Oct 16, 2017

How a Shabbat in Ibiza laid the foundation for a fashion empire

by Simon Apfel

A global fashion icon who’s also a Torah scholar and scrupulously Shabbat observant. Contradiction in terms? The Kooples founder Alexandre Elicha doesn’t think so.

“Don’t be afraid to be different, don’t be afraid that people will point and say things about you. The truth is, this difference – people like it.”

Alexandre Elicha, the 41-year-old artistic director and co-founder of international fashion label The Kooples leans forward, arms resting comfortably on his knees, hands clasped together in front of him, black fedora hat tilted slightly, nonchalantly askew.

The sentiments are pretty maudlin, even clichéd, for someone with Elicha’s rock star pedigree, whose flamboyant clothing line combines traditional elegance and Parisian chic with a London rock n’ roll cut, and whose 12-collections-a-year model has turned the traditional summer/winter fashion cycle on its head.

But, in the context of his quite remarkable spiritual story, they are anything but.

Alexandre Elicha and his brothers Laurent and Raphael founded The Kooples (French slang for “couples” – much of the marketing and clothing design targets romantic partners) 15 years ago.

Their parents are the founders of another famous clothing line, Comptoir des Cotonniers, and worked with Jean Paul Gaultier, which had a licensing partnership with the Jackson family.  “We used to host the Jacksons for dinner and sit around and play guitar with Michael and his siblings,” recalls Alexandre.  

The brothers grew up in Toulouse in the south of France. Though not generally observant, their parents were fiercely traditional Jews, for whom Friday nights were particularly sacrosanct.

“We had a dinner with all the family and performed all the rituals. I remember enjoying this a lot. A lot. But when I was 16, I realised Friday night was the best time to go party.”

Over the ensuing decade, Alexandre, as young adults are wont to do, began to drift. At one stage, he even explored a career in comedy.

“I was doubting where to go in my life,” he says simply. “I lacked any kind of direction.”

His connection to Judaism in particular began to fray. Alexandre had the self-awareness to realise this, and the deep sense of Jewish identity instilled by his parents to want to do something about it.

Alexandre’s father, Tony, a long-serving leader of the Jewish community in Toulouse, and for many years, vice-president of one of French Jewry’s central administrative bodies, the Consistoire de Paris, had a proposal – together, they would travel to Israel and meet with a certain saintly rabbi in Bnei Brak who might be able to help.

“My father told me, ‘this rabbi – he knows people, he can get a feel for who you are, give you good advice’. I wasn’t convinced, but the opportunity to travel with my father was too good to pass up.”

He recalls the experience vividly.

“We arrived at a tiny house. There were books everywhere. Everywhere. Not the books you keep on your shelf, the books you study all the time. I told the rabbi, ‘My father wants me to go into the fashion industry.’ He took a book from behind him, focused intently on a word and told me very simply, ‘You should follow your father.’”

The experience left a deep impression.

“His few words, his amazing eyes, his hat, all the books surrounding him. It was a very authentic experience. There was something intensely real here.”

Alexandre wasn’t the only one moved by the encounter. On arriving home, Tony Elicha announced to his family that he was going to start observing Shabbat.  Alexandre made his own commitment – he would start putting on tefillin.

“I hadn’t seen them since my bar mitzvah [Alexandre was 26 at the time]. I opened up the bag and felt a shock. I loved them immediately. These little boxes, so black, so mysterious.”

He is surely the first person to describe tefillin as “very rock n roll”.

“I wanted to keep them on the whole day. I didn’t understand what was inside the boxes, but my first contact was aesthetic – and I loved it.”

He hasn’t missed a day since.

One month later, Alexandre set out for Ibiza – “a very strange island where you can party and go crazy” – with his brother, Laurent. It was a pilgrimage the brothers took two or three times a year. This time, however, Alexandre packed his tefillin and siddur.

“On the Sunday afternoon before going to this huge club called The Space, I put on the tefillin in my hotel. My brother saw me like this and said, ‘Give me the tefillin, I’m going to put them on too.’”

It was only later, though, at the club, that the epiphany came.

“Both of us felt it at the same moment. It had the force and clarity of a message directly from G-d – we were going to do a Shabbat right here in Ibiza.”

Unsurprisingly, “the first Shabbat ever kept on Ibiza” was of the most rudimentary variety. Kosher wine being relatively hard to come by on Ibiza, they decided to make Kiddush on bread. And they went to a restaurant early Friday afternoon and pre-paid for their meal. But, over the course of 25 hours, amid the newfound peace and quiet they were afforded, they found the vast expanses of their minds opening up.

“We spent the entire day talking and thinking – talking about the world, about Judaism, about G-d. We took these moments to think about our lives – about our life before and the future. Life is so magical. We all forget it. We’re all so busy with work, with running around, with responsibilities. Shabbat is a good time to remember it. And that Shabbat in Ibiza, we remembered it.”

On their return to Toulouse, the brothers plunged into their heritage. Alexandre added Shabbat observance to his daily tefillin routine.  Both began to study Torah on a regular basis.

Not long afterwards, the brothers – with Elicha overseeing menswear, Laurent heading up womenswear and Raphael masterminding the branding – launched The Kooples.

As Alexandre puts it, “The three of us just wanted to create something together.”

Starting with five stores in Paris, they soon went on to open outlets in Lille, Toulouse, Strasbourg, Aix-en-Provence, Rouen and Dijon, and boutiques across France. 

Today, there are nearly 400 stores across the world, from Johannesburg and Sydney to Seoul and Beirut. As befitting their rock n’ roll aesthetic, they’ve created pieces for Iron Maiden, Johnny Depp, The Who and Metallica, collaborated with Pete Doherty and Emily Ratajkowski, and branched out into jewellery, watches and fashion accessories.

In his role as artistic director, Alexandre jets in and out of countries. One day he’s in Miami and a few days later he’s in Milan. One week he will be drawing inspiration from street culture in Paris, the next he’ll be sitting in a coffee shop in New York or popping in and out of vintage clothing shops in London.

The one thing that keeps him grounded is Shabbat.

“The world we live in is crazy. Work is crazy. You run from place to place, you’re on your phone all the time, and when you’re not, you’re on your computer. When you get home, sometimes you work again. Even if you’re not, your spirit is still connected to your work. It’s difficult to have proper time with your children, your wife, your friends.

“You think you are connected to the world through the 24-hour news feed, through Instagram and Facebook. You think you are connected to your friends and to your family. On Shabbat you understand two things – one, that you are not really connected during the week; and two, that the real connection is on Shabbat, when you switch off your phone and your computer, when you don’t go out shopping, when you put things to the side. Shabbat is when you feel real connection – to yourself first and foremost, and to the people around you, the people you love.

“Everyone needs this. It’s magic. Because when you restart the week after Shabbat, it’s a different week. When you have a moment to pause your crazy life, the week is better. You have more strength, more spirit, more connection. You see things differently. You see people differently.

“I’m in a creative industry – I create new clothes, new trends, new things. But you can’t create every day. Sometimes you just need to stop.”

Alexandre says his non-Jewish colleagues and friends are intrigued by, even envious of, his Shabbat observance. And it’s not just Shabbat, apparently.

“My colleagues see me buried in my books, peaceful, spiritual, absorbed, and they love it, they all want it. Even my tzitzit. I never tuck them in. And the guys at work love them. They think they’re so cool. They want their own. This is what I’m saying – people like difference.

“So, if you are Jewish – be yourself, study your story, study the meaning and the mitzvot. It’s amazing, so good. You can work in fashion, or in any kind of business, and keep Shabbat, keep the mitzvot. No problem – you can do it.”

He says The Shabbat Project is a good place to start.

“The Shabbat Project is just one Shabbat. Shabbat is the trendiest thing in the world. Do it. It will change your life.”

Simon Apfel

Simon Apfel was born into obscurity, the son of a frozen peas importer and a washing machine. His love of writing has always outshone his ability by a humiliating margin. Nevertheless, he has gone on to achieve some measure of success as a copywriter, journalist and occasional comedy writer. He studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Cape Town, and has written for a variety of local and international publications. For the past five years, he has been chief writer to South Africa’s Chief Rabbi, and has worked extensively on the Shabbat Project, as well as a host of other projects initiated by Chief Rabbi Goldstein.

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