Artsi Ifrach | The Fashion Chronicles of A Dream Catcher

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Art/C – Bahlawan Collection SS13. Photo by Laila Hida.

If life were a canvas, Artsi Ifrach would be the weaver of its very substance.  For the past 7 years, the creative wunderkind behind fashion label ART/C , has been articulating a fashion semantic that draws inspiration from the archives of our collective memories, yet confronting them with the clout of his imagination. His idiosyncratic designs are arcane journeys through space and time, at the crossroad of cultures.  Each new collection epitomises the quintessence of a luxury profound in significance.

Ifrach’s creative knack uncovers one of a kind pieces crafted exclusively from a compendium of vintage fabrics and raw materials ranging from old metals to family heirlooms. Assembled as if by magic, they reveal new aspects of our individualities. With endearing freshness, humour, and lightness, these sartorial perfections reveal a parable of north Africa’s royal past colliding with the kismet of western postmodern-existentialism. Athwart this fictional timescape, ART/C’s hypnotic fineries heighten the creative alloy of the continent’s astounding cultural realms.

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Art/C – Bahlawan Collection SS13. Photo by Laila Hida.

The Israeli-Moroccan designer grew up in Jerusalem before leaving to travel the world and quench his yearning for independence. Ultimately, he found sanctuary in Marrakech’s old medina. There, immersed in the city’s rich cultural diversity, he now cultivates an artistic countenance enthused by Berber, Eastern and Moorish folkloric traditions though tinged by Mediterranean, Hellenic, Asian and Western influences. As one of his admirers once said, “ Artsi, you’re by yourself a continent of multiculturalism”.

Amidst this Shangri-La of ingenuity, we can imaging Ifracht purlieus with avatars of Claude Cahun, Arthur Rimbaud, George Sand or the late William S. Burroughs, as they stroll down the shaded alleys of the old souk, each arrayed in one of a kind ART/C’s accoutrements. At times, wraiths seem to be emerging straight out of Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film Morocco. Marlene Dietrich, cast as the beautifully disillusioned night cabaret singer Amy Jolly, is caught up in a love triangle between Count La Bessière and Legionnaire Brown.  Then there’s Eva, the beautiful and daunting vampire character played by Tilda Swinton in Jim Jarmush’s cult flick Only Lovers Left Alive. She lays at night inside her riad, gracefully decked out in a richly embroidered ART/C tunic fashioned from an old Persian rug. Her incisors sharpening up to excited fangs as she sucks on bloody icicles, while recollecting memories of a memory…

 

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Art/C – Bahlawan Collection SS13. Photo by Laila Hida.

Another Africa recently met in Paris with the formidable ‘Arty Dandy’, to discuss dreams, old cinema and incidentally the future of the fashion industry.

Joyce Bidouzo-Coudray | Your name  in itself  resonates as a good omen to a prosperous destiny; what does ‘Artsi’ means and in what language?

Artsi Ifracht | In both Hebrew and Arabic ‘Artsi’ means ‘My country’. I should always be grateful to my parents for giving me this name. The label is a sort of eponymous digression from my actual name, only with the insertion of the ‘C’ as a reference to culture but also to copyright.

How does your multicultural experience come into play with your contemporary approach to fashion design?

I never studied fashion. For me, designing is an act of survival; a way to establish a sort of equilibrium between the two worlds I inhabit. There’s the world of reality and that of my imagination. In one, I keep myself alert and grounded; in the other I give free way to the maelstrom of my creativity. Most of the time both worlds interact in a wholesome synergy. I really respect designers that are able to conceptualise and structure their creative process. For me it has to happen organically. In reality I am obsess with order and cleaning, yet when it comes to designing I feel at my very best, extant in a state of havoc. Quoting Napoleon “There’s always a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous”. It seems I feel more at ease mounting the high wire.

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Art/C – Bahlawan Collection SS13. Photo by Laila Hida.

You started out as a ballet dancer, directed a fashion boutique and later got into hosting a top rated TV program in Tel Aviv. Tell us how such a frenzied gamut of undertakings ultimately lead you to embracing your calling for fashion?

A big part of my scholastic activities evolved around training as a professional dancer. I was accepted at the Jerusalem Academy of Dance, which I entered at the age of  6 and left when I was 21. I later earned a scholarship from an American sponsoring program but at some point decided to leave ballet and specialise in folkloric dance. I saw it as an opportunity to tap into a tremendous source of inspiration, which proved to be a gratifying way to express my yearning for freedom.

Dance, like any art form, helps you transfigure your own insecurities into something potentially magnificent without necessarily having to speak about it. As a child, I also remember spending every moment I could spare at the Israeli Museum, admiring works of art of which value and significance I did not fully appreciate at the time. I think this was one of the ignitions of my calling for creation.

By the time I came back to Israel, I had already earned some level of international recognition as a fashion designer. My reputation skyrocketed in Tel Aviv.  I started to receive various honors and prizes and before I knew it, I had become a sort of public figure. I was invited to host a TV program called The Fashion Police; let say it was a rather intense experience. In 2008, I opened my own concept store Art/C Ifrach House Of Style, which  is now located in Marrakech.
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Art/C – Hindi Zahar Collection FW12-13. Photo by Laila Hida.

You spent about 2 years in Paris before deciding to settle in Marrakech; leaving behind the turpitudes of a western metropolis to enjoy the far-out stealth and temperate exuberance of the old medina. In your opinion what is the hyphen between these cities of light?

There are a lot of similarities between Paris and Marrakech. Through history, art and cultural, Morocco and France share a common heredity that resonates to this day.

I love Paris; it’s a great address, a formidable magnifying window to showcase my work. It’s also a very tough place for designers because you are always confronted with the necessity to compare yourself to others, to fit in a certain cast. It can ultimately prevent you from growing and prospering within your own sense of individuality. I left because it began to alienate me from my creative faculty instead of conveying it more coherence and vitality.

Marrakech is a place where I can dream; nurture memories and fine-tune the visions unearthed by my imagination. There I feel at home and perfectly aligned spiritually. I don’t feel like this anywhere else in the world; not even in Amsterdam where I’ve spent 6 adventurous years; quite a maturing period to say the least. 

How did you seize the opportunity to take part in Paris Couture Week?

Alexandra Senes, the former editor in chief of French fashion magazine Jalouse who is one of my dedicated clients, introduced me to Sylvie Grumbach, the founder of Paris-based PR firm, 2e Bureau. Meeting Sylvie not only propelled the course of career, it changed my life forever. What Sylvie does is far more than just PR, it’s mentoring. Her faith in me and in her designers goes beyond the mere requirements of her agency’s duty to generate press. She is always ready to go that extra mile, encouraging you to surpass your own limits. Under her guidance, I learnt to trust myself, but also to question the authenticity of my designs and to always aim for sustainability. Sylvie has opened so many doors for me, including my enlistment to the official calendar of Paris Couture Week, where I have been honored to show my collections for 3 consecutive seasons.

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Art/C – Hindi Zahar Collection FW12-13. Photo by Laila Hida.

Your sources of inspiration emanate from cultural and historical stances. Besides traveling, what other forms of stimulus nurture your design process?

Memories and my imagination are my greatest sources of inspiration. Through my designs, I am always trying to capture the essence of a near present or past recollections. Like a fashion surgeon, I attempt to fix memories, making them somewhat more beautiful than what they actually were. Through their fresh eyes and their own interpretations, people who wear my designs are able to partially relive these memories and create new ones for themselves.

There seems to be a sense of piety pervading your body of work. Is this a leading cogwheel for your personality…spirituality that is? Or is there a darker, crazier and somewhat more conflicted side of you?

I am a very religious person. Upon waking up everyday, I pray to my God and thank him for all the love and wisdom he is bestowing upon me, all the countless blessings and little miracles I witness every single day. I don’t know where I’d be without him. I’m very positive about life which doesn’t prevent me from having a great time. Often enough, I find myself drawing outside the borders.

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Art/C – Uthopia Special Collection – Addis Ababa, 2013. Photo by Laila Hida.

Uthopia a previous collection and by far one of my favorites, was a fashion opus to the zeitgeist of Sub-Saharan Africana; yet only through your imagination, since you’ve never ventured beyond your north African cradle. What is your take on post-colonialism and how do you think this relates to fashion designers the world over and more specifically to those originating from Africa today?

Stefan Siegel the founder of Not Just A Label, the world’s leading platform for showcasing and nurturing today’s pioneers in contemporary fashion, asked me to represent Morocco in Addis Ababa. It was for an event last July 2013 celebrating twenty years of African trade.

With Uthopia, a word play on Ethiopia, I attempted to reminisce on a time of grandeur, of decadence but also of immorality. The spectre of Haile Selassie, the country’s ruling Emperor back in the 70s, was still very palpable within the walls of the old gilded Hilton hotel where the event took place. For me fashion is the costume of culture. I also wanted this collection to reflect the sense of hope and the youthfulness that prevails there today. As the only invited foreign designer, I was incredibly honored to be presented amongst Ethiopian designers.There is a sheer magnitude of talent emanating from this country.

The fabrics I used for Uthiopia are all antiques. Floor length ball gowns crafted from a fusion of wax cloth fabrics and delicate lace were toped with Berber embroidered petit coats. Cropped jackets were shaped from old Persian rugs, capelins were made of faded bazin yet adorned with kaftan buttons and an array of embellishments. The images illustrating this collection were shot by my friend and photographer Laila Hida. As a visual representation of this trip, each photo captured the spirit of a wondrous city, full of eclectic beauties, rich in culture and thriving with creativity.

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Art/C – Uthopia Special Collection – Addis Ababa, 2013. Photo by Laila Hida.

The images that illustrate each of your collections are just stellar. You’ve worked with Laila Hida, Sanjay Khan and Lucie Sassiat. How did you gather these talents and how do you prepare for a shoot?

I develop a very cinematographic interpretation of my collections. As you know, I am fond of old cinema, especially black & white films from the middle of the last century. I imagine a storyline, articulate a mental script and visualise the entire shoot, before discussing it with my team.

For Bahlawan meaning ‘The Clown’, we couldn’t find the right model. So for the first and probably the last time, I agreed to assume the lead role. Thanks to the heavy make up and the dark phantasmagoria of the images, very few people are able to recognize me.

The talented people I work with are mostly my friends, people I admire and with whom I share the same creative ethos. For instance I’ve known Laila for years; the others are part of the beautiful chance encounters I have been blessed with all my life. Everything always occurs organically, without me having to push hard for it.

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Art/C – The House Collection FW14. Photo by Laila Hida.

 The House collection is an homage to unforgettable memories of a childhood spent under the loving care of your parents. If I’m correct your new house located in the Mellah, the Jewish quarter south of Marrakech’s Djemaa el-Fnaa,  is actually a gift from your father?

Yes, this stunning 3 story high property has been in the family for over a century. It was indeed a gift from my father and namely the starting point of the collection. Most of the fabrics I used for the collection are actual family heirlooms. Persian rugs, precious hangings and exquisite bed covers that belonged to my father’s kinfolk, were altered into tailored shirts, jackets, pantaloons and over coats. Every pattern is inspired by the memory of my father’s distinctive sense of style. I integrated these personal elements in my designs to transmute my own memories into a new paradigm of emotions.

I kept the House in its original state, barely refreshing its 6 meter high ceilings, wide-open patio and surrounding balconies. The walls are festooned with ancient ceramics,  and floors covered with antique tiles. The images that illustrate the collection were all shot inside this house. Today I use it as a private showroom, boutique, gallery and a space to showcase art video projections and cultural related events, for instance during the last Marrakech Biennial.
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Art/C – The House Collection FW14. Photo by Laila Hida.

We recently met in Paris during Labo Ethnik; a trade show which aims to showcase emerging fashion designers from Africa and its diaspora. For this 8th edition the organizers wanted the terminology ‘ethnic’ to also incorporate the notion of multiculturalism and a melting pot. As you attend various international trade shows, what was your impression?

It was a stimulating experience; although I did feel somewhat out of place. Like everything I do, I believe my taking part in this event was for a good reason – which is yet unknown to me. I was invited as a guest of honour; the organisation paid for all my travel expenses and treated me with great kindness and courtesy, because they sincerely respect my work. Therefore I would consider it rude to say this platform might not be deemed a good representation of my brand. I am sincerely grateful for any opportunity life brings to me.
Art/C – In DNA Collection SS14-15. Photo by Lucie Sassiat.

Art/C – In DNA Collection SS14-15. Photo by Lucie Sassiat.

Your latest opus In DNA is a tribute to the old kingdom of India. An invitation one simply cannot resist, to board the Maharajas’ Express, on a journey through the splendors of this glorious land. Both regal and funky, every single item is a ‘must have’ piece. Tell us a bit about your initiation voyage and the genesis of this collection.

World cultures are our shared DNA.  I have been fascinated with India for as long as I can remember. This first voyage was most definitely a sort of spiritual initiation.  I wanted this collection, In DNA, a word play on India,  to explore memories of the ancient empires that shaped the history of this magnificent land. To salute kings and queens who were more artists than rulers and commemorate cultures unearthed in all their glory. I wanted this collection to exalt the grandeur of India’s artisanal bequest and praise the skills its tailoring masters. Ultimately I twisted this already explosive cultural blend with a few hints of northern, western and central African references. After a recent preview in Paris, a dear friend and client told me she felt this was my best collection ever; this means a lot to me.
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Art/C – In DNA Collection SS14-15. Photo by Lucie Sassiat.

Beside the aesthetic appeal, craftsmanship and the cultural richness of your collections, are your clients relating to the garments they purchase from the standpoint of their intrinsic market value?

You might be surprised to hear this but my designs are actually very affordable! Ethical trade has always been a key aspect of my brand strategy. I intend it to remain so. I am predominantly inspired by cultures that are often considered poor – when in reality they are wealthier by manifolds in comparison to most Western archetypes.

I’d have a hard time ripping off the people that help me to keep this brand authentic and original if I applied ridiculously expensive prices. Everybody should be able to wear beautiful clothes. I have extremely wealthy clients but also clients from average social backgrounds. They all come to me because they want to wear my pieces. For me it’s not so much a question of money than it is of retaining total integrity when it comes to my business practice.
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Art/C – In DNA Collection SS14-15. Photo by Lucie Sassiat.

You were recently invited again by Stefan Siegel to take part in the trade event Origin Passion and Beliefs, staged in Venice this past May 2014. The purpose of this unprecedented platform conceived in collaboration with Not Just A Label, is to frontally address the need to re-establish human creativity and know-how at the centre of production processes within a contemporary mind-set. This event brought together the A-list of Italy’s manufacturing companies, fabric suppliers and leading luxury brands with one hundred of the best international designers. Tell us more about this innovating platform and exactly what you were able to draw from this experience.

Once again, I got involved in this amazing event through Stefan Siegel whom I deeply respect; I welcome any opportunity to collaborate with him. We share a similar vision and passion for this industry. I am very grateful to him for asking me tag along.

There I was able to experience a level of synergy I could never have dreamed of, especially not at a trade show. Every single invited designer taking part in Origins was absolutely fantastic, authenticated, and genuinely creative. Also in attendance was my dear friend, the stellar NY jewelry designer Jules Kim, founder of the label Bijules – I’m obsessed with her creations. Watch out! She is bound to become big real soon!

All of us stood united on the same ground, equal under the same roof, and during the whole time, there was never even a hint of competition, of rivalry, quite the contrary. Everyone was inspired by sheer generosity and a kindred spirit of camaraderie was clearly filling the air. Designers were able to exchange skills, techniques and know-how, with actual transfer of knowledge. This was such a moment of purity and incredibly revitalizing. Some of us are now contemplating the prospect of nurturing creative collaborations and business ventures with apex companies.

As an industry however we are stuck! The future of fashion can only be ensured through sustainability. We can’t keep repeating the same patterns of production and marketing models that have disastrous consequences on the quality of our lives and earth’s fragile ecosystems. We must free ourselves from greed and financial totalitarianism.
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Art/C – In DNA Collection SS14-15. Photo by Lucie Sassiat.

During  Origins, you were approached by Giovanni Bonotto whose eponymous textile manufacturing company, develops fabrics for top tier international brands. Can you tell us more about potential future expansion plans?

Only the future will tell.

Do you feel the need to reach out to a somewhat wider audience, to gain more exposure or at least to consolidate the financial stability of your brand? Maybe by securing new strategic retail positioning, for instance with Italian fashion emporium LuisaViaRoma?

The biggest fashion companies today are H&M and ZARA. Why?… because they are affordable. We are facing a harsh economic climax. Beautiful, well-manufactured clothing naturally draws people; the only reason they don’t buy them is because those products are too hard on their wallets. The question is how can we make fashion more accessible to consumers without compromising on quality, ethics and creative integrity.

Young fashion designers today increasingly aim to market their collections as high-end when in reality, their production processes follow the same tracks generally used by fast fashion goliaths. The notion of luxury which by definition means attainable by only few people, has rather become a void only legitimated by arrogance and bloated price tags. This results in collections that even as beautifully crafted and exclusive as they claim to be, do not travel. They are not being purchased, hence are not worn being deemed too expensive.

Despite all the fabulous press coverage, professional accolades and celebrity endorsements one can get, instead of sitting down in your ateliers, feeling miserable and alienated when your clothes don’t make it into stores let alone fly off the shelves to ultimately allow you to make a decent living,  I say to young designers “Make your products affordable!”

The only way we can change fashion’s ballgame is to take the arrogance out of the equation, reach out to our consumers, invite them into our worlds, let them experience it first-hand, witness our clothes being worn on the streets… and then see what happens.  It is my belief that this revolution will start by making our designs more accessible to end consumers. Some of us are ready to open that door. As for new strategic retail positioning, we shall see what the future holds. There’s a lot cooking; I can say that much.
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Art/C – In DNA Collection SS14-15. Photo by Lucie Sassiat.

In that regard, what are some of your fashion goals?

I consider myself a gentle rebel and as such, one of my purposes is to help shift the way we perceive fashion, to think outside of the box, to bridge the gaps, to abolish boundaries and preconceived ideas and make fashion more affordable and accessible, without compromising on quality and creative ethos. That is my goal.

Quoting Epinoia: “Imagination is your greatest gift, if you do not use it, some others will…”

 

For more info | art-c-fashion.com

Written by Joyce Bidouzo-Coudray.

 

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