Statement pieces in namesake label KES NYC embrace a gravity defying weightlessness.

Words by Meryl Fontek
Photos by David Toquica

Growing up in the Southern Galilean region of Israel on Kibbutz Afikim, Lia Kes understood the value of clothing that was made to last. As a young girl, Kes spent her time at the 
matpera, the Kibbutz’s communal sewing workshop where she learned to sew from the woman who made couture quality clothing for the nearly 1,400 residents of all ages. “From workwear and uniforms, to clothing for the holidays and special occasions, all the clothing was made to measure. The makeshift atelier was littered with copies of Burda, a German textile and pattern magazine. Kibbutz members were able to choose any pattern from the magazine and receive custom made apparel.”

The founder of sustainable luxury womenswear label, KES NYC, explains that the inspiration she has taken from life on the Kibbutz might seem in contradiction with the world of fashion. But, in truth, the simple uniformity actually serves it. “The proximity to the source of materials is the strength of the community. Without a focus on materialism and fast fashion, the quality becomes the prime importance.” Today, Kes employs organic dyers in California, Seattle, and Brooklyn for her namesake label. 

The fundamental thread that runs through all garments made at KES NYC is a thoughtful simplicity that nods to fashion and trend, but, like the aesthetic of the Kibbutz, leaves space for the personal touch. “Though the clothing we wore on the Kibbutz was plain, it allowed for everyone to inject their personality into the everyday uniform.”

Typical to the Kibbutz framework, all members had specific roles and jobs. Kes’ mother was a beautician, making creams and healing ointments from natural sources, she took care of people’s skin. Kes shares that she learned how to be a woman from her mother. Ironically, the aesthetic of KES NYC is rooted in the idea of existing as a second skin. Slip dresses of undulating silk to be worn for a dinner party, under a blazer to the office, or against bare skin for a night at home, are a canvas, designed for the wearer to pigment in their own fashion. Part of what Kes remains steadfast in, is the opportunity to create one’s own role through clothing, whether literal or metaphoric. Kes’ collections allow for the identity of the wearer to take center stage. 

With a cult-like following, Lia Kes, has created a Kibbutz of her own on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, her home for the last 18 years. “My role is to dress the people of my community. It’s thrilling to dress clientele, (not only women) ranging in ages from 17 to 80 years old.” There is no age or shape that the brand is meant for. Known for her raw looking materials, Kes’ designs can be worn to reveal or conceal depending on the customers’ mood and personality. With such a diverse customer base, Kes says the common thread is that her community doesn’t need validation from a label. Bringing their personality into the piece, they validate the garment. “A KES NYC dress isn’t meant to be worn once in your life. I create the pieces that can translate across different versions of the self.”

Throughout Lia Kes’ career she has always tried to understand women. “This undertaking has become a sort of life research, trying to identify what a woman needs and how I can support those needs. Over years, through feedback and relationships with my clients, I’ve discovered that the power of my garments lies in their non-distracting nature. They add to a woman’s power and complement her energy.”

The subtle nature of her clothing harnesses a sense of mystery, as the focus slips from garment to beholder. “To me, being sexy, is what you leave people with, the blanks that you leave. What is left to the imagination, is sexier than what you show.”