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PACBI-Designer Dupe: Israeli Start-Up Seeks Beirut Trendsetters

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Yazan al-Saadi | Al-Akhbar | 1 November 2013

Designer Dupe: Israeli Start-Up Seeks Beirut Trendsetters

Artsetters began about four months ago and was officially launched on October 21 by two young entrepreneurs, Lee Rotenberg and Alex Schinasi, in order to “penetrate creative circles in cities that are often inaccessible and elevate young artists to the international scene.”

On the face of it, ArtSetters presents itself as an uncontroversial platform to help market and sell a designer’s brand on a global stage. Rotenberg and Schinasi get a 20 percent cut of any sale, which seemed like “a pretty good deal” as one Beirut-based designer, who was formerly involved, called it.

Unbeknownst to the Lebanese designers who were recruited, the company and the duo seemingly have ties with an enemy state, a fact that only became apparent after the Israeli press covered the opening of ArtSetters' temporary pop-up store in the Brown Urban Hotel in Tel Aviv.

The Unpublicized Israeli Link

Artsetters’ website describes the group as “an American company registered in the State of Delaware,” adding, “Our team is made up of a passionate group of creative art lovers hailing from the likes of Switzerland, Belgium, Sweden, Canada and the United States.”

When not approaching designers directly in cities, ArtSetters relies on “ambassadors” who watch out for new brands and trends to eventually showcase. In the case of Beirut, their “ambassador” is 28-year-old fashion promoter Hazem Haddad. Haddad described himself as having a “big background in fashion-creative direction and branding.” Haddad had met the two through a fashion designer he was working with in Europe, and became involved with ArtSetters in Beirut in August.


Through Haddad, Rotenberg and Schinasi contacted various designers and artists in Lebanon to join. They also approached the Lebanese fashion blog Plush Beirut for further contacts. In the end, five Lebanese designers, ranging from jewelery to clothing to furniture, were brought in and had their products curated and marketed on the website.


According to the first profile piece of the company, published on October 24 by the Israeli newspaperHa'artez, Rotenberg's grandfather was a major artist in Israel who has a painting hanging in the Israeli Knesset. The Ha'aretz article noted that Rotenberg herself has been living in Tel Aviv since 2010, while Schinasi arrived in Israel in 2011 to work on a film and decided to stay.

Ha'aretz recently amended parts of the article, spurred perhaps by the recent investigations of Al-Akhbar.

The article originally stated:

"We are very big in Beirut," says Schinasi. This is thanks to Hazem Haddad, a fashion promoter who connected the two with several trendsetters in Beirut such as Plush Beirut, the winner of the best fashion blog in Lebanon. She adds that, through this connection, someone in Beirut bought a piece of art from Tel Aviv – only possible because the art is shipped from the company's base in the United States."

The amended Ha'aretz article makes no mention of Plush Beirut or Haddad's role with ArtSetters. Rather it currently states:

"We are very big in Beirut," says Schinasi. She says that through their connections, someone in Beirut bought a piece of art from Tel Aviv - only possible because the art is shipped from the company's base in the United States.

Lebanon is one of the few countries in the region that still stringently maintains a strict boycott of products and relations with Israel. The 1955 Lebanese Boycott Law prohibits all manners of contact, direct or indirect, and those who do so in any way could be susceptible to strict punishment. The juncture of politics, law, and art are inescapable in this context, particularly as Lebanon continues to face daily Israeli military aggression on its territory.

Another profile of ArtSetters, published four days later by The Times of Israel, reported that the two were able to establish the company through the help of the Tel Aviv Municipality, “which offered them workspace in their start-up incubator at the city's Mazeh 9 building, as well as a website designer willing on spec.”

The Times of Israel also remarked that Schinasi herself was a “new immigrant to Israel.”

The Times of Israel highlighted Schinasi’s claim of how they were able to ship their Israeli-made clothing line, Pilpeled, to Lebanon through America by cutting all the Israel labels off.

“But they know it's from Israel, and they tell us they love it,” Schinasi had said to the Israeli publication, adding, “That's what makes it cool. That is a trend. A trendsetter in Beirut is someone walking down the street in an Israeli-designed shirt because no one else has it and very few people can access it.”

Al-Akhbar contacted the five designers, as well as Haddad and Plush Beirut, to inquire about their level of involvement with ArtSetters.

Of the five Lebanese designers contacted by Al-Akhbar, four responded. Of those, three expressed surprise and concern regarding the Israeli connection, and have stated they were immediately pulling their products from the site.


“They contacted me directly and sent a presentation for their website. I'm a new brand and wanted any kind of exposure. It seemed like a good deal. They introduced themselves as living in Brooklyn, so I thought they were in the New York scene. They never introduced themselves as Israelis or mentioned anything about Israel,” one of the Beirut-based designers told Al-Akhbar.


Indeed, there is no mention of any Israeli ties on the website – other than the fact that Tel Aviv is one of the cities highlighted– nor on the promotional PDF sent to various designers about the initiative.

Presently, the main Beirut page on the ArtSetters website has been taken down, although a banner and a profile page for Beirut's “ambassador” Haddad is still online at the time of this writing.

Deema al-Saidi, editor of Plush Beirut, wrote to Al-Akhbar:

“Given the secretive nature of ArtSellers concerning their location when they requested contact details for designers in parallel to their recent claims in the media, I am inclined to believe that their purpose in contacting me was not only to enter Lebanon but also to infiltrate and poison a strong, key communication point of the Lebanese fashion scene – Plush Beirut. It is not favorable to certain Israeli interests for Lebanon to receive positive media recognition in many domains – fashion, entertainment, and art included.”

During the course of Al-Akhbar's brief investigations, Rotenberg and Schinasi were notified and sought to downplay the matter to the Beirut designers. An email was sent by Rotenberg, which was passed on to Al-Akhbar by one of the designers. Rotenberg wrote:

“It's been brought to our attention that there's inaccurate rumors of us being an Israeli company and thus we decided to take the proactive step of reaching out to our lovely Beirut ArtSetters and clarifying details.

ArtSetters is an American company that's registered in Delaware - we'll happily send you a copy of our incorporation documents to whoever requests them. We pay taxes to the United States, never Israel. Neither of us is Israeli and we're not even residents of this country, we're merely here for the 6-week pop-up shop. With that said, the idea of ArtSetters did come from our time spent here in Tel Aviv, hence the reason we decided to have our first of many pop-ups there. Our next pop-up shop is in Berlin, and who knows maybe after that we'll go to Beirut or Brooklyn!

Our site is comprised of 19 different cities and growing. It's unfortunate that a single city is spotlighted when it's just one of the 19 and we're so much more than that. We truly hope that one day creativity will overshadow politics, as politics really has no place in what's trendy & cool.”

The assertions made by Rotenberg in the email contradicted the reports of Ha'aretz and TheTimes of Israel, not to mention comments made by Haddad to Al-Akhbar when he was interviewed.

When asked about ArtSetters’ Israeli links, Haddad stated, “Usually when I try to link an artist from here, I would definitely tell them [ArtSetters] are Israeli, and I respected if [Lebanese designers] didn't want to work with them. It's a free world.”

Later in the interview, he said, “I didn't overthink it or plan for it. I liked what they are doing and how they were bringing in new talent and trying to make them known all around the world. I did not take it from a political point of view at all. It was easy and straight to the point. They live in London and the US. And they just happened to make a start-up in Tel Aviv.”

It’s All About Art?

“I don't think art should be intertwined with politics or religion. Art should bring people together and celebrate life and beauty. I don't know why we are going back to the Israeli-Lebanese conflict again. This is all about art,” Haddad argued as a justification for working with ArtSetters. It echoes the final line of Rotenberg’s email to the designers.


The reasoning that art must inherently be separated from politics is a common theme that arises in the debate regarding the boycott of cultural sectors related to the Zionist state.


“One cannot isolate art, literature, or any of the human sciences from politics and society in general,” Samah Idriss, an activists for the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel in Lebanon, told Al-Akhbar during a phone conversation.

“This is exactly what Zionists want – to distinguish between art and politics. This is the raison d'être for the cultural boycott, to stress the point that these issues cannot be separated because art, literature, music, tourism, and the rest are made to white-wash Israeli crimes. Israel wants to think that business can go on as usual while massacres, racism, apartheid [against Palestinians] are taking place,” he added.

Additionally, Haddad stressed the fact that ArtSetters was a registered American company.

“Regardless of its registration elsewhere, any cooperation with an Israeli state or institution, even with Israeli people who are not officially and vocally against the state of Israel is subject to boycott,” Idriss said in response to this point.

In unsolicited emails to Al-Akhbar, Rotenberg claimed that the Israeli media and Al-Akhbar have “twisted the facts for a good story.” She insisted that neither her or Schinasi were Israeli and that the company was not strictly “operating” out of Tel Aviv as stated by TheTimes of Israel.

She also wrote that the “real story” was that “Beirut trendsetters are finally getting elevated to the same level as those in Moscow, LA, San Francisco, Istanbul, Belgium, Geneva and so on.”

However, instead of benevolently “elevating” the designers in Beirut, the duo’s actions could have potentially resulted in getting these designers prosecuted – a fact that Rotenberg and Schinasi may have not considered in their quest for “global” trendsetters.

“I’m shocked about these [Israeli reports],” said one of the Beirut designers. “This is not a game. I have a business and a brand on the line.

Posted on 02-11-2013

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