American sportswear designer retains Israeli roots

J.Crew recently joined clamor for Nili Lotan’s bare basics. Netanya native reveals how her mother country influenced her "quiet language".

September 7, 2011 21:05
4 minute read.
Nili Lotan

Nili Lotan 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The striped boyfriend sweater and other Nili Lotan pieces handpicked by J.Crew for its stores this year are classic examples of the Israeli fashion designer’s starkly simple high-end basics. Nothing bright or splashy here. And that has something to do with her origins.

“Where you spend your childhood and youth really dominates who you are in everything you do, from motherhood to friendship to career,” Lotan says.

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“Growing up in the aesthetics I did, the magazines and art and fashion I was exposed to definitely affected my taste. I am an American sportswear designer, but I have a quiet language. I don’t use a lot of color like you see in many American lines.”

Sartorial evidence of her background also comes out in fabrics she began designing after the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. Lotan’s gun-print T-dresses and scarves were snapped up immediately by Beirut’s top boutique.

Lotan scours photojournalists’ depictions of socio-political symbols she can use, from the Vietnam-Woodstock era to the Berlin Wall to the separation barrier in Jerusalem. A Bob Dylan-inspired print will soon appear in her collection. “Thoughts go through my mind having to do with social and political events, and I find it interesting to use them as ideas for a fabric. That would not have happened if I grew up here [in New York].”

Though her home and business are in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, “I have very strong ties to Israel,” Lotan stresses. She visits her fiancé, singer-songwriter David Broza, in Tel Aviv every month.

The founder of the label that’s sought after by the likes of Paris Hilton, Martha Stewart, Demi Moore and Reese Witherspoon was born Nili Shapira in Netanya.

“I was always drawing,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to end up in something artistic.”

Serving out her two years of mandatory military service in the Israeli Air Force as a social services coordinator, she married a pilot. Though they later divorced, she and their three children bear his surname. The couple lived at an IAF base while she commuted to classes at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Tel Aviv from 1977 to 1980.

“Fashion in Israel was not very developed then,” she relates.

“I was in Shenkar’s first year as a recognized academic institute, and we were only about 11 people in the fashion department.”

RIGHT AFTER graduation, and her husband’s discharge, they left for New York.

Lotan took drawing classes at the Parsons School of Design and landed a job with a woman who was pioneering business between US clothing manufacturers and Asian factories. Through her travels, she learned the manufacturing side of the fashion trade.

Marking time by the arrival of her kids, Lotan relates that for several years before and after daughter Ellie was born, she worked for knitwear designer Adrienne Vittadini.

Six months after giving birth to Jonathan, she became a vice president at Liz Claiborne, where she dreamed up the successful Liz & Co division. Following a short maternity break with Mia, now 15, Lotan joined the menswear division of Ralph Lauren.

“Then I moved to Nautica, where I started a new business for women. Maybe three years later, the founder, David Chu, suggested I do my own line and said he would back me financially. So I did. We didn’t continue together, but he gave me the strength to start the business.”

It wasn’t hard to conceptualize the Nili Lotan look. “Honestly, every designer designs with herself in mind. You can tell from my collection what I like and don’t like.”

The Nili Lotan Studio and Space address is 188 Duane Street, a number that gave rise to her 18-8 sweater collection. “In Hebrew, the number 18 is auspicious as it is a spiritual number in Judaism and it has come to represent life. The single ‘8’ represents the number of perfection, infinity.”

Lotan’s creations are made locally, using fine Italian and Japanese fabrics. Her clothing is pricier than J.Crew’s, but the popular retailer detected a similar “language” that would appeal to its customers, Lotan explains.

“They chose pieces from my collection that work with theirs.”

In addition to Lotan’s Tribeca retail store, her pieces are sold in upscale American, European and Japanese boutiques, in addition to Beirut and over the Internet.

All of this keeps her so busy that in late July she still had no notion what she’d wear to her wedding on an undisclosed date in September.

She and Broza share a house in Tel Aviv and an apartment in Manhattan.

“We’ll have the wedding in New York, and then a party in Israel,” she says – after she’s wrapped up working on her spring collection.

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