70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

Lea Gottlieb (1918 Sajószentpéter – 2012 Tel-Aviv) 

By Krisztina Politzer Maymon - 2018-02-20

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

Lea Gottlieb was never engaged in politics, yet she was one of the greatest promoters of the state of Israel across the world: the Gottex swimsuit brand she founded and designed is still one of Israel's most famous products. At the height of its history, the Gottex factory exported its products to about 90 countries in a value of millions of dollars, making it one of the most prolific and largest economic players in Israel.

In 2008, Lea Gottlieb's work was given special emphasis at the exhibition "My Homeland" which was created in the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem in honor of those Israeli Holocaust survivors who, after World War II decided to elect Israel as their new home.  Due to their hard work and personal success, they played an important role in the social, cultural and economic foundation and development of Israel.  

Such is Zionism: from raincoats to swimsuits


Lea Gottlieb Roth was given the name of Lenke Lea at her birth in Sajószentpéter in 1918. Her chemistry studies had to be interrupted due to her Jewish origin, and World War II made her life even more difficult: her husband, Gottlieb Ármin, was forced into a labor camp, while she and her two little girls were hiding in the country side and later in Budapest. According to the family legend, Lea and the two little girls seen on the streets of Budapest always had a bouquet of flowers in their hands so that they could cover their faces at the Arrow Cross checkpoints - perhaps this may be the reason that later the most important motif of her fashion collections became the flower pattern.

Surviving the horrors of war, Lea and her husband, Ármin, have decided to migrate to Israel and continue their family business: manufacturing raincoats. However, it soon became clear that the Mediterranean climate in Israel was not conducive to this industry, and thus began a radical turnaround to design and manufacture swimsuits instead. The new family business started from zero: Lea was forced to sell her wedding ring for the initial capital, and their home in Yaffo also served as her workshop. Lea's first collections were sewn on a borrowed sewing machine. Her husband was responsible for bookkeeping and marketing, selling the finished pieces traveling from shop to shop.

The start was successful, so in 1956, with a sewing factory of about twenty staff, the fashion company Gottex was founded, named by combining the Gottlieb's family name and the word textile.

The fashion ambassador of Israel

The Gottex factory was not only a spectacular story of a family's career success but also of the Zionist dream: the elegant and extravagant swimsuits designed with sophisticated materials, have been gaining success, not only in Israel but also abroad, so the company soon became the leading bathing suit manufacturer in Israel; besides the Jaffa orange and Mossad, the most well-known Israeli brand was created by the two Hungarian survivors who arrived in Israel just two decades before.


She brought prosperity and exclusivity to the swimsuit industry


In the designs of Lea Gottlieb you can find, besides the everlasting flower motif, the Tel-Aviv Bauhaus style, the Mediterranean turquoise, the Jerusalem stone and the golden desert sand. But her works were also inspired by fine art: the paintings by Chagall, Miró, Frida Kahlo and Gauguin, and the Oriental patterns she collected in Africa and Asia.


In addition to swimsuit collections, she also designed beachwear and accessories. With her beachwear, she created an entirely new and high quality bathing culture based on the luxurious, sophisticated style collection.


Gottex's fashion shows were celebrated social events in Israel and abroad. Lea Gottleib's presentations were elegant, they were special, but they avoided looking show-offy, kitschy or serving as a status symbol. She welcomed millions of clients in her elegant showrooms located in the world's major cities, where she also served refreshments and Hungarian sweets during the long fashion shows.

In Lea Gottlieb's studio, swimwear was custom made for the most famous aristocrats, politicians and iconic top models of the era: Sylvia, Queen of Sweden, Lady Diana, Elisabeth Taylor and Nancy Kissinger bought the collections that were worn by Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell and Brooke Shields on the runways.

Tami Ben Ami model wearing a piece from a Gottex collection, 1980 - Photo: Yaakov Saar / GPO

Following the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1981, Lea Gottlieb designed an Egyptian-inspired collection, some pieces of which were given to the wives of Israel’s and Egypt's leaders and to Sadat's daughters.


Lea Gottlieb and her company, Gottex, have received numerous prestigious awards and prizes in Israel and abroad, and her name was mentioned along with those of the world's greatest fashion designers and she was called the most famous Jewish woman, besides Anne Frank and Golda Meir. According to the vote announced by the Ynet Israeli Internet News Portal, she was among the two hundred greatest Israeli citizens.


Gold Jerusalem bikini and prayer book


Lea Gottlieb worked 12 hours a day for over forty years, starting early morning at the design table dealing with swatches, orders, and drawing boards. Until her retirement in 2002, every collection of Gottex was designed by her on a yearly basis; she herself dealt with the selection of materials; with manufacturers, distributors, and customers who she had personally met all over the world.

Photo: Nachum Asis / Wikipedia

The peak of her creativity and one of her most successful collections was the "Golden Jerusalem," which featured the models walking the runway accompanied by Naomi Shemer's iconic song of the same title. In addition to the swimsuits, the collection consisted of caftans, with Oriental-style pants and scarves with jewels from priestly outfits, David stars, and other Jewish symbols on a white background.

Photo: Nachum Asis / Wikipedia

When this collection was introduced at a fashion show in Germany, the audience celebrated the Israeli designer with a ten-minute standing ovation. After all, it is no surprise that this collection was closest to Lea Gottlieb's heart, and the samples were allegedly kept in her bedroom, beside her prayer-books.


For although the pieces she chose do not belong to the most modest outfits, she had adhered to the requirements of the Jewish religion and the Sabbath. She also had ambivalent views on Israel: she never praised local fashion and designers, she had a negative opinion of the fashion sense of the Israeli people, yet she summarized her patriotism with these words: "My successes and the State of Israel are interrelated, I am grateful to the Eternal One for the wonderful life given to me in this country, in contrast to the hardships of my childhood."

Perhaps these contrasts are those that have helped Lea Gottlieb to the success and uniqueness of the Gottex company. Gottlieb had created a successful, unique swimsuit culture, despite the fact she had no prior knowledge and had never learned to swim in her long life.

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