With Jerusalem’s lush terraced hillsides as backdrop, two designers hunch over a work table strewn with embroidery floss and half-drained coffee cups, discussing how they will construct an embroidered clutch for their latest collection. Although the scene looks like any humdrum snapshot of the production side of the fashion industry, something extraordinary may be taking place here. One woman is an Israeli designer while the other is a Palestinian embroidery artist, and they are in business together. Two Neighbors, a social entrepreneurship fashion label built by Israeli and Palestinian female entrepreneurs together with American philanthropists, was founded on the belief that tolerance and even friendship can be found in the eye of a needle.
Launched in 2009, the accessible luxury brand is known for versatile contemporary takes on the traditional Palestinian thowb (robe) as well as a collection of supple Italian leather handbags in trendy shapes which incorporate vivid dashes of embroidery.
The label’s production process brings together skilled designers and artisans from both Israeli and Palestinian backgrounds. After a women’s cooperative in a remote West Bank Palestinian village stitches the embroidered panels, experienced Israeli designers based in Tel Aviv construct the garments and accessories. The group is preparing to drop a new collection of embroidered canvas handbags and clutches later this year. In the US, the line is stocked at the Jewish Museum of New York and is also available online and through various pop up shows.
I spoke with two of the American founders, Paula and Whit Jones, a former psychologist and a schoolteacher based in San Diego who wanted to make an impact as investors. Isn’t it a little idealistic, I asked Mr. Jones a little warily, to believe that a shared fashion project can truly build a lasting peace in a protracted conflict zone?
“Well, charity probably isn’t gonna solve a conflict that’s lasted thousands of years,” he said. “Dialogue scenarios can also be great, but the effect evaporates within days.” However, the Jones’ say they’ve seen real results with the Two Neighbors’ social entrepreneurship model.
In 2006, the Jones’ first visited a Palestinian women’s sewing cooperative in a West Bank village known for non-violent resistance and participation in dialogue. Mrs. Jones remembers, “They took us into their store. It was a single room with no lights, just pitch black. They brought things out one by one to show us in the daylight and the work was very nice.” The co-op members had two priorities: to sell something and to gain recognition for their craftsmanship. They became the first artisans to work with Two Neighbors.
The Jones’ then brought the Palestinian artisans to meet with several Jewish Israeli designers in a motel that teeters between the border. At first it was awkward. The participants were standoffish. Mr. Jones called their 2009 product launch of hand-embroidered coffee cup sleeves “the worst idea ever.” Nothing sold at all. Then they ran a Kickstarter campaign, using the funds to create a contemporary collection of thowbs— the flowing, flattering robe that has lost popularity with younger Palestinian women, who often prefer jeans for informal occasions.
Then there was the breakthrough day. One woman brought her infant to the motel appointment. “They all ooed and aahed over the baby,” said Mr. Jones. “Then someone else brought her child the next time. The friendships started around the kids.” Today, Mrs. Jones estimates 20 participants who share a strong bond and know what is going on in one another’s lives. The additional 30 participants coexist, cooperate, and exchange polite chit-chat, but treat their work as a business relationship.
Although any emerging label naturally encounters adversity, Two Neighbors’ faces its own particular challenges. First, there is a high amount of turnover. For two years, a group of skilled Russian Jewish immigrants did much of the production in the basement of a synagogue, receiving plastic bags of work through an open window, then passing it back once they were done. Then they abruptly ceased all contact without any explanation.
Longtime Palestinian Coordinator Adeem asked The Forward not to mention her surname due to security concerns, explaining, “Every day I face people who refuse my work on this project. I keep explaining to them what we aim to achieve, but they aren’t convinced.” When political tensions run especially high, there can be long delays in communication, resulting in an inability to pass work across checkpoints, or even work at all.
There was a steep learning curve. “Women who could sew dresses beautifully didn’t know how to measure four centimeters with a ruler,” admits Mrs. Jones. “They just hadn’t been taught that.” The same women now take home regular paychecks for the first time in their lives, with some beginning to invest funds in education or becoming small business owners. They no longer depend on male relatives for financial support, and as a result can make more of their own decisions. Although it wasn’t intended as a female empowerment initiative, Two Neighbors has become just that.
Then there was the matter of finding a shared language. “The best way for us to communicate is by meeting each other face to face to talk and make decisions together,” explained Israeli designer Miriam Gavin. However, at times the distance or road closures make that impossible. Since Rehan — the Palestinian embroidery designer — only speaks Arabic, and Miriam only knows English and Hebrew, they text photographs of product designs and experiments back and forth. “We found a creative way to communicate with phone emojis,” she tells me, demonstrating how they offer positive feedback to one another by sending a smiley face emoji.
Adeem is bullish that Two Neighbors must continue. “It is not too difficult to achieve peace with a project like this one. It is a door we need to try knocking on. Such things let each culture be open to the other. What people want is to live in peace.”
Danna Lorch is an American arts & culture writer based in Boston. She recently relocated back to the US after seven years spent covering the emerging art, fashion, and design scene in Dubai. Recent work has appeared in Vogue Arabia, Architectural Digest Middle East, L’Officiel USA, ARTnews and elsewhere. She holds a graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard and is interested in the intersection of art, fashion, and faith. Find her on Instagram and Twitter