I like looking sexy as much as the next person, but while one can't expect all wedding gowns to be modest by religious standards, these looked less like wedding dresses and more like elaborate, white belly-dancing costumes
As a newly married bride, I can easily say the most difficult decision in planning the entire wedding - aside from choosing my groom - was choosing my wedding dress. It's not so much that I had dreamt about it since I was five, running around with a pillowcase on my head as a veil. It wasn't even the pressure to look like the most beautiful version of myself possible. But rather, as a new immigrant in a very strange land, I simply didn't know where to look.
Friends recommended a magazine called Mit'hatnim, a 3,000-page, five-kilo textbook on how to plan a wedding in Israel. But as I flipped through the pages anxiously, every dress was racier and more hideous than the next. The common theme among them all was maximizing cleavage in completely transparent dresses cut open to reveal the belly button. I like looking sexy as much as the next person, but while one can't expect all wedding gowns to be modest by religious standards, these looked less like wedding dresses and more like elaborate, white belly-dancing costumes.
Other friends ordered me to go to Tel Aviv to the famed Rehov Dizengoff fashion block, but all the designers worth their weight require an appointment to get the individual attention one needs when choosing The Wedding Dress.
So the search began. There was a small handful of photos in the magazine that did catch my eye, and not because the models were half-naked, so I started from there. I also asked people for recommendations, and snuck a peak at some American bridal magazines to get a good idea of what I was looking for. When a small list was compiled, I grabbed my entourage - my mom, my best friend and my brother's fashion-forward girlfriend, and made my first appointment.
Little did I know my first stop would be my last.
I DECIDED to start in Jerusalem, my hometown, before making my way out to Tel Aviv. But as I stepped into the Jaffa Road entrance of Style Lekala, I began to regret my decision. You can barely make out the name of the shop on the old, faded blue doorway, and as I made my way up the stairs to the store, I inhaled what smelled like a mix of urine and sweat.
Inside the shop (which smelled fine), I was instructed by the manager to flip through the collection books of the store's supplier, the renowned Spanish wedding gown label Pronovias. The dresses were impressive - gorgeous, white and classy with a bit of romance - and I selected a number to try on.
When my turn came, I was led into the dressing studio, which was exactly as I had dreamed it would be. Cream-colored drapes swept from floor to ceiling, mirrored walls allowed me to view myself from every angle, and the small platform on which I was told to stand made me feel like the special bride I was.
The dresses, however, were not what I had dreamed of. Sitting next to me like a panel of critics, my entourage frowned, smirked and shook their heads as Hagit Ben-Ezra, head designer and owner of the shop, dressed me in gown after gown after gown, until tears of disappointment flooded my eyes and I mouthed to my mom, "Let's get out of here." Perhaps sensing my frustration, Ben-Ezra asked me to try one last dress. "I think you'll like this one," she said, pulling it over my head. After zipping me up in back, she grabbed a small veil and stuck it on my head for added effect.
Hmmm, I thought to myself, and looked to my entourage for confirmation. Each one was wiping tears from her eyes and nodding her head, mumbling about how they couldn't believe I was actually getting married. As clich a confirmation as it was, I knew I had found my dress.
WHAT'S GREAT about a shop like Style Lekala is that a bride has options - she can order an original dress from Pronovias, she can design a dress of her own from scratch, or she can do what I did and use a Pronovias dress as a template to design her own dress with Ben-Ezra, a true professional with more than 25 years of experience in Europe and in Israel.
Even the shop has a history: Started in 1937 in the Geula neighborhood by the Landau family, the store has imported dresses from Europe almost since its inception. It later moved to Jaffa Road because the European styles weren't modest enough for the by now haredi neighborhood. A year and a half ago, the second generation of the family approached Ben-Ezra to take over the shop so they could retire.
"What makes it difficult for brides to choose a wedding dress is that they have no experience in this field, and they often don't know what to look for when they come in," says Ben-Ezra in her perpetually relaxed tone. "I really try to get to know every bride so that I can understand how she wants to look on her wedding day - and that can include trying on 20 dresses with her until she finds the right one. We know it's usually a once-in-a-lifetime occasion, so we do our best to make the dress perfect."
Mine certainly was. Every detail I requested, from buttons to bustle, was carefully constructed by the shop's seamstresses, and every fitting revealed more of the dream dress Ben-Ezra and I had designed months before.
BUT HAD I not been blessed with beginner's luck, there were a few other places I had planned on checking out, the foremost of which was Emanuel, a Dizengoff shop owned and run by husband-and-wife team Avi and Michal Mor-Ashkenazi.
Started eight years ago with the help of Michal's father, for whom the store is named, Emanuel prides itself on the elegant simplicity that renders its dresses timeless classics. Without an ad campaign or even mannequins in the windows, Emanuel's success stems from the fact that unlike many other designers, who create both eveningwear and wedding gowns, they concentrate only on the bride.
"I'm a perfectionist, and if you aren't working with all your heart and soul, you can't make wedding dresses," says Michal, who grew up on a moshav near Kiryat Shmona and dreamed of one day designing wedding gowns.
"Designers need to understand that for the bride, the wedding dress is the most important part of the wedding - it's what she dreamed of all her life," she says. "She never dreamed of having chicken or meat, or what type of music the band will play, but every girl has a fantasy of wearing her wedding dress. It's once in a lifetime - at least we hope - and it's a dream come true to wear it, and you need to work with a lot of love to make it perfect."
While some shops will simply add a shrug or bolero to a dress to make it more modest for religious brides, Michal insists that each dress has to be individually built, no matter what the bride's request, and compromising on the sleeves often ruins the entire look.
The key to creating beautiful wedding dresses is realizing that less is always more, an idea she agrees is lost on many Israeli designers.
"When you exaggerate, you lose what you're trying to accomplish, and designers in Israel just don't know when to stop," she says. "A bride has to look different and special, but she's not supposed to dress up in a costume. The dress should be a bit sexy, a bit elegant, but not too much of anything, because too open, too sexy is already frecha, slutty."
OTHER SHOPS worth stopping by are Pnina Tornai, who has been designing trendy wedding dresses for 16 years, and Nirit Levav, a 15-year designer of flattering, feminine gowns.
Both fell into the career by chance. Tornai, after going through a very difficult time in her life, had a dream one night that she was lying in a field and beautiful dresses were floating in the sky above her. Since then, she has been making wedding dresses and recently opened a section of her own in Kleinfeld, one of the largest and most reputable bridal stores in the world.
"I love making wedding dresses because somewhere inside me, I'm still a little girl that lives in fairy tales, and wedding dresses are all about romance and love," says Tornai, who has been married three times and served as her own dress designer. "When two people decide to share their lives, it's the most beautiful and unique moment, and for me, it's very exciting to be part of that."
She garners inspiration by imagining how a bride would fantasize looking on her wedding day, and her selection ranges from huge, beaded ball gowns to simple A-line dresses. But Tornai won't make just anything; she recounts numerous arguments she's had with clients who want their dresses to show more cleavage or reveal their backs, and she's forced to decline, saying provocative is not the look to aim for on one's wedding day.
"Whether there's a rabbi or a priest, there's something sacred about a wedding," she says.
Levav's look, while straying a bit from traditional dress styles, doesn't go anywhere near inappropriate, but carries unexpected elements that make her collection very unique.
"They aren't Purim costumes, but they're different and special," says Levav, who stumbled upon wedding-dress design more than a decade ago while designing regular clothes. Most of her collection then was loud and colorful, she says, but she had made one simple silk and linen dress in off-white. As soon as it was on the racks, Levav began receiving phone calls from brides requesting more dresses, and soon her store was transformed into all white.
After designing only wedding dresses for many years, Levav - who thinks of herself as an artist - began designing eveningwear and jewelry as well. She says this has unleashed her creativity, even in her wedding collection.
"Making a wedding dress is very challenging, but also very satisfying and rewarding," she says, "and as I blossom as a designer, so, too, do my designs."
So for the new bride frazzled by the difficult task of finding The Wedding Dress, fret not - you will find it, even here, and you'll even find a few caring designers to accompany you along the way.
"This is the day you remember forever," notes Mor-Ashkenazi. "From the day you were born you dreamt about it - not just to get married, but to wear a wedding dress and be a bride. And there's nothing more beautiful in the world than a bride in her wedding dress."