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Fashion legacy of Israeli icon on display in new exhibit

Israelis are remembering celebrated screen legend Ronit Elkabetz through an exhibit of her distinctive and daring couture.

A new Israeli design exhibition explores the fashion and creativity of one of the nation’s most beloved screen stars.

Ronit Elkabetz, the award-winning, boundary-pushing screenwriter and actress with her trademark jet-black hair and eyes, was an icon of both Israeli and European cinema before her tragic death from cancer in 2016.

Known for tackling roles that probed the most complex aspects of womanhood, Elkabetz was regarded as the Meryl Streep of Israel. The final role of her 27-year career was a woman desperate for a Jewish divorce in the 2014 film “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.” The film received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015.

When she died at the age of 51, she left behind closets stuffed with designer dresses and shoes. Her clothes, said her husband Avner Yashar at a Nov. 27 press conference, are more than garments. They are pieces of the personality of one of Israel’s most renowned creative masters.

Those clothes have been pulled out of storage and are on display in a strange and beautiful new multimedia exhibition at the Design Museum Holon, the Ron Arad-designed building of snaking red curves just south of Tel Aviv. Titled “Je t’aime, Ronit Elkabetz,” the exhibit presents a collection of 528 pieces from Elkabetz’s closets in Tel Aviv and Paris and brings them back to life with the help of mannequins, mirrors and several stirring video clips.

A tour of the exhibit starts with a mustard-yellow gown by Moroccan-Israeli designer Alber Elbaz, worn by Elkabetz in a Tel Aviv fashion show in 2015 and now suspended in a massive reflective case and adorned by red fabric flowers.

Elkabetz’s own furniture and books feature in 31 carefully staged scenes, where black-haired mannequins and figures made of objects including pillows and floating hangers lounge in the actress’s clothing. The garments on display include another Elbaz dress worn by Elkabetz to the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and two Christian Lacroix couture dresses loaned to Elkabetz for Joseph Dadoune’s cinematographic project “Zion.” There is also everyday wear such as jeans, silk shirts and high heels, and even a dizzying array of corsets and undergarments.

The "Je t'aime, Ronit Elkabetz" exhibition at the Design Museum Holon displays more than 500 pieces of apparel that belonged to the Israeli screen icon, Tel Aviv, Israel, Nov. 29, 2017. (Shay Ben Ephraim)

The exhibit is curated by historian Yaara Keydar under the artistic direction of Shlomi Elkabetz, Elkabetz’s film director brother who was her constant collaborator. Several short films by him offer unique perspectives on Elkabetz’s life and contribution to cinema.

“Each object in this treasure trove has a biographical, symbolical and psychological significance,” said Keydar in a press release. “Fashion for Elkabetz was a way of transcending the physical appearance and creating an identity cherishing transgression, freedom, sexuality, identity and power through fabric.”

Elkabetz was a woman who spent her life crossing lines. Born into a family of Moroccan immigrants in the working-class Israeli city of Beersheba in 1964, she grew up speaking Arabic and French at home and started her career as a teen model. Her film career, which began in 1990, was centered on Elkabetz’s portrayal of unforgettable Mizrahi women — women whose origins can be traced to the Jewish communities of Africa and the Middle East. Her roles included Ruthie, a prostitute struggling to raise a teen daughter in “Or”; Judith, a divorcee in love with a Georgian immigrant in “Late Marriage”; and Dina, a restaurant owner in an all-but-abandoned Israeli town in the critics’ darling “The Band’s Visit.”

From 2001 to 2009, Elkabetz was also busy with a dual career in Paris, working in French on both stage and screen.

“Working from the political reality of her ancestry — both distant and immediate — [her clothes] allowed her to highlight and express the place of the other, of the exceptional,” said Shlomi Elkabetz in a press release. “Doing this, she revalorized difference, transforming it from something that should be denied and suppressed into a reality that should be fostered and nourished.”

In 2004, Shlomi and Ronit took a deep dive together into one of Israel’s most troubled “others” — the women who are denied divorce by their Jewish husbands. The siblings collaborated on a film trilogy tracing the marriage and subsequent divorce of a woman named Viviane Amsalem. “To Take a Wife,” co-written by the pair and starring Elkabetz, earned the Critics’ Choice Award of the Venice Film Festival in 2005. The second installment, “Shiva,” was released in 2008, and the third and most successful, “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” was released in 2014 and went on to both compete at the Golden Globes and to represent Israel at that year’s Academy Awards. That same year, the French government awarded her the Legion d’honneur, the highest French order of merit.

At home in Israel, she was nominated for the Ophir Award — the Israeli version of the Oscar — seven times. She won three times.

“Many saw Ronit as a modern-day muse — writers, artists and designers drew inspiration from her image and her creative force,” said Maya Dvash, the acting chief curator of the Design Museum Holon. “But Elkabetz was much more than mere muse. Her image, as reflected in this show, was a source of power. Her rare garment collection is an opportunity to regard design as an instrument of expression and identity formation.”

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