Although she had never studied fashion design, Tornai shut down her clothing boutique in Tel Aviv, hired a seamstress, a beader and a patternmaker and began designing wedding gowns. Now, 17 years later, she's Israel's leading bridal and evening wear designer, with two freestanding boutiques and a staff of 50.
In recent years, she's made a name for herself among the U.S. fashion set, where her gowns are No. 1 sellers at Kleinfeld in Manhattan. And now, she's in talks to bring a store to Los Angeles.
"I'm deeply spiritual," she said. "I believe that was a message from God."
Tornai's gowns are such hot sellers that New York's Kleinfeld held a second solo fashion show in her honor at the end of October, featuring her 2008 collection. Tornai's dresses, known for their provocative see-through corsets and glittery Swarovski crystal detail, start at $4,000 and average around $18,000. She jet sets between Israel and New York, spending roughly two weeks out of every month to fit and personalize dresses for her customers at Kleinfeld.
In Israel, Tornai doesn't just dress celebrities -- she is one herself.
"I can't walk down the street," she said. "I wear sunglasses, but people rush up to hug me."
She's played minor roles in Israeli movies and has starred in a commercial for the Israeli lottery, decked out in one of her own designs. Most recently, she was featured on The Learning Channel's "Say Yes to the Dress" reality TV show.
"I've always wanted to be an actress; that was my dream," she said.
Tornai grew up in South Africa, where her father, Shaul Assis, was a diplomat. She later studied at a famous acting school in Paris.
Acting and fashion design have a lot in common, Tornai said. "It's all about acting and drama," the designer said of her work. "I prepare brides for the show of their lives. The greatest mitzvah is to prepare a bride for her groom."
As elaborate as her gowns are, Tornai's look is surprisingly understated. She wears sleek, dark pantsuits; large diamond hoop earrings, and stilettos. She is every bit the artist. Her hands move with a flourish as she gushes about her dresses. The way she puts it, her designs come to her in a "vision."
"I'll wake up in the middle of the night," she said, "and I'll put the light on and begin drawing. Every time, my husband groans, "Another dress?"
The muse can strike her anywhere, including a Parisian cafe, where she was seated. She grabbed a napkin and began sketching. "It has to be drawn immediately, or I lose it," she said.
Black ribbons in her new collection memorialize the untimely passing of her father this year and mourning. Father and daughter were close, and the death shook her.
"I had five to six months of blackness; nothing came to me," she said. "He really loved my dresses; he was proudest of all."
Like the prophets of old, Tornai is inspired by music and must be in a joyous state of mind to deliver her visions.
"I have to be alive," she said.
While her rise to popularity in Israel was almost instantaneous, Tornai faced resistance when trying to break into the American bridal market. A few years ago, she flew in from Israel to meet with buyers at Kleinfeld.
"I always heard the name Kleinfeld as the greatest name in bridal," she said.
The meeting was a flat-out failure. "I cried all the way back to the hotel," Tornai recalled.
"Her designs were kind of questionable," recalled Mara Urshel, a co-owner of Kleinfeld. "There were lots of sheers. I couldn't possibly think of a place where anyone would wear them except in the home."
Urshel gave the disappointed designer a sliver of hope: She agreed to let Tornai send her a few more dresses. A model put one on and, to Urshel's surprise, the customers went gaga.
"It was sexier and more sheer than anything we were selling," Urshel said.
Tornai's dresses are identified by numbers, not names. The one that brought her to America was designated "101."
"In Kabbalah, that's the strongest number," Tornai said.
The lace corset dress "sold and sold and sold," she said. "That dress opened the door."
Now of the 85 designers whose gowns are featured at Kleinfeld, Tornai is the No. 1 designer, both in terms of net revenues and number of gowns sold.
Tornai and her husband of seven years, David Loewenstein, work alongside each other. He runs the business side of the operations, allowing Tornai to focus on all things creative. It was a psychic, who brought the two together.
"You'll meet a man named David," the psychic told her.
A day later, a friend of Loewenstein's was unable to make his appointment and persuaded him to meet the psychic in his place. Loewenstein, who says he doesn't believe in that baloney, refused. But the friend was unrelenting, and so Loewenstein agreed.
"I have to give you the phone number of a woman you must call," the psychic told him.
"Is she nice and pretty?" he asked, assuming this was some sort of joke.
"She's a princess," the psychic replied. "She's better than you could ever dream of."
On a whim, he decided to make that call. Four months later, they were engaged.
"It was very quick," Tornai said.
Her gown was an improvement over her first wedding gown (she married for the first time at 20 while living in Paris and divorced before moving to Israel in the early 1990s).
"That first gown was a catastrophe," she said. "It was a puffy, French design with sleeves like the ears of Dumbo the elephant. I of all people didn't deserve that."In many ways, Tornai views herself as an ambassador of Israeli culture and style.
"In the news, all people hear about Israel are the terrorist attacks and Palestinian problems," she said. "I feel like I'm putting a sticker on the name 'Israel'" -- showing that Israel represents a fresh wave of fashion.
Her work is very precise. Tornai takes 27 measurements and is known to throw away a dress if it's not just right: "I'll notice if just one bead is sitting in the wrong place. I love perfection. It's an addiction."
Tornai is in talks to open new stores in London, Paris and Los Angeles.
"I don't want to grow too much," she says. "I'm don't want to lose that personal touch."
Reprinted with permission of The New York Jewish Week. For more information, visit http://www.pninatornai.co.il/
Tamar Snyder is a writer for The Jewish Week.
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