ATA: More than just a clothing brand

In my teens growing up in apartheid South Africa, everything was bound up in politics and the answer for me lay in going to work on the land on a socialist kibbutz, which I did. My biggest regret was not keeping my set of ‘kibbutz clothing’ that was given to me: a pair of dark blue trousers and a blue shirt – no buttons, but a red string that tied at the top. A real idealist, yet coming from an entrepreneurial family it was quite something as everyone wore the same clothes – the community worked, ate and lived together as true socialists. My life now is clearly very different but on a sunny day in Tel Aviv last month, I walked past a small store on Allenby Street – the Oxford Street of Tel Aviv – and passed a store that triggered a memory of my kibbutz life. The store was called ATA, and its windows were filled with workwear that got me reminiscing.

ATA’s name comes from the renowned Hebrew novelist and Nobel Prize winner Shmuel Yosef Agnon. It’s an acronym for ‘arigei totzeret artzeinu’ which, translated, means ‘fabrics produced in our land.’ There’s a lot in a name, and it’s unsurprising that ATA has a deep history to draw from. Founded in 1934 by Czech-Jewish industrialist Erich Moller, ATA’s clothing was for decades ubiquitous in Israel.

The company was the main supplier of clothing to the kibbutz movement and the biggest textile manufacturer in the Middle East. In the austerity years of the 1950s the Israeli government handed out rationing coupons that could be redeemed at the ATA stores that dotted the young nation. If you look at a photo of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, the chances are that you’ll see him pictured in ATA branded shorts. Indeed, the business was known as ‘the national wardrober’.

Port Said restaurant in Tel Aviv

Though the company was synonymous with clothing in the country for many years, it shuttered its doors in 1984 after a dispute with workers. And shuttered those doors remained until 2011, when a retrospective and a restaurateur came together to relaunch the brand.

As I learned from my conversation with him, Shahar Segal is a man of many talents, a business polymath of sorts best known for running some of the most respected restaurants in Israel – 12 in all, spanning a plethora of different brands. One of my absolute favourites is Port Said, a hipster marvel in downtown Tel Aviv he runs in collaboration with celebrity chef Eyal Shani. The queues are long, the food good, and the conversation lively. At North Abraxis you can get a dish that consists of a whole roasted cauliflower cooked in baking parchment that I’ve tried and failed to make at home.

In 2011 he found himself at the Eretz Israel Museum at an exhibition called ‘Factory, Fashion and Dream’, a retrospective on ATA and its effect on Israeli life. Walking the show, Shahar was inspired to acquire and relaunch the brand. ATA has since gone from strength to strength, opening two stores in Tel Aviv and collaborating with prominent Israeli cultural figures like Tamir Muskat to produce new lines and capsule collections.

Yael Shenberger, Chief Designer and Shahar Segal, Founder and Owner of ATA

“I am a storyteller. It’s what I’ve done my whole life.” – Shahar Segal, Founder and owner of ATA

The challenge for a brand like ATA is to balance the competing demands of its own story and the modern world, to juggle and represent both its history and the needs of the modern consumer.

It does so in some sense by being ‘style’ in the truest sense of the word. That is, defined not by price point or label but rather in opposition to ‘fashion’. Where fashion is the mutable, trends that change season after season, style is the timeless. As Yves Saint Laurent famously quipped, ‘fashion fades, style is eternal.’ To be stylish is to know that in 50 years’ time the look will still be stylish. ATA’s skill has been in ignoring trends and focusing on the style.

Indeed, ATA’s chief designer Yael Shenberger has explicitly called the brand ‘non-trendy’ – ‘in a world that consumes too much, I believe in our non-trendy aesthetic conceptions.’

Yael added in her conversation with me that while the brand may not be workwear anymore (at least not in the sense that it’s being worn out on the Kibbutz) she and Shahar have endeavoured to make ATA’s apparel into clothes that work. By using sustainable and long lasting materials in timeless cuts they’ve truly created clothes for living in.

ATA’s reinterpretation of the kova tembel hat

The brand’s success is intimately linked with its history. One of the curators of the museum exhibition that first inspired Shahar, Monica Lavi, has commented that ATA’s clothes are ‘like going back in time and meeting again your childhood.’ The value of nostalgia is clear, and indeed I recall my time in ATA overalls fondly, but there is a danger too in relying too much on legacy at the expense of innovation.

ATA nimbly addresses the issue by having two main collections. The first draws inspiration from ATA’s original incarnation and the values of functionality and durability that its apparel represented for many. Yael said that the key to modernising the brand was to interpret these values in an abstract way – to capture their spirit while changing the form. The second reproduces replicas of the original designs for a modern audience with some absolutely essential innovations that the brand’s 1930’s pioneers may not have considered (chief among them being pockets large enough to fit an iPhone).

“We took the essence and the values of the clothes and we tried to use them in an abstract way . . . we’re not trying to restore the clothes but to interpret them.” – Yael Shenberger, Chief Designer ATA

The simplicity of the designs belies the complexity of the clothes. The brand’s workwear heritage is a story written through the pieces, reworked for daywear but still retaining an element of the practical functionality that exemplified ATA for much of its life. Yael said that ‘I keep on having a dialogue with ATA’s past, I try to create an aesthetic language from one side and combine it with fabrics and tailoring that have an existence that is longer than what fast fashion has nowadays.’

Take the Kova Tembel for example, the iconic Israeli hat worn by Kibbutz workers and ubiquitous in the early years of the nation. Yael has not only recreated the hats to sell in their own stores, but she also played an integral role in making sure that the Kovah Tembel was featured as part of a MOMA exhibition on iconic clothing – ‘Is Fashion Modern?’

This dialogue, Yael and Shahar told me, extends to the brand’s political legacy as well. In the 1930s all of ATA’s employees lived and worked on collectives, and the brand is indelibly linked with a socialist vision of Israel exemplified by figures such as David Ben Gurion. They said that they’ve tried to rebuild this vision for today, working with small Israeli and Palestinian factories and producers in Jerusalem with an emphasis on sustainable manufacture, fair and equal wages and respect for one another.

Yael acknowledged that it’s difficult to translate the values of the Kibbutz to now, particularly its socialist aspects, but in the focus on sustainability, practicality and durability one can hear their echoes.

While a focus on brand legacy and history is, on its own, nothing new, ATA’s revitalisation and repurposing is an exemplar of how to transform and carefully adapt the old into the modern. Yael and Shahar are careful custodians of a history that is not only theirs to own or share, and from hearing their eloquence and passion I can see bright things on the horizon for ATA, the youngest old brand I’ve ever encountered. @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup