Dressed To Thrill, And Coexist


Merav Solo spends her working life at the seam — the delicate one between pieces of a wedding gown, and the even more delicate one between pieces of the patchwork quilt that is Israel society.

“It doesn’t matter if a bride is Arab, secular Israeli, charedi or Druze — they want the same thing when they visit me,” the Haifa-based couture Israeli bridal gown designer said. While a Druze bride might request no transparent lace and sleeves that reach the wrists, a secular Israeli bride might want a plunging neckline or backless number. In spite of the complicated cultural mores, differences Solo must negotiate sensitively but stylishly, she said, “Every woman wants to feel beautiful and sexy on her wedding day.”

Solo was speaking at a reception recently following an event during New York International Bridal Week, an annual gathering of more than 250 bridal gown designers from around the world. She had just watched as models paraded her seductive gowns down a runway at Pier 94 on the Hudson River. As designers, buyers and models in sleek white gowns mingled and sipped flutes of Champagne, Solo, dressed in a short black dress, was beaming. In a career spanning more than 20 years, this was the first time her creations were being shown in New York.

The Oct. 11 show, which exclusively featured Israeli designers, was also a first. According to noted Israeli bridal designer Pnina Tournay, known for her risqué designs, the show marked a “historic moment” for Israeli designers.

Inside the Pier 94 hangar, with sweeping views of the Hudson, eight emerging Israeli designers sent their lines down the runway to a medley of upbeat Middle Eastern tunes, including a remix of “Hava Nagila.” Organized in part by the Israeli Foreign and Tourism ministries, the show highlighted Israeli designers’ influence in the world of bridal fashion.

According to Susan Glick, vice president of women’s apparel at Merchandise Mart Properties, the corporation that hosts New York bridal fashion week, the last three [shows] have shown an “influx of couture Israeli bridal designers.

“At first you just saw a couple [Israeli designers], and now buyers are asking for Israeli bridal couture,” said Glick. This year, more than 20 Israeli designers showed their collections, a high for the market, said a representative from the Israeli trade ministry.

Samantha Kane, a brand management executive at Brides, the bridal fashion magazine of Condé Nast, said that editors are showing an increasing interest in Israeli designers, particularly Inbal Dror, a leading designer from Tel Aviv who completed her fashion studies in Israel. While it is difficult to quantify the influence of Israeli fashion designers, Kane said, their collective name recognition has gone up drastically.

To be sure, Israeli designers are no strangers to international acclaim. In the wake of Lea Gottlieb, who made a splash with her swimsuit designs going back to the 1960s, a handful of well-known Israelis already are established in the fashion world; they include Alber Elbaz from the Parisian house of Lanvin and Yigal Azrouel, who has a boutique in the meatpacking district.

At New York’s bridal fashion week, this year a total of 22 Israeli designers, including the eight participating in the show with Solo, had booths.

The weeklong fashion affair is considered one of the leading commercial events in the American wedding market, which generates revenue estimated at more than $54 billion a year. Seven percent of this amount is spent on bridal gowns. Six runway shows over the course of three days introduced more than 450 different collections, said Glick. Though bridal tradeshows are held in cities around the world, including London, Barcelona, and Chicago, New York’s show is among the largest, she said.

There was also a significant increase in buyer and press attendance, according to a fashion week sales representative.

Since Tournay burst onto the scene in the early 2000s, Israelis have developed a special niche in bridal fashion, said Israel’s economic minister to North America, Nili Shalev. Tournay, whose curve-hugging collection is housed at Kleinfeld, one of New York’s most well-known bridal salons, is known for introducing sexy, revealing dresses to the mainstream, and for her role as lead designer on the reality TV hit, “Say Yes to the Dress,” which airs on the American network TLC.

“Israeli designers are willing to be adventurous, even in the most conventional settings,” said Shalev.

On the runway, the designers’ bold choices were evident. Sequins, crystals and plunging necklines seemed favorites among buyers, and several looks were completed with impressive silver tiaras and crowns. Many of the gowns had a vintage feel, with one fringed number inspired by the 1920s.

Still, despite their sense of creativity, Israeli designers often struggle to sell their products in European and Eastern markets, said Yoav Davis, a branding consultant for one of the featured designers. He recalled being curtly turned away by a boutique in Dubai after he mentioned that his client was Israeli.

“The Israeli fashion industry is sadly not immune to boycotts,” said Davis, referring to the global movement (known by the acronym BDS — Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) to boycott Israeli goods and servies. He added that in Arab countries, many of which have thriving bridal industries, it is “impossible” to market gowns by Israeli designers.

“It’s good to be in New York, where the creativity and raw talent of these designers is appreciated,” Davis added.

Tournay, who attended the show and stayed for the reception, told The Jewish Week that she will never “shy away from my Israeli identity,” despite global challenges. “I am proud of who I am and where I’m from,” she said, long blonde hair styled to perfection.

Yoav Rish, another Israeli designer who sent wedding gowns down the runway, grew up in a charedi family in the city of Petah Tikvah, east of Tel Aviv. From a young age, he loved experimenting with different types of fabric. His parents, though surprised by their son’s unconventional passion, were very supportive.

Today, Rish lives in Tel Aviv with his male partner and their two daughters.

“I learned to sew on my grandmother’s sewing machine,” said Rish, minutes before the show was about to begin. He wore black skinny jeans and short hair shaved on one side. When asked about further training in fashion, Rish clarified that he is completely self-taught. His designs, which include two-piece wedding dresses with skirt and top, are known for being comfortable and relatively affordable. (His gowns typically range from $7,000-8,000.)

“Hope you enjoy!” he said, before rushing off to perfect the models’ looks backstage.

After the runway show, designers returned to their booths to meet with buyers and brides. At her booth, Solo reflected on fashion as a bridge between cultures. When she designs for Druze and charedi brides, she makes sure to cover more. A secular Israeli bride often wants to push the envelope regarding what to reveal, or not reveal. Still, a desire to look “unique” is shared by all.

“When you speak with brides, you realize we are all the same person,” Solo said. Though her English was broken, she seemed to be grasping at a more philosophical point. “It’s not just about dresses, it’s about beginnings,” she said, using the Hebrew word for beginning, techila. “Every woman wants a beautiful beginning.”