Quentin Tarantino has only ever featured one wedding in his movies – and that ended in a bloodbath. Luckily, things passed more quietly when Daniella Pick walked down the aisle to exchange vows with the filmmaker in Los Angeles on Wednesday evening.
In the Tel Aviv studio of up-and-coming bridal gown designer Dana Harel, a mannequin in Pick’s measurements had been awaiting this very moment for a year.
“I have an old vintage mannequin that’s exactly her measurements,” Harel says. “I usually have to pad the mannequins with acrylic and wrap them in cling wrap, like schnitzel. But Daniella has an old-fashioned body, with a small torso and very long legs – a little like the pinup girls of the 1950s; compact and feminine proportions. She carries dresses really well.”
Over the past year, Harel’s studio sent no fewer than four different white dresses to Pick in Tinseltown. Two of them were worn at her engagement parties in Tel Aviv and Hollywood, while the other two were revealed on the wedding day. Like most of her new husband’s films, the dresses have attracted positive reviews.
“Daniella likes clean and classic designs, which is also what suits her,” Harel says. The designer, speaking to Haaretz before Pick’s big day, explained how she designed an outfit for the wedding ceremony with a small, shiny bodice and an A-line skirt. A second dress, worn at the wedding reception at an L.A. restaurant, featured straps studded with Swarovski stones and a deep open back. The designer promised that the bride would be “able to dance freely in it.”
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Pick and Harel’s relationship actually predates that of the bride and groom, with the singer-model one of Harel’s first customers while she was working out of her home in Ramat Hasharon, north of Tel Aviv, some eight years ago.
“I love Daniella,” says the designer. “She’s a one-off, a real character. We vaguely kept in touch since that sale, and then she met Quentin. That was like, WTF! I couldn’t believe I had some connection to him – it’s like that game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The connection to Tarantino was only two steps away. It’s wild!”
Harel met the director in person during a trip to Los Angeles earlier this year. “I cleared a place in my schedule for dinner,” she recalls, laughing. “We went out to dinner – Quentin, Daniella and I. Of course, I took a tranquilizer beforehand because I adore his work. ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is my favorite movie.” She didn’t receive an invitation to the wedding, though, which was by all accounts an intimate affair.
Under the radar
Dana Harel is not your typical bridal gown designer. In jeans, sweatshirt, septum ring and a line of piercings in her ear, she welcomes me to her new studio in Kikar Hamedina, the center of Tel Aviv’s high fashion scene even if it has known better decades. Until it opened two months ago, she had been working from her Ramat Hasharon home – mostly under the radar of the local fashion scene.
“Since first grade I’ve been an outsider, but I don’t know if ‘typical’ is what it takes” to succeed, she says. “I am me. I don’t know how to define the ‘scene’ in order to distinguish myself from it. Since childhood I’ve been dressing Barbie dolls and tying the dresses on them differently – a total cliché.
“I always feel I’m an alternative to what exists because I don’t like bridal gowns that much myself,” she confesses. “So I do my thing – an alternative to lace materials and ‘mermaid’ styles. If I were getting married now, I would want to come to me. I feel uncomfortable at industry events; I’m a quiet and shy person, I prefer to simply work and be behind the scenes. And my clients allow me to do that.”
The Tel Aviv native is 36, married and a mother of three. She studied psychology and literature at Tel Aviv University, with mentors like local poets Nurit Zarchi and Dory Manor. “I thought I would be a psychologist, but after five years I realized it would be better if I weren’t a therapist,” Harel recounts. “My level of identification was so high that if someone told me he was the Messiah, I would have told him, ‘Wow, that’s great! We’ve been waiting for you!’”
It was at university that she met the renowned mentalist Nimrod Harel (he prefers the term “perception artist”), who was studying for a master’s degree in literature at the time, just for fun. The designer admits their first meeting was “pretty terrible.”
She recalls: “I had a really good friend and we wanted to read each other’s minds – she would think of a number and I would try to guess it. We were bored and wanted to study under Nimrod Harel, who at the time had a television show on which he read minds. I googled him and found some short stories he had written, so emailed him. I said I’d be happy to learn from him, and I also critiqued his stories. He, of course, emailed me back, asking what I wanted from his life.” That was the start of a “half-hostile, half-sexy” correspondence between the two. “When we realized we studied at the same place, we decided to meet at the university. There was an immediate click,” she says.
Upon graduation, Harel started to seriously consider fashion as a possible career. It wasn’t such a left-field choice as her studies made it seem. “My grandparents had a factory, Lego, in the German town of Hof, on the border with Czechoslovakia,” she says.
“It was named for my grandfather, Leon Gonczarowski. My grandmother was an image consultant and fashion designer. She didn’t study it, but she was good at it. The two of them had nothing but were very resourceful. They started making socks and gradually expanded to skirts, dresses, pants, everything – and they became a really big factory that manufactured for all of Europe. As a girl we would go to Germany to visit them in the factory. I grew up with it.”
It was her life partner who first encouraged Harel to study fashion, and she enrolled on a fashion design course at the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, Ramat Gan, a decade ago. (Nimrod and Dana Harel married in 2010, with the bride wearing a ready-to-wear Christian Dior gown.) Harel was studying alongside the three women who would launch the fashion brand Tres and a future bridal gown designer Lee Petra Grebenau. But she knew she wouldn’t finish the course.
“The studies were very theoretical and wonderful in their own way, but it wasn’t really connected to the woman’s body and what she wants to wear,” Harel says. “In a cold and very unglamorous calculation, I realized that if I wanted children [then], I had to start working with someone to understand how things worked, so that later I could start my own business.”
So she started working under designer Lilach Elgrably and her Lilamist brand. She also designed evening dresses on the side, until she had enough to form a collection. The next step was holding home sales. One of her earliest customers was actress Yael Poliakov, who chose Harel to design her wedding dress – the first wedding gown she ever designed.
“At first, the field of wedding dresses seemed very limited,” she admits. “Everything is white, there’s no range to work with, and what can you even say with it? Now, I know that these narrow constraints are good for me, because I naturally go off on tangents.”
Israeli teenager Sofia Mechetner, who became the face of Dior in 2015, has become Harel’s muse and model. Harel has also designed dresses for actress Yaara Benbenishty, while supermodel Bar Refaeli has sported her designs on the Israeli version of “X Factor.” Another Israeli model, Ilanit Levi, will soon be getting married in a Harel gown.
“I clicked right away with Yael Poliakov – she was pregnant and decided to get married at home, which is less formal, so we went for an Egyptian-style djellaba,” Harel recalls. “Ilanit Levi goes with the flow more than others. She trusts me.”
Things were a little less straightforward with the future Mrs. Tarantino. “Daniella was very involved. It was drawn-out ping-pong,” Harel admits. “She knew exactly what was right and worked for her, up to the very last waistline inch. Anyhow, none of them was a difficult bride.”
Given the media coverage given to the Tarantino wedding, Harel should expect a busy time in the coming year. “Every time a celebrity wears one of my dresses, I get a wave of brides seeking my designs,” she says. “Bar Refaeli’s impact was the strongest here, but globally the one who exposed me to a wider audience was a Philippine bride called Martine Ho [née Cajucom]. She’s a big reality show star over there, with millions of followers [online]. Currently, most of my followers are American, followed by Israelis and then Filipinos. I assume this will also happen with Daniella.”
Harel thinks long and hard when asked who she dreams of designing for. Finally, she settles on Israeli model Noam Frost, who is soon to be married, and French actress-singer-director Mélanie Laurent, best known for her roles in “Now You See Me” and Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.”
Leaving the basement behind?
The bridal gown market in Israel is thriving, an outlier in an otherwise beleaguered fashion scene. Designers such as Galia Lahav and Lihi Hod are enjoying great success overseas, displaying their designs at Bridal Fashion Week in New York and designing bridal gowns for major international stars (including Beyoncé and another Philippine star, Solenn Heussaff).
Harel is taking small and measured steps in the market, after deciding to concentrate solely on bridal gowns only three years ago. Last April, she participated in Barcelona’s Bridal Fashion Week for the first time, and since then her designs have been sold at bridal salons in South Korea, Hong Kong, L.A. and New York. And, of course, she only relocated her studio and its eight employees out of her basement in September.
She was scheduled to attend this fall’s New York Fashion Week with her father, businessman Zigi Gonczarowski. However, his sudden death in June derailed that plan. “He was on a business trip to the Czech Republic and felt unwell, and then he had an aortic rupture,” Harel recounts. “He was flown to Prague for a six-hour operation and for a while it seemed he would survive. You tell yourself, ‘OK, he’s weak, he’s not talking properly, but he has to recover.’ Then you realize he’s not recovering. He hovered between life and death for a while, until it was over – one night his heart stopped working.
“That was a turning point for me,” she reflects. “I’d planned my studio with him, we’d searched for a location together, and he accompanied me during all the stages – from signing contracts to renovations. Now I’ve started there without him. In short, I’m trying to move on and do things slowly, in a way that’s pleasant for me. Life goes on.”
Harel’s employees are still not seeing much daylight, since the new studio in Tel Aviv is also underground, designed by Sigal Baranowitz and Irene Goldberg. The warm, twisting space is designed with circular lines, like a rolling canvas. A row of mannequins at one end model her designs. These are feminine, minimalist, cool and clean, rich in original bead embroidery, but not too heavy. Prices range from 6,000 shekels (about $1,600) for an off-the-rack number to 22,000 shekels for a bespoke design.
“There is a correlation between my style and the brides who come to me, who are generally cooler and less capricious,” Harel observes. “I’m an underdog – I always have been – and that’s how it is with my team as well. I don’t write poems any more, but the ones I did write came from the same place the dresses come from. For example, I named the last bridal collection Morning Star, since I feel everything I do describes those points between – some elusive, very atmospheric moment that mustn’t be interfered with.”