How Do You Say Yes to the Dress in Hebrew?

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Philadelphia brides aren’t trolling Israeli dating websites or joining Holy Land singles tours. Rather, the yentas are Instagram and Pinterest — and the intendeds are one-of-a-kind wedding gowns, handmade in Tel Aviv.

More and more Philadelphia brides are importing their beshert — from Israel.
But they’re not trolling Israeli dating websites or joining Holy Land singles tours. The yentas are Instagram and Pinterest — and the intendeds are one-of-a-kind wedding gowns, handmade in Tel Aviv.
Out of the atéliers of Israel’s fashion capital comes a parade of bridal looks that draw gasps: plunging necklines, bare midriffs, second-skin silhouettes and sheer-illusion fabric that suggests entirely bare backs … and more. Fashion-forward women are falling hard for these gowns by Inbal Dror, Berta, Zahavit Tshuba, Mira Zwillinger and Flora; long-married Beyoncé even wore an Inbal Dror wedding dress to the 2016 Grammys. Bride after bride describes finding her dress in language more commonly used for romance novels.
“I just knew the second I put it on,” gushed Simona Levithan, a 27-year-old nurse who wore Berta to her April nuptials at the Atrium at Curtis Center. “I knew, ‘This is the one.’ ” Another newlywed, Marisa Awad, 29, said she knew her dress was “the one” when she spied it on the rack at The Wedding Shoppe in Wayne, buying the sample then and there. And Bilon Geiger, a 33-year-old Berta bride who was married in November at the Fairmount Park Horticulture Center, found her beshert while surfing around Pinterest and never looked back: “I was in love. I was like, ‘Yes, this is the one.’ ”
That degree of ardor is what inspired Kathy Hart Bado, a longtime wedding planner with “zero intention of selling dresses, ever,” to spontaneously open a shop … selling Israeli dresses. After being introduced to the Berta line by her daughter, Hart Bado went to a trade show in New York and came back smitten.
“They were so gorgeous, so different from anything I’d ever seen,” recalled Hart Bado. “I looked at my sister and said, ‘This is what we have to do.’ ” Two years ago, Hart Bado and her sister and business partner, Stacey Veeraraj, opened The Wedding Factor in Center City, a boutique that carries exclusively Berta gowns — the designer’s only Philadelphia-area outlet.
So what is it about these Israeli confections of lace and tulle that inspires the kind of love-at-first-sight, coup de foudre passion usually reserved for … ahem … the groom himself?
The same qualities women look for in that groom, according to bridal wear experts: sex appeal, high finance and attractiveness. The new Tel Aviv couture is strikingly sexier than traditional bridal wear: Ethereal lace, sparkling embellishments and appliqués captivate the eye in a way that satin does not. This bespoke detail translates into very costly gowns, with price tags in the high four and five digits.
The new Israeli lines “are all really very striking in different ways,” said Carrie Denny Whitcraft, the editor of Philadelphia Wedding magazine, who was married last New Year’s Eve in an Inbal Dror she fell in love with during a photo shoot. “With these designers, every single dress, you’re like, ‘Ooh, look at that sleeve! Ooh, look at that embellishment! Ooh, look at that back!’ ” — a departure, she said, from the usual lineup of refined homogeneity.
“The Israeli designers are very, very high-end, very sexy, very couture,” noted Pattie Lamantia, owner of The Wedding Shoppe in Wayne, the only local outlet for both Inbal Dror and Flora. “All-nude linings, very sexy low backs. Even when they’re in long sleeves, they’re slit up the thigh.”
Which brings up another intriguing element of the Tel Aviv look: These gowns cover a lot of skin, yet reveal the body to a far greater degree than the flowing, romantic looks favored by U.S. designers. Long sleeves are common; so are long skirts, prompting many observers to parse the influence of traditional Jewish modesty. There is more than a little irony inherent in a white wedding dress that covers the elbows yet bares the navel, draping demurely over the ankles yet hugging the derrière.
In short, they’re a tease — sometimes literally, as when a line of buttons appears to climb up a bare back that, on closer inspection, is covered by a sheer nude netting. Illusion is essential to the Tel Aviv aesthetic, achieved through diaphanous fabrics and appliquéd flowers and jewels that appear to float alongside the bride.
It was a look that intoxicated Allie Wildstein, a 25-year-old social media and marketing manager who chose a Berta gown for her upcoming wedding at The Bellevue. Berta “strikes a balance — even though her dresses are heavily embroidered or embellished, the silhouettes are clean and fitted so that the dresses are ornate, but still very modern and chic,” Wildstein said.
The bride who wears Israeli is knowledgeable about fashion and financially able to make her couture dream a reality, said Denny Whitcraft, who is also the author of The Bride’s Instruction Manual: How to Survive and Possibly Even Enjoy the Biggest Day of Your Life. “This bride wants something that’s different,” said Denny Whitcraft, “something that’s not the strapless A-line all her friends wore.”
“Different” was the guiding principle for Simona Levithan, whose form-fitting lace Berta dress featured a neckline that snaked down to her navel and a sheer-illusion back whose transparency extended, well, about as far as was legal in public. “I wanted everyone’s jaws to drop,” said Levithan. “Especially my husband’s. I wanted to hear gasps.” (She did.)
The person most shocked by Denny Whitcraft’s own dress might actually have been the bride herself. A jaded observer of bridal wear and a fashion sophisticate, Denny Whitcraft had always pictured herself in a fitted lace sheath — until she saw a nude-colored party dress from Inbal Dror’s 2015 line, part of a lineup for the fall-winter magazine spread.
“I was just obsessed with it,” recalled the editor. “I shot it for the cover. And as it happened, the next week I got engaged.”
Denny Whitcraft headed to The Wedding Shoppe to try the dress on “just for fun,” never thinking she’d go for a poufy tulle skirt — or a gown the color of tea. “Five hundred million layers of tulle, it’s kind of like, not me,” she said with a laugh. “And I knew I wanted to wear a white dress. But then Pattie was like, ‘It comes in ivory…’” And just like that, the way a cowgirl sometimes falls in love with an investment banker, Denny Whitcraft ordered a poufy white party dress — sight unseen, all the way from Tel Aviv.
That kind of gamble — shipping prepaid items from the turmoil-prone Middle East — initially gave Pattie Lamantia pause as well. Like many of her stateside colleagues, Lamantia was wary of working with Tel Aviv couturiers, many of whom demand up-front deposits for the custom-sewn garments. The designers also require an exhaustive list of custom measurements, “all in centimeters,” said Lamantia. “I asked myself, ‘Why am I taking a measurement of her neck and biceps for a strapless dress?’ But they say it gives them a sense of her silhouette.” The process is a departure from American lines, which produce gowns in standard sizes for the bride to alter.
Another critical difference: price. “These lines are not in everybody’s budget,” allowed Lamantia diplomatically. Inbal Dror dresses start at about $8,500 and can exceed twice that figure; The Wedding Shoppe added a second Israeli line, Flora, to give brides a more affordable alternative, with “simpler sexy” designs retailing for $5,000 to $8,000. The high price tags have not deterred couture-focused brides, Lamantia noted, adding that her gamble has paid off in brisk orders, crowded trunk shows — and brides driving from as far away as Canada to try on the exclusive styles. “Some say it’s not a Main Line look, but don’t kid yourself,” Lamantia said. “It’s amazing the hold that these dresses have over people.”
Berta gowns range from $7,500 to $12,000, making them out of reach for “nine out of 10 brides who are interested,” said Hart Bado, who added that sales are nonetheless robust enough to support a thriving business — on just one line. Another Israeli couturier, Mira Zwillinger, is carried exclusively in the Philadelphia area at the Elizabeth Johns boutiques in Ardmore and Morristown, N.J.; dresses start at $8,000.
Price tags like that are why most local shops don’t carry Israeli lines, according to Abby McGrath, bridal manager at Van Cleve Wedding Pavilion in Paoli. “I’ve looked at some of them, but it’s cost prohibitive,” said McGrath, who said the average dress at her shop sells for $2,000 to $3,000. “For us to invest in a bunch of dresses that are at the top end doesn’t really make sense.”
Couture connoisseurs understand that Tel Aviv prices reflect a fastidious craftsmanship that simply does not come cheap, according to the experts. “The quality of the construction really stands apart,” said Hart Bado of Israeli bridal wear, noting the degree of labor involved in hand-appliquéing hundreds of tiny rosettes, or crafting a garment to as many as 40 separate measurements. Custom-tailored clothing is more of a tradition in Israel, according to industry experts, whereas the lower cost of American lines reflects our mass-market culture.
But retailers of Israeli bridal wear say the cost doesn’t dissuade diehard fashionistas. Caitlin Ohle, director of communications at Elizabeth Johns, said the store started carrying the Mira Zwillinger line last year to give couture-loving brides a high-end option — and customers have opened their wallets gladly. “Brides just love it,” said Ohle of the Zwillinger line, which features a dreamier, more romantic take on the Israeli look. “It’s a showstopper. They fall in love.”
If the tulle inspires the passion, Instagram and Pinterest are the sartorial Tinders that match gowns with girls. Retailers and brides alike confirm that social media ignites the spark of bridal interest; phones were ringing off hooks at wedding salons everywhere the day after Beyoncé wore her long-sleeved, floor-length Inbal Dror at the Grammys, a look that instantly went viral online. It certainly caught the eye of Marisa Awad, whose social-media browsing had led her to a long-sleeved, intricately detailed gown by the same designer.
“I knew I wanted something couture, and I knew I wanted to go the Tel Aviv route,” said Awad, a professional wedding photographer based in Philadelphia. In addition to falling in love with the aesthetic — fuller coverage, she said, looks more interesting in pictures — Awad, like other Jewish brides, was pleased that the gowns are made in Israel. As she and her mother browsed fashion from the Jewish state, Awad recalled, “we just kept referencing how much Bubbe would have loved this.”
Simona Levithan said her family had a similar reaction. “When I told her it was handmade in Israel, what my Jewish mother said was, ‘OK, we’re sending money to the right place,’ ” Levithan recalled.
Other brides are surprised that such daring fashions come from a region better known for covered heads than bared midriffs. Bilon Geiger, whose gown featured a lace-framed bare back and a plunging neckline, had an image of Israeli fashion as somewhat conservative — an impression her family shared, until they all paid a visit to The Wedding Factor. “When I first came out of the dressing room, my sister’s jaw dropped,” Geiger recalled. “She was like, ‘Are you really going to show that much on your wedding day?’ ”
Geiger was; she was deeply, truly in love. “I was like, ‘Yes, this is going to be my gown,’ ” said the Philadelphia-bred bride. “And that’s one thing about my wedding I feel extremely confident about. I looked amazing.”

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