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"The Israeli bridal industry has expanded a lot over the past few years and become an important player in the world," said fashion designer Julie Vino, who founded her Tel Aviv studio in 2008. "A lot of brides in general want to wear sexy dresses, which were missing in the world market. Israeli designers came and filled the hole. We’re giving women that choice."
Wedding fashion is a $3 billion industry, according to estimates by market research company IBISWorld. Today, networks like Pinterest and Instagram are remarkably influential in that globalized market. Surveys conducted by Brides magazine showed 70 percent of readers used social media to research and shop for their bridal ensembles. Women from Los Angeles to Hong Kong are flocking online, often to find many of their favorite weddings dresses come from the Middle East.
Israeli designers are pioneering a distinctive look with sheer yet strategically embellished fabrics and body-skimming silhouettes. "Many buyers and journalists think the designs are too much, too sexy," couture designer Alon Livné said in a phone interview. "But the brides saw the dresses online and started requesting them in stores. That’s what made this revolution, it came from the brides themselves."
The New York Times recently called this Mediterranean style a trademark "sexier bridal aesthetic." Tel Aviv’s couture wedding dresses are now in high demand around the world, and not only from brides.
Beyoncé made waves when she wore a thigh-baring lace wedding dress by Israeli designer Inbal Dror to the Grammys earlier this year. Dror, whose dresses are routinely shared by thousands of Pinterest users worldwide, trained under Roberto Cavalli before opening her own Tel Aviv studio near the beach. Humid weather makes breezy attire popular among local clients. Comfort is key for Israeli brides, which makes their wedding dresses particularly versatile.
In the nearby neighborhood of Florentin, sometimes compared to trendy Williamsburg in New York City, fellow entrepreneur Galia Lahav has a store known for dresses with open backs and contoured fabric blends. Jennifer Lopez wore one of her white wedding dresses as a Christmas outfit for a People magazine photo shoot last December. Serena Williams also wore one of Lahav’s white bridal ensembles to a 2016 Oscars after party. These celebrities are among the growing number of people showing the world wedding dresses aren’t only for brides.
"We don’t make just bridal dresses, we make fashion," Vino said in a phone interview. "You can wear it to the red carpet or a wedding." Argentine pop star Lali Esposito recently wore one of Vino’s wedding dresses to the Martin Fierro Awards, the Argentinian Emmys. Other international clients have worn her wedding gowns to formal occasions such as charity events. Nicole Johnson, fiancée of Olympian Michael Phelps, bought one of Vino’s dresses for her wedding day and a second one for an upcoming New Year’s Eve event. Vino said almost 70 percent of her business comes from abroad these days, with retail prices ranging from $6,000 to $10,000 per dress.
Over the past few years, it’s also become increasingly common for beauty queens around the world to wear Israeli wedding dresses. To mention just one example, Miss USA 2015 Olivia Jordan wore a bedazzled V-neck gown by Israeli fashion house Berta Bridal at this year’s American pageant finale.
Berta Balilti was born in Cairo and immigrated to Israel as a child. She started her first bridal salon in 1995. Her studio now has 1.3 million Instagram followers and almost 80 retailers worldwide, including major US department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom. This October, fashion blogger and model Doina Ciobanu wore one of these slinky gowns to the Scottish Fashion Awards in London.
"Now if you have the right product, you just need to put it out there on social media," said Nir Moscovich, fashion house director (and Balilti’s son-in-law), in a phone interview. "We have a very big amount of brides that travel from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates specifically to buy our dresses at the store in London."
Despite its explosive growth over the past few years, now employing around 100 people, Berta Bridal still prides itself on being a family business with handmade embellishments and custom designs. Religious clients, whether Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, often request subtle modifications to reveal less skin while keeping Balilti’s trademark skintight fit.
"Everything is based in Israel and made in Israel," Moscovich said. "Berta designs all the dresses herself and uses soft materials that feel like a second skin, much easier to move in." Her wedding dresses each cost around $10,000.
Like Balilti, several of Israel’s most famous designers leveraged social media to grow their international followings. Israel is a country of around 8 million people, so Tel Aviv’s fashion houses constantly look abroad for bigger markets. Despite political tension between Middle Eastern countries, women of diverse backgrounds are using online platforms to connect across borders.
"The engagement with clients all over the globe, by a touch of a finger, is outstanding and exciting," said designer Galia Lahav. "We get the applications through our website or through social media DM or stores… We recently had a bride from Dubai. It would be a dream to open a store in Dubai, Kuwait, or the UAE."
Lahav’s fashion house, founded in 1988, now has 1.4 million Instagram followers and sells her dresses in over 40 outlets worldwide, including flagship stores in Los Angeles, New York, and Hamburg. Her couture gowns start at $8,000.
Whether worn to galas or award ceremonies, beauty pageants or weddings, the spread of this sexy Mediterranean bridal look is about more than the dresses themselves. This style challenges the entire wedding gown mythos.
Earlier this year, Talleen Abu Hanna, a Christian Arab from Nazareth, proudly wore a white wedding dress on stage when Miss Trans Israel pronounced her the country’s first transgender pageant queen. She wore the sheer gown even though Israeli law does not grant transgender women the right to marry until after they’ve completed specific surgeries. What better way to resist gender norms than for a single woman to don a wedding dress in celebration of herself?
Wedding dresses are often marketed as transformative clothes that make a bride feel like she’s become a virginal "queen," with language suggesting marriage is her pinnacle accomplishment. But today, modern brides and couture connoisseurs are subverting these ideas through fashion. For many women, dramatic necklines and sexy silhouettes are a beautiful challenge to sexist traditions.
"The transparent, lingerie-evocative gown takes the tradition of the sex-symbolizing wedding attire, but flips it," Megan Garber wrote for The Atlantic. "It implies that the sex will be had on the bride's terms as much as the groom's. It's reveling in a woman's sexuality, rather than stifling it."
Livné, winner of Project Runway Israel’s sole season, thinks his clients respect tradition yet also reject the puritanical symbolism of traditional gowns. Israeli brides often wear a shawl or sheer matching jacket during any religious rituals, which they quickly shed for the reception. "We are in 2017, almost, and I don’t believe many brides will get married as virgins," he said. "The ceremony is more about people who love each other… if you want to feel sexy and celebrate your body, then why not?"
Like fellow designer Inbal Dror, Livné also trained under Roberto Cavalli. He has two studios in Israel and just opened a third on Broadway in New York City. A few weeks ago at Paris Fashion Week, French pop star Petite Meller wore one of his wedding dresses to a Vogue party. It had a delicate, lace-trimmed collar and swirling lines that tumbled down her sleeves. "When I design a wedding dress, I think about it like an art piece," Livné said. "Just because it’s white doesn’t mean you can’t wear it to other events."