Life & Culture

Meet Pnina Tornai, the Israeli star of 'Say Yes to the Dress'

After becoming known for her beautiful gowns, the designer is turning her hand to shoes


One of the most entertaining reality television shows to grace our screens in recent years is Say Yes to the Dress. The premise is simple: each episode follows two or three brides as they try on an assortment of gowns in order to find the perfect one for their big day. With several friends and relatives in tow, each bride shares her body issue dilemmas, while their entourage contributes helpful — or not so helpful — advice.

The show was originally set in New York, at Kleinfeld Bridal, a huge bridal store (its website boasts that it has the largest selection of wedding dresses in the world). Say Yes to the Dress has proved such a ratings success that it has spawned numerous spinoffs based in other countries including Canada, Australia and the UK.

One of the show’s best-known participants is Pnina Tornai, the Israeli dress designer whose gowns are stocked at Kleinfeld. She frequently appears alongside the stressed brides to assist them in their choice of dress and calm down anxious relatives. Her designs are among the most popular in the store and are famous for their sexy, often see-through bodices and over-the-top embellishments.

Born in Kfar Saba to a Moroccan mother and an Egyptian father, Tornai did not initially want to become a dress designer. She wanted to be an actress, and though she did appear in a few sitcoms in Israel, it is her talent as a designer which has made her a television personality, particularly in the United States.

Tornai may not have had any formal training, but her gifts were apparent from a young age. “At the age of four I started sketching Victorian dresses — big ballgowns — on the walls of our house,” she says. “My parents did not know where this came from. It was weird that their eldest child could sketch these beautiful dresses. I always had a soft spot for the Victorian era.”

As an adult, she lived in Paris for ten years, but a failed marriage saw her return to Israel with her young son. “At the time I had no profession at all. I wanted to become an actress, but I had a child and I needed to provide, so I opened up a little store in Tel Aviv and started selling ready-to-wear that I imported from Paris.

“Then one night I had this amazing dream. It was so vivid it was obvious to me that it was not a regular dream. I dreamt that these beautiful wedding dresses were falling down from the sky and I could see every little detail, every little embroidery.”

Interpreting the dream as a divine message, Tornai decided to act upon it and create the dresses she had seen. She closed her shop for a week, refurbishing it to become a bridal store, and asked for assistance from a friend of her mother who was the chief designer for the Habima Theatre, the national theatre of Israel.

“She helped me, and we started creating these dresses. They started selling like crazy because no one had ever seen anything like that.” Then fate played a part in gaining Tornai national attention. She had made a dress for a bride who was getting married outdoors in northern Israel. During the ceremony, missiles were fired in a military skirmish and a photographer captured the moment when rockets were whistling above the chupah. The photographs made the newspapers and the photographer had mentioned Tornai as the bride’s dress designer.  “From that day on, the phone didn’t stop ringing and the rest is history.”

Tornai’s signature designs were initially rejected by the buyers at Kleinfeld as they were deemed too revealing for US brides. How wrong they were — her collections have become bestsellers. “I remember when I first started in New York, one of the first articles written about me and my work was in the New York Times and the headline was ‘The Sexy Designer from Israel’. I thought she was talking about me, but she was talking about my dresses! For me, there is a very fine line between feminine and provocative. If you look at my dresses, they will always be appropriate to wear at a wedding, even if I have to add a shrug or a shawl. If it is in front of a rabbi or a priest, I will always make sure that my bride is covered.”

Tornai splits her time between New York and Tel Aviv and is now working on the 19th series of Say Yes to the Dress. Sometimes she finds herself being not only designer, but also diplomat and counsellor.

“My calling is to specialise in wedding dresses and evening dresses because these are the biggest events in a woman’s life. That is when women need advice because it is a life-changing experience and I am always there for my brides, giving them advice on everything: how to do their hair, their make-up, what shoes to buy and what jewellery to wear.

“When I see something is really on her mind when she is in her dress, I will always ask my bride, ‘Is there anything I can do to help you, is there anything you want to share with me?’. Many times I’ve had to be there for brides who are going through hesitations or complicated relationships. “

Her first marriage was very unhappy [she has been married three times] “I can really notice if the bride standing in front of me is going through something similar to this. And that is when I always stop. I will say, ‘Can I speak to you personally?’ and I will go to the dressing room with her. I’ve had brides open their hearts and tell me what they are going through. My advice is always to hold, not go through with the wedding and maybe postpone the wedding until you know you are safe in that relationship, because nothing in the world is worth a miserable life, especially not with the person you want to commit to for the rest of your life.”

She will also do her best to steer a bride away from a dress which does not suit her. “I am here to make my bride look the best version of themselves on their wedding day. I will always say, ‘I have another dress I want you to try, my love, I think that we need to show your beautiful neckline, beautiful arms.’ I wouldn’t open a slit, a deep neckline and a deep back. Too much is too much — after all, it is a wedding! So maybe as a second dress, yes, but to walk down the aisle…! I will always be very honest and some brides don’t like it. I’ve had some brides say to me, ‘Well this is what I love, and this is what I’m going to wear’. But I will always say what I believe.”

The show is known for pitting brides’ views against their families’ opinions. “Everyone has something to say. The more people, the more opinions, and I think a bride really needs to concentrate and focus on how she feels in her dress and not her friends, her mother, her aunt, her grandmother. Some brides really want to please their families and that’s where I come in. That’s when I say, let’s see what our bride really wants to wear.

“I had a mother who was very angry at me because she wanted to add a lot of sparkle and her daughter didn’t want any sparkle at all. I looked at the mother and I said, ‘You know, I think that the sparkle in this dress is your beautiful daughter, who is so beautiful that she makes the dress sparkle.’ The mother didn’t like this at all. She wanted me to be on her side. It wasn’t nice. My bride comes before anyone else and I’m there for her. I think this is why they choose to buy their dresses from me because they want my real opinion and my real advice.”

Tornai’s dresses do not come cheap. “I have two lines. I have a diffusion line called Love by Pnina Tornai, which is the more affordable line. It varies between $3,000 to $7,000 [£2,500 to £6,000], and then you have the couture, which is completely custom and made to measure. That starts at around $6,000 and the sky’s the limit. I’ve had brides ask me to embroider semi-precious stones on their dresses.”

Recently Tornai has branched out into jewellery design and she has just launched a bridal shoe collection with the company Naturalizer. “They’ve developed technology that allows maximum comfort when you are in the shoe. This was crucial for me because unfortunately I wore a pair of high heels at my wedding and they were a nightmare. I promised myself that if I ever designed shoes for brides, I would focus firstly on comfort. The slogan of my shoe collection is ‘The smile on your face starts at the tips of your toes’ which is really true, because there is nothing more beautiful than a smile on a bride’s face on her wedding day.”

With new dress collections to work on, plus the jewellery and shoe ranges to design, Tornai is very busy, but she loves it and shows no sign of slowing down. “This was my calling, I guess I was born with it. I came to this world to do this. It’s a gift from God.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive