The New York designer with her heart in Israel

Like many Israeli artists, New York based Nili Lotan finds inspiration in conflict, but has found a unique medium for social change: the sartorial.

Nili Lotan (photo credit: Courtesy Nili Lotan)
Nili Lotan
(photo credit: Courtesy Nili Lotan)
In recent years, Israel’s walls have been causing quite the brouhaha. Two have transcended brick, mortar and security guards, becoming the country’s leading conflicts incarnate. The Western wall and the women at it have been stealing the headlines with questions of traditional religion in the modern state. Meanwhile, a younger partition serving as the apotheosis of the occupation – the Israeli West Bank barrier— was just dubbed “100 times more horrifying” than Berlin Wall by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. "Terrorist”, “apartheid”, "humanitarian crisis”, "security", "oppression”, “green line” and “ethnic cleansing" are words commonly associated with the former wall, but thanks to the work of one Israeli designer, we just might have another rather surprising one: “fashion.”
Like many Israeli artists, New York based Nili Lotan finds inspiration in conflict. In spring 2006, prompted by the Second Lebanon War, Lotan design
ed a gun print and slapped it on her silk charmeuse tee dresses and scarves as an “an anti-war protest.” That was just the beginning of what she calls “where fashion meets photo journalism.”
A week following the 2013 Boston shootings, Supermodel Karolina Kurkova stepped out onto Tribeca's cobblestone streets in Nili’s gun-print dress inciting roaring reproaches from the press.
Lotan admitted that despite the platitude, there is in fact bad PR. “The dress made in 2006 was a protest, against war after the Lebanon conflict, and had nothing to do with gun laws in the US. I don’t know if I would do it again.”
Maybe a gas mask? “That’s not sexy,” answers Lotan with a playful chuckle.
For fall 2009, Nili collaborated with Israeli photographer Ziv Koren, designing dresses with prints depicting the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 alongside images of the
Separation Wall in Jerusalem. Then in 2010, Nili teamed up with another Israeli photographer Raanan Cohen, selecting three locations redolent of the Middle East Conflict: The Tunnel Road (Kvish 60),the Gilo suburbs of Jerusalem, and the Separation Wall once again.
Since that first gun print, Nili has been combing through important images by photojournalists for shots capturing significant socio-political events. For Lotan, dresses have become a “canvas” on which she addresses social issues and most importantly hopes to start a conversation on change. “My mind is filled with thoughts on social and civil events. I find meaning in using these thoughts as textiles. This is definitely a product of growing up in Israel,” Lotan tells me in her Tribeca Manhattan studio.
She sits before me with arms crossed in her expansive white atelier, wearing a tank top, a biker jacket, fringed booties and skinny jeans suspended above her hips by a studded belt – all in black. The 50 something year old is channeling a rock star minimalist, exuding a certain strength only attained by Middle Eastern mothers.
Lotan’s sartorial prowess is obvious by the success of her clothing line of which she is both the creative director and the CEO — an anomaly in the polarized fashion industry. Here in New York her designs are sold in her two Tribeca boutiques or in Barneys and Scoop, stores not for the faint of wallet. Lotan’s creations can also be found in over 150 stores globally, on the pages of Vogue, while also on stars such as Reese Witherspoon, Heidi Klum, Selma Blair and Paris Hilton.
Before launching her eponymous line in 2003, Lotan worked in high positions behind the seams at Nautica, Ralph Lauren and Liz Claiborne. Now, she even boasts a collaboration with the preppy American company J.Crew. “For J.Crew it’s the cherry on top, for me, it’s opened me up to new markets. But we fit so well, because they’re not about any level — J.Crew is a lifestyle,” she explains while noting the contradiction between her own high scale line and the lower price point of her collaborator.
“Career wise I am very lucky I started here” she says. “I think that I fulfilled my career to the max, which probably would have been harder to do over in Israel.”
But Lotan didn’t leave Israel for her career. “I came for my first husband” she explains, trying to quell a torrent of laughter. “Wow I sound like every Jewish women – it’s like the first the second, the third….” I remind her that she only has two. “Well it’s just very funny when you say ‘the first.’ My first husband was actually a pilot in the Israeli air force, he came here to study and I joined him. I had no intention to pursue a big fashion career in New York” says the designer, who graduated from Tel Aviv’s Shenkar Shool School of Design. “My career then took off very quickly, to heights I didn’t expect.”
She claims after “30 years in NY, I’m clearly very influenced by the energy, the way people dress, and the art of this city, but there certainly is a component of my DNA influenced by my background.” Yet with her signature item being a military jacket and first clothing tags emblazoned with her military ID number, the Israeli influence seems to be most dominant.
“As much as I hate to say it, it (the army) is a big source. I mean you go to the army, your friends go to the army, and there is a war in the background constantly. You go to the streets and there are people walking around with guns. Unfortunately military is a part of your life. There is something about military dress that not only reminds me of home, but is very functional.” Since the army, Lotan has almost adopted a sartorial asceticism. “If I could there would be no button, snaps, no zippers, no clasps— nothing. I like the functionality of clothes; if I am doing a pocket or a zipper it might as well have a reason. This is what I like about uniforms in general, not just military. I like design with functionality, not just for the sake of design.” She crosses her arms and says matter-of-factly “when it comes to my clothing it is what it is.”
But the IDF influence doesn’t stop at form. The designer reveals: “I love the green of the military. Again, you could say that’s because I’ve seen it a lot. I also like blues because I grew up looking at the sea. Those are the two main colors I use — I mean here and there I use red a lot as an accent.”
Beyond colors and cut, Lotan clearly sets her own rules. While most of New York fashion displayed their Spring 2014 collections in September, Lotan opted out of the fashion week circus, deciding to present her new line on dancers in a performance set for October 10th. “There is this craziness during fashion week, then everyone leaves then comes back and wow - they all have time! So why squeeze with everyone else?” exclaims the designer.
Though graceful dancers stand in stark contrast to fatigues, both are tied to the same source. Months ago Lotan watched the Israeli dance company LeeSaar at the 92Y cultural institution and “fell in love.” “We created a beautiful short film on a dancer for my Maxi Cami, and when I saw LeeSaar’s company, I knew I had to get my clothing on dancers again.”
When it comes to the clothing in this performance however, Lotan couldn’t pinpoint one source of inspiration.
“I’m constantly being inspired. I don’t just see a beautiful picture on my wall, and let it inspire a collection. I used to work that way. Now, because I’m the CEO it’s a business art combination. I know where I am, I have a very clear vision of my style, and I design the collection to fit that vision. I start at the same place. I do create themes though which I repeat each season.” She walks over and points to a carroty tunic. “These two racks will be city chic, another two bohemian-army, bringing a feminine touch to the military grunge.” The rest she says, will be beach wear for the coming Spring 2014.
**While Lotan’s first husband might have hauled her out of Israel, her second one— multi-platinum Israeli singer-songwriter and activist David Broza — surely brought her back. “We’ve been married exactly two years. David proposed to me and I said yes!” The fair skinned Israeli bursts out in laughter.
“We really have an ideal lifestyle and marriage. When two artists feed off each other, inspire each other, at the same time, each already has an established point of view and career, no one is taking the place of the other: two different entities which want to be together.” Lotan looks down at the rings on her bony fingers before resuming. “David brought Israel back to me” she says.
The designer digresses to tell how she and David recently flew there just to see the old Israeli rock band Kaveret, in one of their comeback shows. “It was worth every penny and every hour in the airplane. I remember listening to them when I was 17. I certainly grew up with Kaveret” she recalls.
Nonetheless, to others, their arrangement might seem less than ideal. “We split our time. My goal is to be a week a month in Israel and for David it depends on his tours. Like this week he has shows in Israel for Succot so I’m going there, he was here two weeks prior to that. He’s on average two weeks here, two weeks there, he splits his time, he has a lot of shows, in South America, the US and Europe so I travel a lot with him.”
Even their marriage was an international affair. Nili and David threw shindigs for their closest friends and colleagues in New York, Tel Aviv and even east Jerusalem.
“Very unusual no? An Israeli wedding in east Jerusalem?” Lotan asks. “It was actually at a Palestinian establishment and we invited all our Palestinian friends,” the designer explains as her voice rises an octave. “Then we had a party in Madrid for our friends there, and we keep on going— the party never ends. It’s a reflection of our life, because we are constantly between those places and we spend a lot of time in east Jerusalem. David is much more involved so he spends more time there than I do. He’s there quite a lot. Actually, he just recorded an album in east Jerusalem which will come out in February, and also filmed a film there. He’s very involved.”
But between South America, Spain, America and east Jerusalem, where does this Jaffa-born international designer actually call home? “Home in the heart will always be Israel; there is no question about it. Sometimes I shock people at dinner when I say no matter what I call Israel home. They’re like ‘you’ve been gone for thirty years; you have nothing to do with it!’ Physically my home is in New York: my kids, interests and my business. I’m inspired here. New York is my city, but I long for Israel, the beach, the views. I’m sure I will go back, I just don’t know when. Maybe I’ll go back with the aron, in the coffin,” she says with a smile.
“One day I will be there, I’ll for sure be buried in Israel. It’s funny why would you even think about it—but I do. I feel like there is my home, my land. I’m first generation in Israel, my parents were holocaust survivors so I feel a certain responsibility of being there, and because I’m not, I always feel like I should go back there. It’s an internal thing.”
Before leaving, Lotan discloses her latest project, which of course carries an oh-so familiar theme. “I’m actually going to Israel tomorrow. I’m launching a jewelry line with Beduin women of Segev Shalom. That’s a whole story in and of itself.”