08 October 2016

Kleinfeld brides and Pnina Tornai

Hedda Kleinfeld used to love fashion back in Vienna where she avidly read all the fashion magazines from the USA. In 1941 she and her parents emigrated to the USA and opened the Kleinfield store in Fifth Ave in Brooklyn. Even at the end of the war, the family needed another work­er in the shop. So it worked out well when Hedda caught a glimpse of a handsome and hardworking young man recently demobilised, Jack Schacter. Kleinfelds progressed quite well, under the four joint-owners. Soon they also carried substantial cloth coats and suits, then eventually dresses. And finally they selected white bridal dresses.

The young couple lived above their business, raising two children there. After selling the business, Hedda and Jack moved from their Brooklyn site to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The now giant bridal emporium had left home and had launched itself anew. But time never stands still. Hedda Kleinfeld and her husband Jacob Schachter retired in 1992.

The business was not doing well after 1992; management was constantly changing. 

Earlier in her retail career, Mara Urshel had been general merchandise manager at Saks Fifth Ave. With more than 30 years of experience developing and marketing luxury merchandise, she purchased the Kleinfeld Bridal store with two oth­ers in 1992. Ronnie Roth­stein graduated from Wharton School at Pennsylvania University in 1964 and received his law degree from the University of Miami in 1968. In July 1999 he purchased the Klein­feld Bridal store with Mara Urshel and Wayne Rogers.

Kleinfeld Bridal Salon, Manhattan
Photo credit: Kleinfeld Blog

In 1999 the 30 year old business in New York was bought and modern­ised. Kleinfeld Bridal Boutique has enjoyed surging sales and success ever since. The owners have been involved in all aspects of planning, building and management of the Kleinfeld flagship retail outlet in Manhattan.

In late 2005, Kleinfeld moved to a bigger, more accessible space. Its new location was at West 20th St and Sixth Ave in Manhattan’s fash­ionable Chelsea neighbourhood, largely because most of the shop’s customers worked in Man­hattan. The new location was to be “a grander, more theatrical environment”, about twice as much as the Bay Ridge site.

The designer names that Kleinfeld helped to make famous included Michelle Roth, Tara Keeley, Alita Graham, Jim Hjelm, Maggie Sottero, Romona Keveza, Pnina Tornai, Lazaro, Alvina Valenta, Augusta Jones and Mark Zunino.


So who was Pnina Tornai? Born in Israel, Pnina Assis Tornai (1962-) wanted to be a professional actress. After high school, she did her required time in Israel army and then attended an acting school in Paris.

Pnina had had a passion for acting all of her life, but when she came back from 10 years in Paris with her son, she needed a reliable income. Eventually she had to change careers, so she opened up a little Tel Aviv dress shop. Pnina hadn't taken sewing classes before this, so she had to hire another seam­stress to help – all hand sewn around a sewing machine in the basement. They were cutting the fabric at night, sewing the dresses in the day.

One day a young woman from the north of Israel commissioned Tornai to make her a wedding dress in the same pattern as a black evening gown she had seen in the shop. On the wedding day, missiles fell near the nuptials, and the next morning the newlyweds' picture was on the front of all the Israeli newspapers. Suddenly, women started flooding Tornai with orders for that dress. She re-created her Tel Aviv shop as a dreamy bridal salon.

Pnina’s father was an Israeli diplomat from Alexandria; her mother was from Tangiers. Perhaps influenced by her North African ancestry, she originally started by making evening gowns, formal wear for Islamic women and finally wedding dresses. Her first wedding dresses had become a large hit, thus beginning her career as a wedding dress designer in Europe and the USA.

Pnina first presented a few of her dresses to Kleinfeld in NY in 2005, but they were not hugely popular. So she came back a few years later with dresses similar to those Kleinfeld’s already had and was accepted as one of their designers. Though she now has professional dressmakers doing the cutting, sewing, hand beading and finishing, all the dresses are still designed by Tornai herself.

Pnina Tornai. 
 Illusion bell sleeve lace trumpet wedding dress 
with a sweetheart neckline, 2015

Pnina Tornai. 
Strapless Fit and Flare Wedding Dress
with Natural Waist in Chantilly Lace.

Pnina Tornai. 
This sheath gown features a v-neck neckline
 with a natural waist in lace. 

Six years ago, Tornai ran a benefit fashion show in Los Angeles to raise funds for new trauma rooms at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Centre. Tornai's husband realised at once that there was even greater potential in the USA for his wife's gowns. Kleinfeld was the bridal wonderland and nothing compared to it. From Kleinfeld’s perspective, Tornai offered Kleinfeld’s customers the most gorgeous dresses. It was win-win. Mara Urshel subsequently invited Tornai to be exclusive to Kleinfeld in New York, and she's become the salon's top vendor. They opened a private in-store boutique for her after 2 years, something no other designer has done.

Tornai spends half of every month in New York, staging trunk shows and meeting with customers at Kleinfeld. And she still has her other bridal shops in Tel Aviv, London and 5 shops in Athens. Her designs are custom-made, sexy creations, each fitted with a signature corset. Brides-to-be from all over the world flock to Kleinfeld in search of an exclusive Tornai gown. Wealthy Arab citizens who don’t want to visit Israel are delighted to invite Tornai to Dubai and Kuwait instead. Now there is talk of exclusive deals being down with bridal salons in Mexico, Canada and Kuwait.

Though she has a separate line of designs specifically for religious Jewish and Muslim women wanting a modest look, Tornai is better known for extravagant gowns that leave little to the imagination from the waist up. My mother and mother in law would have had a collective heart attack, had I tried to wear a transparent, boned corset back in 1970!! But Tornai’s line varies from classic cuts to sophisticated hand-embroidered gowns, usually enhanced with genuine Swarovski crystals and gemstones; no-one worries about the plunging backs and transparent corsets.

Fashion comes and fashion goes, but Kleinfeld and Tornai still adore their VERY swanky swarovski crystals. Remember that Daniel Swartz (1862–1956) developed and patented precision-cut crystal jewels in Jablonez Czechoslovakia. Swartz founded the Swarovski Company in 1892. I know how Tornai became the top designer for Kleinfelds in New York in 2005. But how did Tornai, Kleinfield and Swarovski get together in magical collaboration?


Mature Bride said...

There is a culture associated with bridal shopping in Kleinfeld's that seems strange. Large groups of family and friends go with the bride to decide on the wedding dress together. Tears, compromises, generational differences. Maybe it is done like that across America.

Deb said...

Do Kleinfeld dresses cost a fortune? My wedding dress was made by the local dress maker.

Hels said...

Mature Bride

I had never seen the custom either, until I saw the programmes (eg Say Yes to the Dress) on tv. The dresses are gorgeous but some families seem very combatative.

Hels said...


Prices seem to average at USA 1,500-3,000 plus veils, jewels etc. But the Swarovski encrusted Tornai dresses can cost USA 35,000 per dress. More than a family car!

Annie ODyne said...

Yes I am part of that 'collective heart attack'. Bridal wear has moved from blushing white maiden to Erotoganza. The vicar must have to avert his gaze from the cleavages.

Hels said...


I never thought of modesty as an important virtue, until seeing what modern bridal dress designers are selling these days. And not just the blushing vicar! I can imagine the poor father refusing to walk his daughter down the aisle until she covered her private bits.

By the way, in selecting the photos for this post, I tried to select totally gorgeous dresses that were _not_ outrageously naked. You should see the naked ones!