Lea Gottlieb, the Israeli swimwear fashion designer who survived the Holocaust, died on November 17 in Tel Aviv. She was 94.
Born in Sajószentpéter, Hungary, she was planning to study chemistry. During Germany’s occupation of Hungary in the mid-1940s, her husband Armin was shipped to a labor camp. Gottlieb hid from the Nazis in Sajószentpéter and Budapest, moving from one hiding place to another with her daughters Miriam and Judith. At checkpoints, she hid her head in a bouquet of flowers to avoid being recognized as a Jew. Once, after seeing a Nazi with a pistol, she concealed herself and her children in a pit behind a house.
Gottlieb and her family survived the war, and after the liberation, she and her husband ran a raincoat factory in Czechoslovakia. They immigrated to Haifa, Israel, in 1949. “We came with nothing, without money, with nowhere to live,” she recalled. “The first two or three years were very, very hard.”
With money borrowed from family and friends, she and her husband opened a similar raincoat factory near Tel Aviv in 1949. But for months, they “saw no rain, only sunshine.” As a result, in 1956 they founded Gottex, a high-fashion beachwear and swimwear company that became a leading Israeli brand outside of Israel, exporting to 80 countries. The company’s name is a combination of “Gottlieb” and “textiles.”
Gottlieb, affectionately known as Lady Lea, received numerous Israeli and international awards, and always had a little trouble with her acceptance speeches. Her heavily accented English was passable, though not entirely fluent, but she was never able to master Hebrew, and even when she started a speech in halting Hebrew, she lapsed into English.
One of her favorite and most faithful customers was Princess Diana, for whom she organized a private fashion show in London. Actress Brooke Shields was also lucky enough to get a private show, as was Nancy Kissinger, the wife of the former U.S. secretary of state. Elizabeth Taylor and singer Ofra Haza also wore Gottex designs.
Following the death in 1995 of her husband, who had managed the financial side of the business, Gottlieb’s fortunes took a turn for the worse, and eventually she had no choice but to sell the family’s shares, which in 1997 were acquired by Lev Leviev, the chief shareholder in the Africa Israel Group.
Later, her younger daughter Judith died of cancer. By that time Gottlieb’s noncompete agreement with Africa Israel had expired, and at age 85, she reinvented herself and began once again to produce swimwear, not under the Gottex label, but under her own brand name – Lea Gottlieb.
In 2005, Gottlieb was voted the 167th-greatest Israeli of all time, in a poll by the Israeli news website Ynet to determine whom the general public considered the 200 Greatest Israelis.