Six Talented Women Share One Goal: To Create Hundreds of Beautiful Weddings
Hundreds of couples marry in style, thanks to these creative women.
By Susan Josephs
Back in the 1970s, Sylvia Weinstock felt disappointed each time she saw or tasted a wedding cake. “They were either beautiful and dry or fresh and plain,” she recalls. “The problem was that if you were going to do a beautiful cake, the artwork took a long time, so by the time you finished with it, the cake was a week old.”
Convinced that wedding cakes should be both beautiful and delicious, Weinstock started baking her own creations for family and friends and officially established her own New York City-based business in 1980. She figured out how to make decorative ornaments in advance of the baking process and soon became famous for elaborately designed cakes made with buttercream, fresh fruit and other high-quality, chemical-free ingredients. Known as the “queen of cakes,” her client list over the years has included celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump and Mariah Carey, in addition to innumerable brides and grooms willing to pay a minimum of $17 per cake slice.
“I was in the right place at the right time and I used the best ingredients,” she says of her success. “Even today, I travel around the country and I’ve met bakers whose quality is not my quality. They’re using cocoa and I’m using pure chocolate.”
At 82, Weinstock remains one of the best-known wedding vendors in the country and continues to work 10 hours a day, seven days a week while overseeing a staff of 17 employees. And while she admits to occasional burnout, she says she couldn’t imagine retirement. “Each cake is a challenge, and so is each bride and groom,” she says. “As long as I can keep creating something new, the excitement and enthusiasm for what I do is always there.”
| Sylvia Weinstock
Weinstock has also paved the way for a number of other Jewish women with a variety of unique talents and entrepreneurial skills who, in more recent decades, have launched successful careers as wedding vendors. Mindy Weiss, for example, a former designer of custom invitations, decided to open a full-service, Los Angeles-based party planning business in 1992 after a client who loved her invitation designs suggested she plan his entire 75th birthday party. Today, she’s one of the best-known wedding and event planners in the country with a huge celebrity client list. Like Weinstock, she feels endlessly inspired by working with “new people who have unique stories and styles. That motivates my creativity and passion,” she says.
Weiss and others got their start in the wedding industry after working in related fields. Dorothy Silver, for example, worked in other retail management positions before joining the staff at Kleinfeld some 25 years ago, where she eventually became the director of sales and merchandising for the bridal store made famous by the television show Say Yes to the Dress. And Sylvie Levine had spent most of her life working in the diamond industry in Belgium before moving to Texas with her husband, discovering she had a flair for designing engagement rings and developing her own successful line of jewelry called the Sylvie Collection.
But some, such as florist and event designer Lynn Jawitz, pursued completely unrelated careers before building their current businesses. A former lawyer and stockbroker, she found herself in need of financial security after a litigious divorce and wound up transforming her passion for flowers and architecture into a thriving New York City-based floral design business. “Maybe there are some people who see that I have a law degree and am wondering why I am doing this blue-collar job. But I get a tremendous satisfaction from creating these beautiful environments every weekend,” she says.
While all these women share a passion for their jobs and a willingness to work long hours and/or weekends, they also display a similar ability to successfully meld their creative prowess with the task of satisfying their clients’ varied needs and demands. “It pays to be a nice person in this business, but ultimately, it’s about being creative with your ideas and being able to turn the client’s vision into a tangible reality,” observes Anne Chertoff, a prominent 33-year-old New York City-based blogger who has covered the wedding industry in a variety of media for more than 10 years. And the most successful “are those who are innovators and who are able to change with the times.”
Chertoff, who dispenses wedding-planning advice on her blog, "From 'I Will' to 'I Do,'" adds that the more resilient wedding vendors also “made smart business decisions” during the recent economic downturn, meaning they accommodated clients’ budgets with flexibility and ingenuity. “I hear now, though, from many vendors that business has picked up for them,” she says. “Brides are buying more expensive dresses and renting more expensive halls.”
On the other hand, Brides magazine’s 2011 “American Wedding Study” reported that the average cost of a wedding that year had dropped to $26,501, a 5 percent decrease from 2009’s average of $28,082. The study also reported that couples are “doing more with less, and the wedding itself incorporates more elements and more personalization than ever before.”
“The recession made everyone think twice about how they wanted to spend their money. I would get a lot of ‘What can you do for me that costs less?’” says Weinstock, who accommodated many of her clients’ budgets by making less elaborate cakes.
So even if people have more money to spend in 2012, “they have learned how to do weddings in ways that are financially smarter,” adds Chertoff. At the same time, “no one wants a cookie-cutter wedding. People are always looking for creative ways to make their weddings stand out.”
Jawitz, who started Florisan LLC out of her New York City townhouse in 2002, makes it a priority to work with clients on smaller budgets without compromising on the quality of her arrangements. “I have some very well-heeled clients, but I also work with those who will have $2,000 to $3,000 to spend on flowers and I’ll design them a wedding that looks like they had a budget of $5,000 to $6,000,” she says.
Trained in Japanese, English and Dutch floral design techniques and fond of using “lots of sparkle” in her work, Jawitz, 56, usually performs her administrative tasks during the day and creates her custom-tailored flower arrangements, chuppahs and other event décor at night. Deliveries are the most stressful part of her business. “Loading the truck and traffic are often a challenge,” she says. Jawitz traces her love of design to playing chess as a child and her knack for customer service to when she worked as a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch. “I’ve always been really good at figuring things out, and I’m all about the details. In some ways, what I do is no different than laying out a chessboard,” she says. “And at Merrill, I learned how to find creative solutions to unique problems that my clients had,” she says.
After leaving Merrill Lynch to become a stay-at-home mom and afraid her “mind would turn to mush,” Jawitz decided to take a class in floral design at Parsons School of Design. “I was never that thrilled with what I was getting when I ordered flowers and for some reason, I thought I could do better. After my first class, I was addicted,” she recalls.
Sylvie Levine grew up around diamonds. Raised in Antwerp, Belgium’s tight-knit Jewish community, she’s the daughter and granddaughter of diamond cutters and worked different office jobs as a teenager in the wholesale diamond business. Eventually, she became a diamond broker. “Diamonds are in my DNA,” says the 44-year-old jewelry designer who speaks five languages, including Hebrew. “From a very young age I was very driven, creative and dedicated to the business.”
At an industry conference in Israel, Levine met her husband, who came from a South African diamond family. She moved with him to Texas and started working with his company, Spectrum Diamonds, focusing on the manufacturing of basic diamond jewelry. “But we kept getting more requests for bridal and I started developing a passion for bridal designs. I wanted to do something much more personal than the bread-and-butter items,” she says.
Levine created her Sylvie Collection brand in 2008. With prices starting at $900 for ring designs without the stones, the line consists of 14 collections of diamond engagement rings, in addition to wedding bands, earrings, pendants and other bridal jewelry that’s sold in some 150 retailers nationwide. And while Levine loves nothing more than seeing her “jewelry evolve from a sketch to the finished product,” she prides herself on her attention to detail, aptitude for custom work and interacting with her customers, “trying to stay in tune with the people who are buying my jewelry. It’s important to always keep evolving the line,” she says. “Some of my rings are more daring and some are fashion-oriented, but most are timeless. This is important because a marriage should last forever.”
Levine says her greatest reward is when she attends a trunk show and “someone wants to meet me who’s wearing one of my rings. Buying a house may be a bigger decision, but buying an engagement ring is more emotional,” she says. “To see the emotions in brides’ faces when they find the right ring…it’s incredible.” Dorothy Silver feels similar gratification when her customers stumble upon their dream wedding dress. “With a job like mine, you either love it instantly or you can’t be in the bridal business,” says Kleinfeld’s 54-year-old director of sales and merchandising. “It’s a very emotional business and it’s not for everyone.”
Blessed with a photographic memory and a passion for fashion, Silver has helped dress designers get to the next level in their careers, including Pnina Tornai, who became Kleinfeld’s top-selling designer and made the native Israeli internationally renowned for her sexy, provocative wedding gowns with see-through and/or jewel-studded corsets.
“I can go into a room with 50 dresses and I’ll know which will sell,” says Silver. “I see the trends before they happen. Some people can draw straight lines and play instruments…this is my talent.”
In addition to appearing on Say Yes to the Dress, where she's filmed conducting the morning store meeting or attending European fashion shows in search of the latest bridal trends, Silver also spends her days working on budgets, pricing and helping the store’s bridal consultants close their sales. “This isn’t like helping someone buy a sweater at Bergdorf Goodman,” she wryly observes. “You’re helping someone find a dress for the most important day of their life and you’re schlepping these heavy gowns for someone who doesn’t know you but is getting naked in front of you. This can be very frightening for people. But I just love the look on their faces when they find the right dress.”
Client satisfaction is ultimately what keeps Mindy Weiss in business. “With each event, I’m determined to make it the client’s vision. Even if we have to help them develop that vision, I think what makes our events special is that they really reflect our clients’ personalities and styles,” she says.
Raised in Los Angeles, Weiss loved to sit on the top of the staircase in her home when her parents threw a party and watch all the fun. "My mother was beyond creative, and my parents’ parties always had a theme,” she recalls. Weiss, who studied business and communications at San Diego State University and Cal State Northridge, credits her success to having a “wild imagination, patience and understanding for a vast amount of personalities and an inner calmness.” While she immediately gained five clients after throwing the birthday party for her original client, her first brush with celebrity occurred in 1997, when she planned the wedding of Brooke Shields and Andre Agassi. She got good press for her efforts in People magazine and, since then, has been the go-to wedding planner for the Hollywood set, with a resume that includes the weddings of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, Nicole Richie and Joel Madden, and Katy Perry and Russell Brand.
“I think client referral is the best way to get business,” she says, noting she loves nothing more than having repeat clients that make her feel like she has an “extended family.”
For other vendors, working within the wedding industry can often feel like an extended family because “you’re dealing with the same people over and over again,” observes Weinstock. “In all the hotels where I deliver cakes, I know the waiters and I also know all the florists and photographers. I’ll ask them about their families and we’ll complain about a lot of things together. This is an industry where you’re really sharing the same experience.”
And that experience, despite the long hours, complicated deliveries and stressful timelines, seems an ultimately joyous one. “At the end of the day, this business is all about celebrating,” says Weinstock.
Jawitz couldn’t agree more. “I can’t solve world hunger or create world peace but I can give someone a beautiful wedding,” she says. “I take very seriously the mitzvah of helping a bride and groom celebrate, and when someone calls me the day after their wedding to thank me for the beautiful flowers and the beautiful memories, I just about start crying.”
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Forget halls or hotels: Most of the weddings at which Adventure Rabbi Jamie Korngold officiates are in the great outdoors.