NEW YORK — Leah Gottlieb, who started with a single sewing machine in a refugee camp in the new nation-state of Israel and rose to become one of the world’s most renowned designers of women’s bathing suits, died Saturday at her home in Tel Aviv. She was 94.
Her family confirmed the death.
The company that Mrs. Gottlieb and her family started — Gottex, for Gottlieb and textiles — sold more than 1 million swimsuits a year at its peak, in the 1970s and 1980s. Royalty, movie stars, and Sports Illustrated swimsuit models wore her creations, some inspired by symphonies, others perhaps by Impressionist paintings. One-piece suits were her specialty in some seasons, and birds, flowers, and waves were among her favorite motifs. She made suits from velvet, metallic gold fabric, and pseudo-suede. A single rose wrapped in a newspaper inspired a line of suits.
Some of the 300 styles she turned out annually were demure, while others were anything but. ‘‘I think maybe I made them too sexy,’’ she said of her 1984 collection.
Most significant, Mrs. Gottlieb helped change how people thought about bathing suits. ‘‘Leah came up with an idea no one before had thought of: to inject glamour into women’s swimsuits and beachwear,’’ Helen Shuman wrote in her 2006 book, ‘‘Gottex: Swimsuits as Elite Couture.’’
Mrs. Gottlieb shipped to more than 60 countries. Gottex swimsuits and accessories were carried by top department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s in New York, Neiman Marcus in Dallas, Galeries Lafayette in Paris, and Harrods in London. Customers included Elizabeth Taylor, Nancy Kissinger, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Brooke Shields, and Queen Elizabeth II.
When Mrs. Gottlieb heard from the manager of a London boutique that Princess Diana had made an appointment to choose a few things for a holiday in the South of France, Mrs. Gottlieb jumped on a plane to London to help her. Among the princess’ selections was a sexy leopard-print one-piece.
Mrs. Gottlieb was dedicated to making something any woman in a bathing suit, seemingly stripped of all sartorial protection, could feel confident in. She led her field in pioneering the use of hard-cup bras and ample use of spandex.
Leah Lenke Roth was born in the town of Sajoszentpeter in Hungary. She studied chemistry in school, then worked as a bookkeeper at a raincoat factory. She married Armin Gottlieb, a member of the family that owned the factory.
During Germany’s occupation of Hungary in the mid-1940s, Armin Gottlieb, who like her was Jewish, was shipped to a labor camp but survived. Leah Gottlieb, with the couple’s two young daughters, moved about, hiding from the Nazis.
After the war, the Gottliebs ran a raincoat factory in Czechoslovakia, then immigrated to Haifa, Israel, in 1949, with virtually no money. Leah Gottlieb sold her wedding ring to buy a single sewing machine and fabric. She started making children’s clothes because they required less material.
The family later moved on to a one-room cellar in Tel Aviv and started turning out raincoats, only to realize that it seldom rains in Israel. Leah Gottlieb quickly switched to cotton bathing suits, beginning in 1953, and soon had 20 women, each with a sewing machine, stitching away. As the company grew to more than 1,000 employees, Mrs. Gottlieb continued to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Gottex eventually produced lines of sports and evening wear, in addition to swimming garb.
Armin Gottlieb, who died in 1995, ran the financial end of the business, while their daughter Judith Gottlieb, who died in 2003, helped her mother design. Their other daughter, Miriam Ruzow, ran Gottex’s New York showroom.
In addition to Ruzow, Leah Gottlieb leaves six grand- children and 11 great-grandchildren.