There is no equivalent to Pnina Tornai in the UK fashion world; no-one transcends Planet Fashion in quite the same, immensely glamorous — and sometimes vulgar — way that Israel’s number one bridal designer does in her home country.
Vivienne Westwood comes close, being a designer of frocks with “personality”, but Tornai (pictured above), who has recently acquired a dedicated UK shop, is in another league.
A former actress who looks like a fashion model, she hosts an Israeli TV show; was the biggest ratings draw in Israel’s recent Celebrity Big Brother; was a judge in the Israeli version of Project Runway; was the face on the cover of the August edition of At, Israel’s biggest-selling women’s magazine; and has featured in Say Yes to the Dress in the USA, where she is one of the country’s top three bridal designers (up there with Monique L’Huillier and Reem Acra). And as one of the highest-profile bridal designers in the US, it was one of her wedding gowns which was worn by Lisa Kudrow in PS I Love You, while the wedding dress in Confessions of a Shopaholic was also a Pnina Tornai.
Conquering the USA, however, took real determination. Already a success in Israel — where she has a salon in Old Jaffa — she arrived in Manhattan on September 11, 2001 to present her collection to the owner and chief buyer at Kleinfeld’s, America’s leading bridal store.
It was not only the day of the attack on the Twin Towers, but the day her own world was temporarily shattered when the buyer rejected her collection.
“She told me my dresses were not what they needed. I cried all the way back to the hotel, but I knew I was going to make it. I know that my dresses have magic — every time a girl puts on one of my dresses, she feels beautiful.”
In response to a further call, the buyer relented and told Tornai she could “send a few samples”.
“When I got home, I sent seven dresses — seven because it is an important number in kaballah — and when they saw how they sold, they called me. They apologised. They said they would fly me back, pay all my expenses. They said ‘Please, please come back.’”
Of course she returned and is now their number one seller, in terms of revenue and volume. As an indicator of the popularity of her gowns, she flies to New York every three weeks to do a trunk show and is given a dedicated press show every October. As well as her collection, she designs individual gowns, seeing around 100 brides every trip.
“When I am in New York, all the brides come for my designs because one of my specialities is that I know what will suit them.” In London, her elaborate bridal and evening gowns, sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, sometimes, it must be said, overwrought, are available at Doly in New Bond Street.
In August, celebrity mag OK! featured 15 pages of Katie Price clad in Pnina Tornai gowns, including a floor-length corset number in grey tulle with fishtail hem, covered in marquise-cut Swarovski crystals and costing a jaw-dropping £42,000. When Price arrived for her fitting, the shop had to hire security to keep papps and fans away. As well as the gowns worn by Price, there are bridal and evening frocks that are far less pricey and rather more appropriate for non-celebs. A series of intricately beaded cream duchesse silk wedding gowns start at around £4,000, while eveningwear starts at around £1,000. Her covered-up gowns have a dedicated following among New York’s rich Chasidic daughters.
Tornai spent part of her childhood in various parts of Africa where her father served as a diplomat. Back in Israel, her clothes, crafted from swimsuits and lace tablecloths cut out on the kitchen table, led to a local reputation as a cool dresser. “People would stop me and ask me where I bought my clothes. All my designs come to me in dreams. I wake up and I have to make a sketch.”
Some of the gowns are made by a team of workers in Israel who have been cutting, sewing and embellishing for Tornai for more than 15 years. Others are produced by a Ukrainian team, whose craftsmanship Tornai says is “the best in the world”.
Having conquered Israel and New York and with five shops in Greece, she is relishing the challenge of her London shop: “I am ready to give it all my talent and energy.”