Orthodox executive to buy a bikini firm

JERUSALEM — Lev Levayev is not about to let a little skin get in the way of business.

The Africa-Israel Corp., which the ultra-religious Orthodox Levayev controls, plans to purchase an 80 percent stake in Gottex, an Israeli swimsuit company known for its daring bikini designs.

The move, which will mark Africa-Israel's entry into the clothing industry, raised questions about whether Levayev would try to revamp Gottex's production line because of his religious beliefs.

Levayev recently created a controversy when he said he would not allow the operation on the Sabbath of a movie theater and fast-food restaurant in a shopping mall built by Africa-Israel in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Aviv. He also wanted to make a McDonald's restaurant in the mall kosher.

This week, however, a company spokesman said that Levayev had no intention of altering the revealing Gottex designs.

"Africa-Israel is a company. It is not defined as a religious or secular company. Levayev will not change the production line. The purpose is to strengthen [Gottex] and get it back on top."

Africa-Israel negotiated the deal for Gottex with Leah Gottlieb, who held the controlling share in the financially troubled company.

Gottex has debts totaling some $30 million to $35 million, including about $18 million owed to suppliers.

Creditor banks gave Gottlieb three months to find a strategic investor, saying they would otherwise go to court in an effort to dissolve the company.