Parked in the entranceway
of Petro Zillia’s Van Nuys factory is a beach cruiser that any little girl would trade all her Barbies for: It’s got fat pink-and-green-rimmed tires, multicolored pompoms bouncing from the handlebars, a wicker basket lined with polka-dot fabric, and rainbows splashed all over the frame. It looks like the kind of bike Willy Wonka would have dreamed up, but the thing is, this bicycle is built for big girls. Welcome to the world of Petro Zillia, where age really ain’t nothin’ but a number.

“The older I get,” says the line’s designer, Nony Tochterman, a pink-haired mother of two who will be 40 this year, “the more of a believer I am that you are as old as you feel.” Since the Israeli-born Tochterman and her husband, Yosi, launched Petro Zillia (which means “parsley” in Hebrew) in 1996, the line has become synonymous with fun, colorful clothes that are sexy without taking themselves too seriously. Although her trademark patchwork knits, flirty sundresses, short shorts and eye-popping patterned silks are often seen on chic young actresses like Mischa Barton and Zooey Deschanel, Tochterman says she doesn’t design for any particular age group. “I don’t describe my customer by her physical age; it’s really by her spiritual age. . . . Some of my customers are in their teens, some are in their 40s, 50s and 60s.”

Photo by Davis Factor

The daughter of a fashion designer, Tochterman grew up around cutting tables and sewing machines, and developed a passion for knitting at an early age. She never had any formal fashion training, however. “I went to the school of life,” says the designer, who launched a successful accessories business in New York with her husband and was planning to open a hotel in the Caribbean when a devastating hurricane blew them and their baby son back to Los Angeles. Clearly, fate knew what she was doing. That was 10 years ago, and last fall Petro Zillia was honored with the first L.A. Fashion Awards’ top prize — beating out nominees including design darlings Louis Verdad and Trovata.

Looking at the quality of the fabrics and the beautiful cuts of the clothes, evocative of the strong, feminine styles of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, it’s easy to see why the fashion world would embrace Petro Zillia. But what really sets the line apart is Tochterman’s sunny, whimsical spirit, which gets expressed in sweet details like heart-shaped elbow patches on a fitted jacket, or a silky cloud pattern lining the inside of a spring coat — “so you can say, ‘I’m walking in the clouds,’” smiles the designer without a hint of irony.

She obviously loves what she does and considers herself lucky to be doing it, but Tochterman is quick to note that her chosen field is, in the end, just fashion. “I try not to take myself too seriously, not to take this business too seriously,” she says. “But if I can do my little thing by bringing a few smiles to a few people’s faces or making some women feel good about themselves or about how they look, then great!”

Tochterman’s 7-year-old daughter, Romie, is probably the designer’s youngest client. The budding fashionista greets me at the family’s Santa Monica home in a mini Petro Zillia hot-pink leopard-print cashmere hoodie, a green T-shirt and jeans. “Paris was wearing the same outfit as me today,” she announces, referring to another of the designer’s devotees, Paris Hilton. Then she starts doing the robot, singing AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” I ask Romie if I can peek inside her closet and she leads me by the hand to her room, sliding open a door to reveal an explosion of color, netting, lace and flowers. It’s like princesses gone wild, and I don’t know who might be more jealous, Romie’s classmates or me.

“She’s a diva in the making,” says her mother with a grin, telling me that Romie knows exactly what pieces she wants from each season’s collection. “She gives me orders, are you kidding? She looks at the look book and she says, ‘I want this, I want this.’ But I’m not gonna make her everything she wants. . . . I’m not going to make her a couture dress. She tries, though.”

And who can blame her, especially when her mom’s most recent couture collection was directly inspired by the characters of Alice in Wonderland. At Petro Zillia’s fantastical spring 2006 Fashion Week closing party, which took place in lieu of a runway show, Alice wore a white lace dress with a full, pale blue skirt; Tweedledum and Tweedledee were, fittingly, in tweed; the Cheshire Cat slinked around in strapless purple satin stripes; and the Queen of Hearts wore a red crocheted collar and had a tiny playing card glued to her cheek. Thanks to a licensing deal with Disney, the fall 2006 ready-to-wear collection will further delve into Wonderland, albeit in a more subtle, “grown-up” way. “There are so many spectrums of color and different directions,” enthuses Tochterman, who says the Disney film was always one of her favorites as a child. “I’m really enjoying traveling through it.”

Unlike most L.A. designers who are frantically putting the finishing touches on their fall collections, Tochterman is taking her time, instead focusing her energies on House of Petro Zillia, the company’s flagship store, which will open early this summer in the former Shambhala Meditation Center in West Hollywood. “Yes!” she says excitedly. “Good vibes!” She tells me that there is a beautiful garden in back where she plans to host tea parties.

A lifestyle store, House of Petro Zillia will carry the full retail line in addition to carefully selected lingerie, hosiery, shoes, handbags, custom jewelry and the vintage furniture and housewares her husband has been obsessively collecting on eBay and restoring. The shop will also sell Petro Zillia’s brand-new line of sunglasses. “I don’t want to just be the icing on the cake,” declares Tochterman, who is considering lavender for her next hair color. “I want to be the cake.”

LA Weekly