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Electric Company

Los Angeles-Based Designer Nony Tochterman of Petro Zillia Likes It Loud

March 14, 2004|Heather John

Nony Tochterman isn't afraid of color. But then you wouldn't be if your hair was cotton candy pink. Or tangerine. Or fuchsia. The 37-year-old Israeli designer and founder of Petro Zillia changes her look almost as often as people change socks. "I like to reinvent myself," Tochterman says. "I like to keep moving on. And I like to do that with clothes."

But keep in mind that Tochterman doesn't take herself too seriously. "I love fashion, and I have an amazing passion for it," she says. "But it's only fashion. We're not curing cancer here. Fashion is a luxury, so it's got to be fun, something you can indulge yourself with, something that makes you happy."

Her designs have been compared with Missoni's, as both make lavish use of multicolored knits. But the Petro Zillia label is more akin to a rebellious teenage sister of the more mature Italian fashion house. Tochterman's pieces might be hand-crocheted or loomed, patchworked or trimmed with dyed lace, pompoms or ribbon. Layers of ruffles, psychedelic colors, vintage rickrack and big buttons are regulars in the Petro Zillia lineup, which ranges from peasant hippie to graphic mod depending on the season and whim. When designing, Tochterman frequently experiments with Pantone color chips--grouping unexpected combinations such as burgundy, melon and lilac, or mustard, orange and gray.

Tochterman's muse is an elusive creature. "She's an imaginary friend," the designer says. As the program for Petro Zillia's spring 2004 fashion show recounts, inspiration comes from the fictional Lulu Bratzzo, a sort of Forrest Gump of fashion who "held the age of 29 captive" and guided friends Norma Jean, Jackie O, David Bowie and Debbie Harry, among others, through Studio 54, the Russian Tea Room and the California gubernatorial race.

For her fall 2004 collection, which debuts on March 29 during Los Angeles Fashion Week, the designer has abandoned Lulu Bratzzo in favor of a feminized Duke Ellington, and moved from the '60s, '70s and '80s to a jazz-era aesthetic with a sort of Cotton Club meets the Electric Company vibe. Knit neckties with stripes and metallics pair with feminine suits and silhouettes. "I'm really into shirts and ties this season," she says. "But you can mix them up with skirts and color to make it more girlie."

Tochterman founded Petro Zillia, which means parsley in Hebrew, in 1997 with Yosi Drori, her husband and business partner of 16 years. But her foray into fashion began as a child in Tel Aviv, where her mother owned a fashionable boutique. She was 6 when the Yom Kippur War started and the army drafted her father, so she and her mother stayed with a friend in Herzliya until it was safe to return to Tel Aviv. "During those few days to keep me busy, my mom's friend taught me how to knit," she says. "I've loved it ever since." She began crafting clothes for dolls, and even made a few pieces to sell in her mother's store.

At 14, Tochterman moved to Los Angeles with her family, and by 20 was living in Manhattan, where she and Drori founded an accessories line called Nony New York. The company manufactured clip-on button covers that--if you recall the oversize buttons that were a late '80s craze--filled a market niche until the trend died, and in 1995 the couple closed the company. "I know when to hold'em and when to fold'em," she says. "We'd worked very hard and had been very lucky, but we knew it was time to try something different."

About the time they closed the button cover business, Tochterman became pregnant with their son, and the couple started thinking about ventures outside New York. During a vacation in St. Martin, they found a hotel in need of repair, made an offer and sold their Manhattan apartment. Two days before closing escrow on the property, Hurricane Luis hit, devastating the island and leaving Tochterman, Drori and their infant son, Etai, homeless. "We took that as a sign," she says, and they headed for Los Angeles to stay with her parents.

A Santa Monica bungalow, just blocks from the beach, caught their eye. It was different from their gallery-like Manhattan loft and represented a fresh start. "Everywhere you look you'll see a different detail or you see a different color," Tochterman says of the house, though she could just as easily be describing her fall collection. "Of course, the guy who painted our house wanted to kill us." The house is an extension of Petro Zillia, with animal-print carpets, patterned wallpaper, pop art, flea market finds and faux fur furniture.

It's a tight-knit family, with Drori the "anchor" of the creative duo, their son Etai, now 9, pursuing drawing at school, and daughter Romie, 5--whose closet contains miniature Petro Zillia replicas--chiming in on what Mom should wear. "I'm raising a fashion victim," the designer jokes. Even Tochterman's father gets involved. "We ordered the zebra and leopard carpets for our home and office from my dad, who's in the carpet business, and they arrived at his warehouse a couple of weeks before they were ready to be installed," she says. "His customers would ask, 'Who's the nut case who ordered these carpets?' He'd say, 'I have no idea.' "

Despite her affection for her colorful, eclectic home and studio, even Tochterman needs a break. "It's the best feeling," she says. "You get up in the morning and go into a white bathroom, and it's like a clean slate. Then you can start shifting through moods and colors and textures."

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