In a place surrounded by conflict, religious prejudice and unpredictable violence, 28-year-old Alon Livné's avant-garde trail is far from Israel's conservative practices.
"I tried all my life, every day, to put my entire focus on my fashion, art and creation, and even though I'm not a political guy, I still can't run from it," Livné said.
"Every time someone mentions Israel, they immediately begin to talk about politics and conflict," added Livné as he sipped on his coffee in his New York City showroom during this years' Fall/Winter 2014 Fashion Week.
At only 22, the gay, charming, and soft-spoken couturier was appointed to the evening-wear department of the Italian fashion house Roberto Cavalli. In 2009, he was the winner of the biggest fashion challenge on the Israeli television, and that same year he worked as an apprentice for the late British Designer Alexander McQueen in London.
He dresses Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell and Paris Hilton; has one of the most prestigious bridal businesses in Israel; works with Arab and Muslim designers and has clients from Dubai and Saudi Arabia -- countries he himself is banned from visiting.
Livné says his dream of expanding his fashion into the Arab world is strongly limited by the policies of his government and the politics of the region -- a dream that, despite his openly gay lifestyle, he is adamant to pursue in countries with much less tolerant toward homosexuality.
"My biggest fantasy is to go with my Arab girlfriend to Dubai and open a store there. But I can't, we always talk about it and say one day I can go to all the banned countries -- I just can't now, because I have an Israeli passport," Livné said, looking down with a grim smile.
Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates are some the Arab League countries that Livné hopes to one day visit -- these are some countries that lack diplomatic relations with Israel.
Born and raised in Tel Aviv, Livné has been a quiet witness to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hopes to one day surpass the torn image of his state through fashion. While politics and religion separate people, Livné says he aspires to merge people through his clothes and help transcend the deepest barriers in one of the most volatile regions in the world.
Livné added how much he values his many Muslim and Palestinian friends. Some of them, he says, are also designers: "We all want peace, friendship, growth and collaboration."
"If you like a dress, it doesn't matter if it's from an American, Israeli, or Muslim designer -- you like it and you buy it, and there's none of this nonsense of doing this and that because of your religious belief and politics," Livné said.
While he says Tel Aviv is "like an Island in the middle of Israel," where the food culture, gay life and the art scene is at its most progressive stage, he believes religious fundamentalism is still a big challenge -- not only between the Jews and the Muslims, but also for the Israeli youth. This is a challenge that according to Livné oftentimes disables the young creative minds to expand beyond the Israeli borders.
"You need to understand that people are conservative and religious in Israel and it's very hard to make it big, it's hard to grow, it's hard to get exposure and it's hard to be seen by the world -- you don't know how many times I wanted to give up and leave it, how many times I wanted to quit," Livné said.
Livné says that people in Tel Aviv, in particular the young people, "all want peace, want to work together and share a normal life; but the politics and religion ruin everything" -- a force Livné continuously struggled with through his life.
While his extended family is religious, Livné's parents have set a different standard. His mother is a hairdresser who now works at his bridal atelier in Tel Aviv and his father is a yoga instructor who created a safe haven for his young son's pursuits -- pursuits that according to Livné have shocked people inside his own country.
"People in Israel are shocked, because they don't know how I got to where I am today -- it's just so hard to start from nothing," Livné said.
He adds that Tel Aviv has a small area similar to New York City's SoHo, where it's considered the hub of all things fashion and design. However, he says growing beyond that small part of the town is something nearly impossible for many young Israeli designers and artist.
"People don't know how to look at it. In Israel it's very small and you can't reach to many places in the world, so in the beginning it was a huge surprise for people that I got this far." But now he says, people are slowly comprehending that "Alon Livné has somehow made it outside the borders."
In a country where the majority of young men have to serve in the Israeli military, Livné's passion for design made him choose fashion school over military at the young age of 17 -- a decision that to this day he is criticized for.
"Some times I hear and see comments that say oh, he's no one, he didn't go to the army and he's not a real Israeli -- but the truth is that I didn't do the army, because I'm not the right person to play with guns to prove my love for my people. I play with fabrics instead" -- a game that Livné began at age 16, when he sold his first dress in Israel.
Now that his success has gained momentum, Livné says he hopes his journey inspires the many talented Israeli and Palestinian designers who live under the confines of their religion and government.
"I did everything with my two hands, there was no golden spoon -- I wanted to show that inside Israel, inside the Middle East, there can be change." He suggests that the emerging talents are those who could raise the flags of their country better than it's conflicted politics and military force -- representing a fresh image to the rest of the world.
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