Indeed, so illustrious has Israel's Gottex become that its owner and founder, Leah Gottlieb, 62, is known affectionately as "Lady Gottlieb." Her beachwear, which she ships to 60 countries, how ranks in the top 10 among Israel's exports. No less a chronicler of life on the strand than the august New York Times calls Gottex, whose outlets in the U.S. include Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue, "the most prestigious producer of swimwear in the world."
Lady Gottlieb's $20 million family-run business, which now boasts 1,000 employees, started humbly in a Palestine refugee camp 33 years ago with a single secondhand sewing machine. Leah had bought it by selling her wedding ring soon after she, her husband, Armin, and their two small daughters arrived from Czechoslovakia. She started by making children's clothes "because for that you need little material."
Next the Gottliebs moved on to a one-room cellar in Tel Aviv and started turning out raincoats, which had been Armin's specialty before World War II. "But we picked the wrong country," Leah remembers ruefully. "It hardly ever rains in Israel." She quickly switched to cotton bathing suits, and soon had 20 women, each with a sewing machine, stitching away.
Gottlieb, a grandmother of six, still puts in a 12-hour day, starting at 6 a.m. in the four-story Gottex building in Tel Aviv. Her materials are produced in Italy, and this year she has chosen silver and gold Lurex and lots of tiger and leopard prints for her maillots. Many come with matching cover-ups, a style Leah introduced after glimpsing her bikini-clad models parading down the runway. "Unless you are right at the seashore or pool," she explains, "I think it looks dreadful to walk around like that."
Today husband Armin runs the financial end of the business, while daughter Judith, 36, produces her own sportswear line for Leah in Tel Aviv and Miriam, 39, runs Gottex's New York showroom. Leah herself makes sure she has the latest lowdown on who's buying what. When Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth spotted a blue, violet, red and yellow striped suit with matching caftan in the fashion pages, Leah saw that Her Majesty had it within two days. Not that all her customers are born to the purple. "The last time I watched The Love Boat," says Leah, "I realized everyone was wearing one of my suits."
There is nothing provincial about the brightly colored bikinis, maillots and cover-up tunics flourishing along Israel's Jaffa beach. They are the style setters that will be turning up all summer long at smart resorts like Southampton, Acapulco, Cannes and Deauville. Bearing the label Gottex (for Gottlieb Textiles), they grace the wardrobes of Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood and Nancy Kissinger (who owns 12 Gottex outfits), to say nothing of Britain's Princess Anne (who buys hers through Harrods) and Queen Sofia of Spain.