On a recent Sunday, three fashion designers entered the Jewish Museum, on the Upper East Side, about an hour before closing time. Gabi Asfour (brought up in Lebanon, by Palestinian parents), Angela Donhauser (from Tajikistan, then Germany), and Adi Gil (Israel, then Germany), who together make up the collective threeASFOUR, sped through a room filled with Chagalls into a dark side gallery. Dresses from their Spring-Summer, 2014, collection—black or white, architectural— hung from the ceiling, lit by flickering projections. A recording of a piano string being plucked arrhythmically served as a soundtrack.
The trio began catching up—Gil was moving to a new apartment; Donhauser had a Barbra Streisand song stuck in her head. An elderly museumgoer approached. “Please forgive me, this is a quiet setting,” she said in a stern whisper. “It is not a cocktail party.”
The designers retreated to a vacant auditorium. “We work kind of all together—somebody designs, somebody styles, somebody does graphics,” said Asfour, who is forty-seven, with the rakish beard of a buccaneer, and wore a white leather vest, white pants, and a black silk kimono. “The idea of a name like Marc Jacobs”—for whom Asfour used to work—“it freaks us out, because it doesn’t make sense. It’s just one name, but then there’s a whole army of people behind it.”
“We always say it’s like kindergarten,” Donhauser added (forty-one, blond ponytail, round blue-tinted glasses). “You can be the lone child who is a spoiled brat and it’s all about me, me, me, but how much fun do you have all by yourself?” For its Jewish Museum show, threeASFOUR worked with the artist Alex Czetwertynski, the musician Raz Mesinai, the product designer Bradley Rothenberg, 3-D-printing technicians, architects, and an origami master, among others. The result is a multimedia installation titled “MER KA BA,” a name that is itself a mash-up of allusions to Jewish, Muslim, Sufi, ancient Egyptian, and New Age spiritual places and practices.
Donhauser and Gil (thirty-nine, tomato-colored hair, wearing a necklace she’d made from crystals and seashells) met in Munich, in the nineties, at fashion school, then decamped for New York.
“You have to have this feeling of—in German you say vogelfrei, free as a bird,” Donhauser said. They teamed up with Asfour (whose sister is a fact-checker at this magazine) in Manhattan. Now their label, which they run from Chinatown, has pieces in the V. & A., in London, and in the Costume Institute at the Met, and counts Yoko Ono and Björk among its fans. A guard stepped in to announce that the museum had closed, so the designers returned to their exhibit.
“See the Islamic tiling?” Asfour said, as Donhauser pointed a flashlight at a laser-cut pattern on a white dress. “We’ve been, for the last two years, researching Islamic tiling, and then slowly we started realizing it’s connected to Christian tiling, Baroque and Romanesque. And then we looked into Jewish tiling and were, like, wow, it’s the same thing, too.”
Gil said, “That was the core of the collection, how they fit together.”
The garments have names like Mount Sinai Dress (black silk organza), Sistine Dress (tiled black silk origami), and Revelation Dress (ivory resin). It is hard to imagine comfortably wearing one, and thoroughly stressful to imagine getting caught in the rain in one. They go for up to thirty thousand dollars; the museum’s gift shop is selling a silk chiffon caftan for eight hundred and eighty-eight dollars.
“At this point, the world’s united through the Internet, so it doesn’t make sense anymore to have separate religions, because it creates conflict right away,” Asfour went on. “I guess we are saying something about this, but without being too heavy.”
At the far end of the room, there was a fortlike structure in the shape of half of a three-dimensional six-pointed star, which the designers called “the sanctuary,” or “the temple.” Inside was a house of mirrors—reflective panels on the floors, walls, and ceilings, with a narrow window facing Central Park. Christian Wassmann, the Swiss architect who designed the space, stood within it, wearing an angular threeASFOUR blazer.
“The shape itself is like a basilica,” Wassmann said. “The visual effect from the outside is like the Star of David, and then, inside, all the Plexiglas mirror silhouettes are Islamic.” As the sun set that evening (the autumnal equinox), he explained, it would pass directly in front of the window. Suddenly, there was a blast of light. Everyone sat down on the floor, in silent admiration.
Then Asfour said, “I guess we’ve developed our own kind of religion.”
“Our own threeASFOUR religion,” Gil added.
“I want to be buried in this, like Cleopatra in the Pyramids,” Donhauser said. “Lock me in, till eternity.”