And the bride wore… a Pnina Tornai dress

The Israeli wedding gown designer, whose corseted creations are in demand across the globe, never took a sewing class in her life. Viewers of the popular TLC cable show Say Yes to the Dress probably assume that the top designer …

And the bride wore… a Pnina Tornai dress

The Israeli wedding gown designer, whose corseted creations are in demand across the globe, never took a sewing class in her life.

Viewers of the popular TLC cable show Say Yes to the Dress probably assume that the top designer at Manhattan’s Kleinfeld bridal salon gained easy entrée to the legendary shop.

But surprisingly, when Pnina Tornai first displayed her sexy wares to Kleinfeld’s owner and buyer, she got an icy reception.

Sure of her product, Tornai did not give up. “If you throw me out the door, I’ll come back through the window,” she tells ISRAEL21c. “I sent them seven dresses, and I gave the first one the number 101, a powerful symbol from Kabbalah. From the moment they put that dress on a mannequin, it did not stop selling.”

Pnina Tornai
Photo by Dan Lakah
Pnina Tornai only began dressmaking in her 30s, with no formal training.

Tornai’s American business soon became exclusive to Kleinfeld, which two years later gave her a private in-store boutique, a first for the highbrow salon.

Not bad for an Israeli mother who has no formal training in dressmaking, relying instead on visions in her dreams – and lots of hard work.

Rocket sends her career sky-high

Prospects were gloomy for Tornai when she returned to her native Israel, after 10 years in Paris, as a newly divorced mother in her early 30s with a young son to support. Lacking any formal training, the drama school dropout opened a small custom dress shop in Tel Aviv and hired a seamstress to operate the sewing machine in the basement.

Cutting the fabric at night after customers went home, she was exhausted. “I usually forgot a sleeve or something,” she jokes now.

And then, 19 years ago, a bride from the north commissioned Tornai to make her a wedding dress. On the big day, a missile launched from Lebanon fell near the site of the ceremony, and the next morning the newlyweds’ picture was front-page material. Women from across the country started contacting Tornai asking her to make them a copy of that dress.

Pnina Tornai wedding dress with bow
Photo by Yahatz
A Pnina Tornai design from her 2011 New York collection.

“It’s an amazing story even for me,” says Tornai, who still has her flagship store in Tel Aviv. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself to be sure I’m not dreaming.”

She knows she was dreaming, however, when shortly afterward she had a lovely nighttime vision of lying on a huge lawn watching beaded and jeweled bridal and ball gowns float from the sky. When she awoke, she made the decision to become a wedding dress designer.

Her dreams remain a source of inspiration for her custom-made, corseted designs. “I dream my dresses,” she confides. “Ask my husband if you don’t believe me.”

Tornai now employs “the best seamstresses and pattern-makers in the world” to do the cutting, sewing and meticulous trimming, “but they need my eye to correct everything, and all the dresses are designed by me.”

Pnina Tornai wedding dress
Photo by Yahatz
Another Pnina Tornai design from this year’s New York Collection.

Worldwide clientele

Tornai speaks several languages, handy for communicating with clients who stream to her in-store boutiques in New York and Athens.

“I have brides from all over the world flying to New York to meet me — from all the Arab countries, from places that don’t even know the name ‘Israel,’ even from the Palestinian territories,” she says. “I feel I’m sort of an ambassador for my country. At first they’re wary of an Israeli, but by the end they are inviting me to Dubai and Kuwait.”

Her line varies from classic styles to sophisticated hand-embroidered gowns, always revealing and usually sparkling with Swarovski crystals and gemstones. Less well known is her line of modest gowns for religious Jewish and Muslim customers. “I dress all the daughters of the biggest rabbis in Israel,” says Tornai. A good thing, too, because her 26-year-old son recently became more religious and will likely choose a bride who wants a more covered-up look.

For her own wedding to David Levinshtein 11 years ago, she wore a “very noble” gown with a classic draped corset and A-line skirt. After the ceremony, she changed to a silver lace beaded dress, and finally a gem- and bead-encrusted embroidered denim outfit for the after-party.

To Tornai’s way of thinking, the perfect wedding dress is a must, even its price tag will necessitate cutting back on flowers or music. “It’s one chance in your life and your wedding is all about your impression,” she says.

Though she spends half her time in New York and a weekend every two months in Athens, Tornai has finally fulfilled her childhood ambition to act. She just finished filming a major role in the Israeli political sitcom Polishuk, and she’s hosting the Israeli version of Ten Years Younger in 10 Days.

She also hopes to sign exclusive deals with bridal salons in Mexico, Canada and Kuwait, but is committed to keep her home base in Israel.

“It is important for someone successful to remember where they come from. If you forget that, you cannot go higher — that’s a law of life,” says Tornai.

About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.