Israeli fashion designer sets up shop in S.F., leaves N.Y. behind

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Fashion designer Lia Kes was 12 years old when a woman on her kibbutz taught her how to sew.

“The moment I first used a sewing machine there was no possibility I would do anything else,” she said.

Fast-forward 25 years: Kes, a native of Kibbutz Afikim near the Sea of Galilee, is now dressing the likes of Kate Hudson, Kim Kardashian and Chelsea Clinton. And her clothes often grace the pages of magazines such as Cosmopolitan and InStyle.

In November, Kes relocated to San Francisco from Manhattan with her husband and two children, after her husband received a job transfer.

Lia Kes

A month later, on Dec. 18, she opened her first retail boutique on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.

“When I went to design school [at Shenkar College in Tel Aviv], people would say, ‘What is a kibbutznik doing in design school?’ ” she recalled.

But to her, that background was an asset.

“On a kibbutz, there is a simplicity to the clothes — they need to be utilized, and you need to need them,” she said. “That has influenced my designs. There is something very raw and down to earth and direct about kibbutz life. I feel I have all this in my clothes in a sophisticated way. My personality is just out there on the hangers.”

Kes’ clothes are simple but elegant: silk tunics on the bias, black and green dresses that drape in all the right places, and tanks made of silk or jersey knit gathered on one side for a flattering fit.

Her clothes are primarily solid colors — black, beige, gray, white, green and orange — with eye-catching details like chunky zippers, beaded cuffs and asymmetrical sleeves.

“I want to wear a garment that will serve me throughout the whole day,” Kes said on a recent weekday morning, looking sleek in one of her signature black blouses, worn jeans and nude heels. Her auburn hair was pulled back, her face bare.

She said she envisions a woman in her clothes feeling empowered at the office and beautiful on a date, all in the same day and in the same outfit.

Kes served two years in the Israeli air force, then earned a degree in fashion design after spending four years at Shenkar College.

In 2000, she relocated to New York City.

“When I first came I had no money,” she recalled. “I was working at a leather store for my visa but I felt I needed to do my own thing. So a friend and I went bananas with a T-shirt line.”

The designs were a big hit and picked up by Saks Fifth Avenue and a number of trendy New York boutiques.

Lia Kes’ boutique in San Francisco includes her namesake collection and a few hand-picked accessory brands. photo/stacey palevsky

Three years later, in 2003, she launched her own collection.

“For many years, I tried to make a garment that created an artistic statement,” she said, “but then I realized, I am my own customer, and I want to work for myself.”

The Lia Kes collection is today available in more than 100 boutiques worldwide, including shops in the United States, Israel, Germany, China, United Arab Emirates, Costa Rica, Panama, France and Belgium.

Her workshop is in the back of her minimalist boutique in the Fillmore District. She designs, sketches and sews samples and special orders from there.

“I work very old school. I sketch everything myself and I have to touch every garment,” she said. Thereafter, she sends her designs to New York and China to be manufactured.

She maintains a showroom in Manhattan and is looking to open another one in Los Angeles. She’s also considering a second retail location in Burlingame.

“Here I see more of my customers, as opposed to working only with buyers,” she said. “I’m able to learn what they need and create garments that women need.”

Lia Kes, 3024 Fillmore St., S.F. (415) 829-2225.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.