- Pnina Tornai is one of the most in-demand bridal gown designers and her work is regularly featured on the TLC reality show “Say Yes to the Dress.”
- Despite a lack of formal training, she opened her first women’s clothing boutique 30 years ago in Israel, and became famous there for her gowns.
- She was initially turned down by the renowned New York bridal store Kleinfeld, but after persisting, became its in-house designer.
Pnina Tornai never thought she’d become one of the world’s most sought-after bridal gown designers. She spent most of her childhood dreaming of becoming an actress. By the time she was in her late twenties, that dream seemed far-fetched. She was a single mum, struggling to support herself and stay healthy.
Tornai pulled herself out of that slump by relying on her unshakable faith in a better future. Now, her gowns are popular around the world, she’s the premiere exclusive designer at the famous New York bridal store Kleinfeld, and her work is prominently featured in the long-running TLC reality show “Say Yes to the Dress.”
Her success in fashion has translated to a career on screen, fulfilling her childhood dream.
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Transcript edited for clarity.
Pnina Tornai: I was three and a half years old. I remember I really have the vision of the moment that I decided that all I wanted to be is the woman in the television. At the time, I thought it was a box. I didn’t know what it was really. But I remember looking at myself in the mirror and saying, “This is what I want to do,” and that’s how I led my whole childhood. I never really studied in school. I used to sit in class and say, “Why do I need maths? I’m not going to need maths for being an actress.”
Richard Feloni: Being an actress.
Tornai: Or geography or history. All I wanted to be was an actress, and I did become an actress in Israel. I acted in a few features and a few sitcoms, and I am a reality star in Israel.
Feloni: You went to Paris to study acting, right?
Tornai: I went to Paris to study acting. I was accepted in the biggest school for acting in Israel and then in Paris. But then I married my first husband and he made it very clear that acting will not take place in our home. And I was too young.
Feloni: So you accepted that?
Tornai: I accepted that. Yes, I accepted that. And looking backward today, I truly don’t believe that there are mistakes or coincidences. And sometimes you have to set aside your dreams in order to find the path that you have to take which is, I believe, your calling.
Feloni: How did it feel in that moment, though? When you were seemingly letting go of a dream?
Tornai: I don’t think I really understood what I was doing. I was too young. I wasn’t the woman that I am today. I was more submitted to my husband and it was a very, very tough marriage. It was an abusive marriage. At the time, I didn’t have the luxury to really think twice whether I was doing the right thing or not. I became a mother at the age of 23, so everything happened in a way where I didn’t think that pursuing my dream at the time was the most important thing. And every bride that would come to me with her story and tell me how she feels, sometimes also her hesitations and her hardships, I would always put aside the dress and make sure that I was giving her the right advice even if it meant to tell my bride to postpone a wedding. Because what I went through in life was an experience that allowed me to give it as an example to other women.
And you know, if a bride would come in and say to me that she’s going through a very tough time with her fiancé and she’s being disrespected or abused, I would always tell her the truth. I would always tell her that these things do not get better, they only get worse, so maybe she should postpone, think about it. And most of these brides that decided not to get married came back to my store years after with an engagement ring. It always made me very happy when they said to me that this time they know they’re marrying the right person.
Reinventing herself through design
Feloni: You return to Israel. Is that when you decided that you were going to have some more independence?
Tornai: No. I came back to Israel and faced the toughest time of my life because my ex-husband, the father of my son, took away my son from me and I found myself with no hope or a reason to continue, to continue living. It was like the first thing you want to do is just put an end to everything. I remember the moment that I said to myself that I have two choices: one is to have self-pity and to just let go of everything, and the other is to start being the woman I came to be, and struggle and achieve everything that I want to achieve so that the day my son will return to me, I will already have everything I need in order to give him a better future and to show him that in life it’s better to fight for your dreams, for becoming who you’re supposed to be.
So that’s what I did, and I wanted to do something that could utilise the pain and the sorrow and turn it into something good. And something good means to help others and to make them happy. I had no fashion education. I never studied fashion. But because I did have a lot of taste in fashion, I started creating ready-to-wear dresses, pants, suits.
Feloni: How did you learn how to do that?
Tornai: From a very young age, I always had a seamstress that I used to go to and design and sketch. If you would tell me at the age of 16 that I would be a fashion designer – and my best friend at the time used to always say that to me and I wouldn’t talk to her for a week.
Feloni: But she would say that to you, that you would be a designer?
Tornai: That I would become a designer.
Feloni: Why would she say that?
Tornai: I always had a lot of taste in fashion. I always dressed all my friends. I used to take my mother’s tablecloth and precious linen and cut them into tops for my friends, or skirts, and it wasn’t at all what I wanted to become. A designer wasn’t at all my dream.
Feloni: It was almost like you didn’t go to school for it but you had some training even as a child?
Tornai: My notebooks are all filled with sketches of dresses, of ball gowns, of everything that has to do with fashion. So I took that, I found a seamstress, and I started creating, taking out patterns from my own clothes and turning them into something else. I rented this little store in Tel Aviv, and I had one mirror in the store. It was right next to the entrance, to the door. I didn’t have enough finances to hire a model so I became my own model, which is not ideal because I’m five-foot tall. But I remember every time I stood in front of the mirror checking the dress and seeing that everything was well made, there would always be a customer coming in and saying, “Where can I get this dress?”
Feloni: You had to be your own mannequin.
Tornai: And they would buy it off my back, and that’s how it started. I became, overnight, Israel’s leading bridal designer.
Feloni: How did that happen so quickly?
Tornai: That happened … It was funny because I had these beautiful evening dresses and I had nothing in white in the store. But women would come in and say, “You know, I’m getting married. I would like this dress in white.” Every stylist came to my store. Everyone wanted my dresses. I remember brides crying because I couldn’t cope with orders. I didn’t have enough seamstresses. I would hire a new seamstress every time I had the finances to do that. And little by little, it just happened. I did a lot of fashion shows, television shows, dressed a lot of celebrities, and it just happened.
Feloni: I saw one story that said that your gown got on the front page of a bunch of Israeli newspapers.
Feloni: What happened there?
Tornai: It was funny because this bride who bought a dress got married in the north of Israel. At her wedding while she was under the chuppah, there were missiles flying over her head. There was a journalist there and they took a picture and it was on the front page of the newspaper. So little signs…
Feloni: So everyone saw your dress the next day because of this picture.
Tornai: Yeah, everybody saw my dress the next day.
Feloni: Was it weird to have this exposure with something that was otherwise a dark image with missiles and violence?
Tornai: That’s quite a common scene in Israel, unfortunately. We don’t take it that bad anymore because it’s what it is.
Feloni: It is what it is.
Tornai: Yes, it’s what it is. Yes, it’s amazing to see something that is horrifying and a bride and a groom committing to their love at the same time.
Turning rejection into the biggest business deal of her career
Feloni: When you had everything going so well in Israel, what made you decide that you wanted to expand, to go to the United States?
Tornai: Israel is very small, somehow like me, and I think I made a wedding dress for almost every family in the country. I remember that I heard about this store in New York called Kleinfeld, and that it was the most successful store in the world for bridal. That was the next challenge, that was the next thing I said to myself to do. I wanted to find a way to go and meet the owners this store, but it was quite impossible. So one day, I had this bride who came into the store with her mother. This bride and her mother came to the store and they chose two dresses. The bride chose a dress …
Feloni: Sorry, to step back. This was at Kleinfeld?
Tornai: No. That was still in my store in Tel Aviv. This bride comes into the store with her mother and they both choose my dresses. The bride chooses a wedding dress and the mother an evening dress. At the end of the appointment to me they say to me that their father will come the following day and seal the deal. So I say OK, and the father came the day after and he said to me, “Listen, your dresses are very expensive.” And I said, “Yes, I know, but they’re also very beautiful.” And he said, “What can we do? What can we do in order to find a way to barter? You’ll give me the dresses and I’ll do something for you.” And I said, “What do you do in life?” He said, “I’m an entrepreneur. I can get you almost anything you want.” And I said, “You know, the only thing I want is to meet with the owners of Kleinfeld in New York.” At the time they were still in Brooklyn. The man took a day or two, and came back to me and said, “OK. I have a meeting for you.”
Feloni: So he was able to make it happen?
Tornai: Absolutely. That’s what happened. The next thing I knew was that I was on a plane with my dresses on my way to Kleinfeld, and that wasn’t an easy beginning. That was really not an easy beginning because I remember the day where I came to Kleinfeld and showed my dresses, and the buyer was looking at my dresses with a very weird face, saying, “We are never going to sell these dresses in America. These dresses will never sell in America. They’re too sexy; they’re too daring.”
Feloni: What? Too revealing?
Tornai: Too revealing, too sexy, too ahead of their time. I was saying, “You don’t have anything like this. I think you should try and see if my dresses can sell in your store.” And she said, “Well, thank you, but no, thank you.”
Feloni: How did that feel?
Tornai: Awful, awful.
Feloni: You travelled all this way to New York.
Tornai: It felt awful. I flew back home and I remember myself crying the whole way. Twelve hours of crying is not something I recommend to anyone. But anyway, I went back home and I decided to create a collection of dresses that would be more adapted to the American bride but still be different.
Feloni: At one point you were really down, like, “I blew it – it doesn’t work.” What made you think, “You know what? I’m going to show them. I’ll adapt to it.”
Tornai: I never give up. I am the kind of person that if you throw me out of the door, I’ll come back through the window. I can still hear my mother say – may she rest in peace – when I was a child she would always say, “What am I going to do with this child? Nothing can stop her. If she wants something, even if God comes down to earth, he will delay her by 10 minutes, max.”
So this is how I am. I went back home, worked on a new collection, and sent it back to Kleinfeld with an email saying, “Please expose these dresses in your store. If they don’t sell, send them back to me.” Two weeks later, I get a phone call from the owner of Kleinfeld saying, “I think we have a problem with your dresses.” And I say, “No, not again. Please, I did everything I could do.” And she says, “Well, we’re selling too many, and we’re not sure you can manufacture as much.”
Feloni: It’s a better problem to have.
Tornai: Yes. And the rest is history.
Feloni: They got to be really famous nationally in the US, too, because of the TLC show, “Say Yes to the Dress.” When did that happen?
Tornai: “Say Yes to the Dress” started filming nine years ago, and it changed the whole game.
Feloni: How long was that after you had made the partnership?
Tornai: It was around four years, three and a half years. So when “Say Yes to the Dress” started filming, none of us had an idea of what it was going to become. The show is aired in over 120 countries in the whole world, so that’s amazing. I cannot walk the streets in most of the countries that I visit. It’s crazy. People run after me.
Feloni: Because you got to be on the show.
Tornai: In languages that I sometimes don’t understand. Of course. And it’s also a show that everybody loves watching. Even if you’re not getting married, it’s always amazing to see how a bride chooses her dress, what she’s going through behind the scenes, and how at the end there’s always a happy ending.
Feloni: What was it like being a designer in Kleinfeld before the show and then afterward?
Tornai: I can tell you that today, even if I have a moment between brides, which I usually don’t, because I see around 90 to 120 brides a day on a weekend.
Feloni: A day? How does that happen?
Tornai: I don’t even know. Don’t ask me. Sometimes the day’s over, and I can’t feel my feet and my jaws hurt.
Feloni: Wait, what does that look like? Are you bouncing around with people?
Tornai: It’s crazy because there are so many pedestals on the floor and I’m just dancing around, yes, just like you say it. So even if I have a moment to sit and grab a bite or rest or take a breath, I have someone waiting in the lobby for hours that is just waiting to take a picture. So what do you do? Do you sit and rest for a moment, or do you go out there to a fan that deserves all your love and all your attention?
Feloni: It’s like Kleinfeld, it became almost like a tourist attraction.
Tornai: Of course.
Feloni: Because of the show.
Tornai: Absolutely. We have so many people coming in during the day that don’t need a wedding dress at all. They just want to see the scene and touch the dream.
Getting to a new level of growth
Feloni: Was there ever a risk of maybe too much attention or too much demand after the show?
Tornai: It really depends how you look at it. I don’t think too much is too much. I think too much is a new opportunity, as a challenge, as the next level and the next step to take. So for me, there’s never too much. I believe that if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward, and there’s nothing I fear more than moving backward.
Feloni: Did it start that you used to go back and forth more frequently, you would spend a couple of weeks here a month or something?
Tornai: For 13 years, I have travelled every month Tel Aviv-New York, 12 hours of flights back and forth.
Feloni: At what point did going back and forth end up where it’s, like, “All right, this is going to be a full-time job”?
Tornai: Three and a half years ago, I came here with my best friend, and the first time we arrived to Kleinfeld, the car parked in front of the entrance. I came out of the car and there was this group of women standing outside of Kleinfeld certainly waiting for one of us to arrive, one of the stars of “Say Yes to the Dress.” And I get out of the car and it’s a ritual. You kiss everybody, you hug everybody, you take pictures and “We love you – we love you” and it’s amazing.
But I noticed that Michal was frozen in the back, and I say to her, in Hebrew, I say, “Come.” I say “Bo!” in Hebrew, like “Move!” I have brides waiting for me. That’s the most important thing today, is to start working with my brides. And she was, like, I don’t know, moonstruck. We went into the store, and I remember her holding my hand, like pulling me back and saying, “Pnina … ” We talk in Hebrew between us, but she said, “Pnina, this is f—ing New York. Do you realise – do you realise that this is not Israel? This is New York. Did you see what just happened?” I said, “Yes. This happens every day.” So she said to me, “Well, if this happens every day, you have an opportunity here that you are not grabbing.”
Feloni: Just the huge demand?
Tornai: “If you’re already loved to that extent, then maybe you should fulfil your dream and have a show of your own.” And we started that, the whole journey, three and half years ago and great things have been happening since then.
Feloni: It’s really like new chapter in your career.
Tornai: It’s a new chapter in my career. I decided that in order to make it happen, I had to move to New York because this is where it’s happening. And of course, it’s my favourite city in the world. As a shopaholic that I am, New York is the best place to live.
Feloni: As we’re talking about all of this expansion and stuff, I saw an interview that you did several years ago where you said that you were exhausted but happy. Are you still exhausted?
Tornai: I’m always exhausted and I’m always happy.
Feloni: Is that something that you actually seek out? Because I would imagine that at this point, you could probably hire people to do what you’re doing.
Tornai: I have an amazing team … Trust me, I hire every good person I see. By the way, would you like to work for me? I really do. Whenever I see someone who could be helpful to my business, the first thing I do is offer them a job. But I’m the kind of person who really loves to do what I’m doing. And because I have two careers today, it is a lot. It is a lot of hours.
Feloni: What are those two careers as you see it?
Tornai: I have become a television personality, and I’m flying back to Israel for an audition for a major role in a movie, so that’s my life. I learn my text on the plane and in between brides. Being exhausted is not something that I see as negative because I learned how to utilise every second that I have in order to bring back the energy. I think it’s a waste of time not to do anything. I don’t have a problem with overdoing.
Feloni: It sounds like you’re always trying to expand what you’re already working on. What is your vision for where you want to take your business next?
Tornai: I would love to make sure that every bride in the world who wishes to be a Pnina bride can walk down her aisle in a Pnina dress. And that means creating a line that would be much more affordable, because I started as a couture designer and couture dresses are very expensive. And now I have two lines: I have the couture line and I have a diffusion line, which is called “Love by Pnina Tornai.” And I decided to call it “Love” because for so many years I’d been receiving messages from brides from all around the world on my social media saying, “My dream is to be a Pnina bride. I could never afford a dress of yours. I love you. And even though I can’t buy a dress of you, you’re my role model, you’re my favourite designer.” So I decided to give back the love to all these dresses and to create a line that would be more affordable. But still, as affordable as it may be or as it is, it is not affordable enough in order to cater every bride that wants to be a Pnina bride.
Feloni: So without compromising the brand?
Tornai: Exactly. It would have to be something that really brings the product to as many brides as can be. That is what I would love to do as a next step.
Building off hardship
Feloni: We talked about the struggles that you had personally, and overcoming those challenges. When you look at your career and growing your business, what would you say the biggest challenge you’ve overcome in that sense, professionally, has been?
Tornai: I think the biggest challenge is learning how to put my ego aside. I think creators have a lot of ego because you need ego in order to be innovative, in order to be creative, in order to become a one-of-a-kind. But then you need to turn that into something positive because ego has two aspects. One is positive; it pushes you, it gives you the drive to become successful. And the other aspect is negative; it makes you think that you are above everyone and that it’s all about you. I think until the day I die I will always do my best to put my ego aside. It’s about my bride; it’s about my customer. It’s being thankful to every opportunity I have in life. I don’t take anything for granted.
Feloni: The way that you’ve learned to deal with that is trying to find that, and remind yourself of the appreciation?
Tornai: Absolutely. If a bride tells me that she wants to change her dress, she doesn’t like my dress, of course the first reaction would be why doesn’t she like my dress.
Feloni: The ego comes in.
Tornai: What’s wrong with my dress? I’m one of the biggest designers in the world. But then I make sure that I hear her because it is her dress, not my dress. I am here to make her dream come true and to make her feel as beautiful as I can make her feel on her wedding day. So it’s really not about me.
Feloni: How do you personally define success?
Tornai: I personally define success … by what we leave in this world after we’re gone; how we impact others, how we influence others, how we empower others. Success for me is I hope and I wish that my legacy will continue long after I’m gone.
I truly look back at my life and I thank the tough moments more than I thank the good moments. I truly believe that what didn’t kill me made me stronger, and brought me to this point in life where I have earned the right to help others make a change. And it all happened together. It was side by side. It was my personal life and my career life. I remember moments where I heard a bride talking about her own story. I was strong for her, but I would go in the back of the store and burst in tears because it reminded me of my story. It brought everything back. But you know what? Nobody promised us a rose garden, and the beauty in life is that if you are true to yourself and you walk your path, you can create quite a beautiful garden. We all have the abilities to do that.
Feloni: Thank you very much, Pnina.
Tornai: Thank you so much, Rich.