustained my journey throughout the years is the fact that I built my business on a solid foundation and maintained stable management.”
‘I sold my soul to the devil.’
In his expansive studio and factory in Tel Aviv, Ronen Chen meticulously oversees every aspect of his brand's design and production. Adorning the studio's walls are captivating photographs of former models, including the striking Yael Goldman, who graced the campaigns for his brand.
Inside the rooms, a hive of activity is underway as the team tirelessly works to create collections for upcoming summers and winters. Ronen's current focal point is a sales platform for the international market, showcasing the "Made in Israel" label.
From the beginning of his professional journey, Ronen Chen dreamt of extending his reach beyond the confines of his home country.
In the 1990s, he initiated his foray into the UK market, starting with sales to stores stretching from Scotland to the shores of Brighton in the south. Later, he ventured into the heart of London, opening three stores. Reflecting on those adventurous times, Ronen admits, "It was a wild ride, one I wouldn't embark upon today.”
Subsequently, he expanded his market presence to Scandinavia, Japan, and the United States, where, between 1997 and 2018, he enjoyed his most significant success as a designer. Remarkably, this was well before the era of the internet, social networks, and the global interconnectedness we now experience.
Ronen took it upon himself to seek a showroom that could represent his designs at major fashion exhibitions in the United States. The journey was arduous, involving numerous calls from public payphones, frequent travel, and countless rejections that he encountered time and time again.
During one pivotal meeting, the showroom owner expressed genuine appreciation for Ronen's clothing but regretfully informed him that they had recently signed with another Israeli designer, Yigal Ezruel. Once again, Ronen had received a resounding 'No.' He likened it to the experience of actors who audition repeatedly, enduring countless 'no' responses until they finally hear the coveted 'yes'.
And ‘yes’ it eventually was. At the peak of his success, Ronen's fashion adorned the shelves of 350 boutiques across North America, Australia, Japan, and England. Yet, with the rapid expansion of his business, he felt that he had lost his creative path.
"Each agent came with their own demands," he recalls. "In Dallas, they wanted dresses in pink and light blue; in Los Angeles and Miami, they preferred a looser style; in New York, it was all about gray and black; in England, floral prints were in demand. Sales were robust, but over time, I felt like I had made a pact with the devil.”
“All these demands and recommendations were well-suited to the American market but clashed with the essence of Israeli fashion. At some point, I felt that my unique design DNA had faded away. In a way, it even began to influence my collections in Israel, making my stores seem outdated. It was at that moment I decided to bring it to a halt and return to my roots: to Israel.”
Q: Have you encountered failures in your career?
A: "Not everything has turned to gold," Ronen admits. "I ventured into launching a line of home design items and a shoe chain, both of which ultimately failed. It's frustrating when things don't succeed. I genuinely wanted the lines to thrive, but in the end, there's only so much one can do. Even after 30 years, I still possess that hunger for success."
Q: Do you consider yourself a good manager?
A: "I would say I'm an exceptional manager. We've meticulously constructed a robust system here. Each day, we introduce a new design, resulting in roughly 300 items entering our stores every year. I don't believe customers choose us simply because we're the last option standing or due to brand loyalty and youthful allure. They choose us because they appreciate our clothing. We offer high-quality designs, premium fabrics, and top-tier service.”
Q: What is your ‘perfect size?’
A: "I've consistently offered clothing in six sizes, ranging from 4-12 in US size terms. It's a generous range for a designer, although it's not always prominently featured in our advertisements. Nevertheless, at Look Book, we do photograph mature and full-figured women. Women know they can always find sizes with me. I'm recognized as a designer who celebrates and flatters women, and it's something that comes naturally to me."
Q: Why don't you use older models?
A: "From a client's perspective, I prefer not to use models of my age. I believe it's important to present a young and contemporary image because it imparts a youthful vibe to the brand. When a 50-year-old woman sees a model of her own age, it's like seeing a friend. My aim is to create a sense of fantasy."
Q: You have two teenage daughters. Are they considering continuing the brand?
A: "My daughters haven't given serious thought to entering the field, although one of them has already designed two items that performed exceptionally well in online sales. But who knows, perhaps they'll express interest in continuing the legacy one day. It's also possible that I may decide to sell the brand in the future. Right now, it's too early to say."