Military design was never really a part of the curriculum at the Shenkar College of Engineering, Art and Design in Tel Aviv, Israel’s pre-eminent fashion school and the alma mater of Alber Elbaz and other designers. The closest students got to combat thinking was an occasional collaboration, or upcycling old army uniforms donated by the Department of Defense for a project on sustainability, reimagining fatigues as something beautiful to wear.
But not long after the Hamas attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7, all of that changed. Now the classrooms — empty of students, who were scheduled to return from summer vacation on Oct. 15 but have either been called up for military service or remain at home — have been reinvented as the Chamal Shenkar or “headquarters for special activity.” And the 100 sewing machines in the fashion program have been transformed into tools in the war effort.
It is as if the World War II call to “make do and mend,” once issued by the British Ministry of Information, was combined with the repurposing of fashion ateliers to make masks during the pandemic to rethink the role of a fashion school. Not to mention a way for those involved to help process their collective trauma and grief.
“It’s a relief to leave the house and be with people in action,” said Maya Arazi, a senior lecturer and special project coordinator, who is one of the organizers of the Shenkar effort. She and her colleagues were speaking via video call from their homes.
“Finally, I felt like I can breathe,” she went on. “Because it is unbelievably depressing to be at home. You can’t avoid looking at the television all the time. I don’t think there’s one person in Israel who doesn’t have immediate relation to someone who was killed or injured. My daughter is 18, and she’s about to be drafted in a month and a half. She’s at a funeral of a friend that was in the party in the desert. I don’t let myself think or get emotional because I would break. I think all of us are in this situation right now because this is what we need to do.”
Not long after the attack, the security forces reached out to the head of Shenkar’s textile innovation center. They needed help making special equipment — not clothing, but accessories. (The Shenkar team was not exactly sure what they were, though they thought they were an element of multipurpose gear.)
After approval from the Shenkar administration, Ms. Azari enlisted colleagues in the project and, she said, “I just WhatsApped our group of other lecturers and said, ‘Help is needed. Who wants to come and see what can we do?’”
“Everyone feels that they want to contribute in some manner,” she continued.
The other organizers include Ofir Ivgi, a fashion designer and lecturer; Anna Solo, a technical supervisor, recently returned from the funeral of one of her son’s friends; and Ilan Beja, the head of the fashion design department, whose brother had been hiding in a besieged kibbutz for 12 hours without water or electricity before being rescued.
The WhatsApp group has about 300 members, but as they have posted their work on Instagram, more and more students as well as graduates and teachers are joining. Only 50 people at a time can fit in the bomb shelters on each floor of the school, so the group works in rotating shifts. They create patterns from schematics provided by the security forces and their suppliers, then cut, dye and sew the products.
Suppliers have donated materials, though the work is not straightforward, in part because the Shenkar volunteers don’t know exactly what they are making. “It could be used for many things,” said Orit Freilich, a senior lecturer in the design department.
They are also working with specialized materials, which are not easy to find, according to Mr. Beja. The materials are also, he said, “very tough.” The machines are used to chiffon, and maybe denim, even if they are industrial, making construction complicated.
This is exacerbated by the fact that work is often interrupted by missile warnings, which can happen several times a day. And yet, Mr. Beja said, to see students in the same room with senior professors, cutting and sewing together, was an antidote to some of the horror.
They have even found some mordant humor in the situation. “We say we are doing couture,” Ms. Azari said. “Yesterday we were laughing that the tutor who does evening wear is going to put some sequins in.”
Ms. Freilich shrugged. “What else can we do but try to joke?” she asked, noting that she had a hole in her finger from constantly sticking herself while trying to pin the thick materials. She and her co-workers were all stiff from sitting for days, bent over a machine or working the pedals with one leg, she said. But, she said, when the first package was completed, it was one of the happiest days she has had since the attack.
They have completed two orders and are on to the next. After the first order was delivered, Ms. Freilich said, there was a missile attack as the faculty member in charge was on the way back. He had to exit his bus and lie on the ground with his hands over his head. When he reported back to the WhatsApp group on what had happened, one of them asked, “Well, did you remove your Prada pouch, at least?”