By Jenni Frazer for the Times of Israel posted Oct 3 2015
LONDON — Deep in the English countryside, about an hour north of central London, sits a 450-year-old manor house. It is rural and English at its most classic. So it is slightly startling to hear the house’s mistress throw Hebrew slang into her conversation as she speaks of how she was inspired to set up her growing fashion accessory business.
The “lady of the manor” is, however, no Downton Abbey throwback. Celia Gould is the wife of Matthew Gould, who has just completed a five-year term as Britain’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel. The family – their two daughters were born in Israel – now includes a rescue cat found in Ramat Gan and a pair of black and cream Labradors, who are also Israel returnees.
Matthew Gould is now “on loan” from the Foreign Office for his new role as head of cyber-security at the Cabinet Office in Whitehall. But Celia Gould, an economist by profession, is relaunching her business, which was kick-started by the sounds and sights of Israel.
“I was always the photographer in our family,” she explains. “I didn’t have any training, but I was always very enthusiastic.”
Israel was her first diplomatic posting – her husband had served previously in a number of overseas embassies – and, she says, she had no preconceptions of what an ambassador’s wife should do.
She’d shelved her career in banking and head-hunting and was three months’ pregnant when they first got to Israel. With a smile, she remembers the rather disconcerting realisation that “there was no separation between public and private life in Israel. It was a 24-hour job, your house is a public space. We did try to make private time for ourselves, but actually, we became used to it.”
As the Goulds grew accustomed to Israel, Celia Gould began improving her photography, learning more about what her camera could do and engaging with a supportive online community for constructive critique of her pictures.
“I began carrying my camera everywhere, because there were so many occasions when I could have taken a picture, when the light was just right, or there was a moment to be captured,” she said.
Once her first daughter, Rachel, was born, Gould took to prowling the streets with stroller and camera.
“I felt that I wasn’t just wheeling the baby, I was able to come home with the achievement of a picture. I’ve always had a good eye, and my technical abilities improved.
“And then I began getting involved with the not-for-profit charity sector. I met lots of people, and if the photography got me out on the streets, the charities got me behind the doors. And that’s how I spent my first couple of years in Israel,” she said.
But her breakthrough came when she took a picture of the Tel Aviv municipality building, and its seemingly endless run of windows. It’s what Gould calls a “Marmite” building, after the British vegetarian food spread which people either love or hate.
“This photo was taken before the shiputz [renovation], before they put the fancy window covers on it. And one of the things which I find so fascinating about photography is that you can take a picture of something very mundane, but the way you present the photograph changes your perception of it.”
Once she looked at the picture she became convinced that it would look interesting on fabric, because the windows were presenting an unacknowledged check pattern.
“So I began Googling ‘digital printing on silk’ and I found some people in China. I was so green: I really didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t intend setting up a business. I was sending over images and they were really low resolution, I didn’t know how to share image files, and I was shooting in a sort of rubbish setting on my camera… all of this stuff and I just think now, oh, Celia, what were you doing!”
One of the Chinese contacts sent back a small silk sample showing her Tel Aviv municipality photograph, taken from the viewpoint of Rabin Square. Politician Yuli Tamir came for dinner one night and Matthew Gould urged his wife to show her the fabric.
“It was just a small square, really only a neckerchief, but she was really taken with it and I began to think, hmm, maybe I could do something here.”
The most encouraging thing, says Gould, was the spirit of “fearlessness” with which Israelis greeted the idea of turning her photographs into wearable fashion.
“I got about 50 images printed up and something of the Israeli feeling of entrepreneurship had entered into me. We’d [she and her husband] spent enough time with innovators and start-ups and investors to make me believe it was worth trying it. I was infected by the idea of – well, why not give it a go?”
Gould decided to make large, luxurious scarves in silk satin, silk chiffon, and a cotton and silk mix. Initially she consulted the textiles department at Shenkar College of Fashion, but discovered that there was no printer in Israel capable of producing the fabric in the sizes she wanted – her scarves are a generous 180 by 100 cm. So she found printers in Italy, near Lake Como, and now has an online range featuring many of her pictures from Israel, together with others from Cairo, Italy, and America. Some of the scarves are sold in the Eretz Israel Museum shop in Tel Aviv, too.
One night at the Ramat Gan residence, the Goulds were entertaining fellow diplomats and their partners. Someone mentioned the scarves and Celia Gould brought some out for the women to see.
“Within minutes, all the women were in the lounge, looking at the scarves – it was like a feeding frenzy!”
That’s when she really knew that the business was viable.
Now that Gould is back in the UK she is relaunching her business, with the Middle East images at the core of her collection. She hopes to break into the retail market in Britain, Europe, and ultimately the US. She has also started doing corporate custom work, including commissions for Ben-Gurion University and Oxford University.
They’re not cheap – the prices range from $132 to $350 – but, says Gould, the scarves have a hidden message for the wearer.
“You can put one of these on, with a photograph of Jerusalem rooftops or cars barrelling down the Ayalon highway, and they don’t scream ‘souvenir of Israel.’ To the outside world they are just interesting patterns.”
But they are patterns with a story, of peacock feathers in the Galilee, or the light and shade of a Negev landscape, or the rich Damascus stripes of bolts of fabric from a photo taken one day in Bethlehem.
The scarves are a delicious mixture of the sizzling and the subtle. And yes, they will make you look pretty cool.