Nili Lotan, Designer Labeled as Gigi Hadid's 'Secret Weapon,' Embraces Her Israeli Roots

Vogue called her ‘Gigi Hadid’s secret style weapon.’ Jennifer Aniston says her designs would have been loved by her fashionista 'Friends' character Rachel Greene. New York designer Nili Lotan is quietly building an empire – and she has big plans for Tel Aviv

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Nili Lotan.
Nili Lotan. Credit: Gil Lavie
Liroy Choufan
Liroy Choufan

When Nili Lotan sweeps into the flower-filled patio of a Tel Aviv bar in spiked heels, it’s hard to miss her entrance. The Israeli-born designer, who has worked in New York for the last two decades, is dressed in what is sometimes called a “Texas tuxedo” – flared sky-blue jeans that make her slender silhouette even taller and leaner, and a matching denim shirt with tailoring reminiscent of Wild West cowboy shirts. Around her waist is a wide black leather belt with a massive gold buckle. And all this is topped by a mane of curly, energetic hair that frames her appearance like a black halo.

In other words, Nili Lotan looks exactly like Nili Lotan, as anyone who has met her or who follows her on Instagram can attest. Lotan always looks like this, dressed in her own designs, and there’s nothing unusual about her appearance this time. Nothing, that is, except the purse she carries – a rather old one, bearing the tiny logo of the French fashion house Lanvin, where Alber Elbaz was chief designer from 2001 to 2015.

“I always carry my own bags, but I wanted to honor Alber,” she said, sounding almost embarrassed about this homage to the Moroccan-Israeli designer who died of COVID-19 complications on April 24, a week before Lotan’s trip to Israel.

“Honestly, I’ve had it in my closet for more than 10 years,” she added, pointing to the handbag. “Suddenly, it became right for me.”

This symbolic act doesn’t necessarily mean that Elbaz and Lotan were close friends, even though they both studied fashion design at the same school – Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art, in Ramat Gan – two years apart, in the 1980s, and both moved to New York after that. If anything, it reflects the recognition that they were both members of the same small circle of Israeli ambassadors to the international world of fashion. And one more thing as well.

“I wasn’t in contact with him, but he had a captivating personality,” she told Haaretz. “I admired him. We all admired him as somebody who ‘made it.’ But I also think we shared the same approach: that you shouldn’t take fashion too seriously. Fashion is creativity and energy combined with practicality; it’s not just for art. Ultimately, the clothes have to serve a woman. And what was beautiful about him – and it’s hard for men to achieve this – was that he understood this and loved women.”

Nevertheless, there are quite a few substantive differences between the two: For Elbaz, New York was just the starting point for a career in Europe known for an excessive fondness for red carpets, fur coats and models with smoky eyes waking up in the Hotel Costes in Paris.

Alber Elbaz.Credit: Jacques Brinon / AP

In contrast, Lotan, who was born 64 years ago in Netanya (“a small town near Tel Aviv,” as she has explained time and again in interviews), made her way in the American industry with brands known for jeans and casual attire – until in 2004, when she launched her eponymous brand in the heart of Manhattan and began to amass a list of clients that includes Gigi Hadid and Rihanna. Five years before the recent eruption of fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Vogue magazine even ran an article headlined “Nili Lotan is Gigi Hadid’s secret style weapon” – a reference to the super-model wearing typical Lotan designs, which reflect clear bohemian and military influences.

Lotan, who switches constantly between Hebrew and English during the interview, is a designer with a pragmatic American approach and a soul she would undoubtedly call Israeli. Until the eruption of the coronavirus pandemic, she was generally visiting Israel once a month, as a result of her serious relationship with singer David Broza, which has been going on for more than a decade. She also has a solid circle of local friends.

Consequently, not only does Israel crop up again and again during our conversation, but she speaks in a typically Israeli direct, frank and unapologetic manner. This was evident in her interview this April with The Cut. When the interviewer asked her to name one fashion trend that she didn’t understand, she violated all the laws of social etiquette in the fashion world by replying “Bottega Veneta quilted bags.”

Afterward, she recalled, almost laughing, stylist Simon Elmalem said to her, “You’re crazy! Who says something like that about Bottega?” The puffy handbags, with their bold colors, have become one of the most popular items among online influencers in the last year.

Lotan: “I said: ‘Simon, I didn’t insult them, I hope.’ I spoke my truth, and I’ll tell you what I don’t understand. The fact that there’s now an attraction to color – I get that 100 percent. I think there’s an emotional explanation for that. Even I have a kind of need to dress myself in a whole spectrum beyond black today. And it’s possible that in the eyes of the people who buy the Bottega bag, it looks very nice. I’m not dismissing that.

“But to me, based on my rulebook as to what is chic and stylish, it doesn’t work. Everything about it is extroverted. Everything about it is big. The color screams. And me? I think it is the woman who should shine. Not her bag, not her clothes. For me, clothing is a tool to empower the woman.”

Rihanna, one of Lotan’s high-profile clients. Credit: Joel C Ryan/ Invision / AP

That’s unusual talk, especially coming from an American designer. Having interviewed quite a few, I can testify that they usually don’t say much about anything. Aren’t you afraid to say things so directly?

Lotan: “No. Nor do I have a problem if someone says, about me, ‘I don’t understand what she’s doing; it’s boring.’ I’m not afraid of that. What do I care? Let them say whatever they want. I always say that I design for myself, in a very selfish way. Anyone who wants the same is more than welcome; anyone who doesn’t, that’s fine, too. I’m not doing this for the money, but because I have a kind of design language that’s expressed in the way I dress, the houses I live in, my stores – everything I do. This is me. And I’m happy to share it with anyone who’s interested. But that doesn’t mean mine is better [than Bottega]. I’m not saying that. The fact is their bag has sold like mad, and mine perhaps less so.”

‘An expert in something’

For someone who isn’t in it for the money, Lotan has developed quite a flourishing commercial enterprise. And while many designers excel on the artistic side but are weak on the financial side, or vice versa – she wears both hats quite well.

Eighteen years after launching her brand abroad, she has three New York-area stores featuring her own namesake label – one in the Hamptons and two in Manhattan, one of which also houses her studio. Her clothes are also sold in 350 stores across the United States, Europe and the Far East, including some of the world’s most prestigious department stores.

Even though she says her company has grown by about 50 percent on average every year since she opened, Lotan is still its owner, controlling the entire business side of the venture, while also controlling its entire artistic side, as well still working as a designer herself.

“There’s nothing like the feeling that you’ve managed to become an expert in something,” she said, referring to the long road she has traveled since arriving in New York. Along the way she held several fairly low-level positions before rising to a senior management job at Liz Claiborne. She spent six years at that company, known for its popular designs for working women.

Next, Lotan crossed the line and found herself designing for men, under the brand of another American icon: Ralph Lauren. She subsequently went on to become a senior designer of women’s wear for Nautica, before deciding that she was ready to put her own name on the tags on her clothes.

Lotan’s work in the U.S. fashion industry, which is considered sportier and more accessible than its European counterpart, and the fact that she also specialized in men’s attire, undoubtedly helped her define her own design language. Her clothes are easy to wear, gimmick-free and are mostly suitable for leisure activities or simply strolling in a bustling metropolis. Stylistically, her items – among them light-colored, comfortable jeans, crocheted and lace shirts made of cotton, or fringed leather coats of a type the singer Cher would warmly adopt – resonate with her childhood here in the 1970s. On the other hand, both the army and the male wardrobe are honorably represented in the form of crisp button-down shirts and khaki colors.

Lotan has zealously stuck with her design mix over the years and is suspicious about passing trends, with the result that some items of hers have become very identifiable. Identified or not, her clothes are quite pricey – hundreds of shekels for a T-shirt and a few thousand for a coat or handbag of her design – a result of their relatively small-scale manufacture, which takes place for the most part in the United States using materials imported from Italy.

The fact that Lotan’s clothes are easy to wear and yet also possess the requisite luxury cachet, is what paved her a path to the hearts of Manhattan women and from there to the closets of notable celebrities. And if Vogue linked her name to that of Gigi Hadid five years ago, more recently it was the actress Jennifer Aniston who, ahead of the touted reunion episode of “Friends,” told People magazine that Rachel Green, her fashionista character in the television series, would certainly have initiated a fashion line like that of Nili Lotan in due course.

Jennifer Aniston.Credit: AP

But the idea of consistency extends to more than Lotan’s designs: For the entire 18 years of her brand’s existence she has maintained a uniform managerial approach and is insistent about enlarging the company in a controlled way.

“I was profitable from the first moment, and the company remains profitable today,” she says, expounding on her philosophy, which seeks the middle road between beauty and practicality. Some will say that this is why she is quite a cautious designer – and her wearable clothes could perhaps be seen as too basic or everyday – but Lotan thinks otherwise.

“Profitability comes from very simple math: what the revenues are and what the costs are,” she explains. “It doesn’t have to do with creating one item of apparel or another, or with attire that I don’t like. Commerce does not contradict art or beauty. There’s an approach that goes, ‘If I do something I love, I won’t make a lot of money.’ But it’s not the case. You can do what you love and be profitable. It’s absolutely possible.”

But we’re in the fashion industry, so you need pretty bombastic designs to get attention, no?

“Look, it’s terribly hard to do what I do, to cling to the values I espouse. But I am honest about what I like and what I don’t like. I don’t let myself get dragged into fashion styles that are temporary. Because then I wouldn’t like myself – I would look back and say: ‘What was I thinking?’”

Still, the world of fashion likes to be in the present, which is why it loves trends so much. Don’t you have a fear of becoming irrelevant? Because time passes.

“And pass it will,” she laughs. “Which is fine. Each person has their time. I’ve had to define myself, what I have to offer. As a designer, if I put my name on the product, then it’s very worthwhile for me to have a solid point of view. I am not here in order to sell the trend of the moment. If that were the case, I wouldn’t call it Nili. Having called it Nili Lotan, I am committed, at the most intimate level, to be true and to be connected to Nili. Yves Saint Laurent was connected to Yves Saint Laurent, and therefore he did what he did. My influences are my childhood, it’s the fashion I saw in the 1970s – it’s the desert and the sea, it’s my mother and my father. It’s Nili. Why would I be afraid of not being relevant? I live and breathe, I move ahead with the world. Obviously I will be relevant. I have no fear. I am not a coward.”

Pandemic streamlining

When we spoke on Zoom before this meeting, you began to talk about the coronavirus and about all the changes you underwent in its wake.

“The coronavirus was good for us, in the final analysis – for me and for many businesses. Also for those who shut down due to the disease, because they apparently needed to shut down; probably something wasn’t working and they needed to start over. On the first day of the lockdown, I turned my home into a war room. I called my accountant and asked: ‘What do I need to do in order to survive? By how much do we think my business will decline?’ I was in the midst of production for the Fall 2020 season – I manufacture 90 percent of the collection in the United States – and I wanted to understand what sort of fall in sales we could expect, so that I could adjust production. I received a situation report from all the stores we work with. In the end, sales fell less than expected and I had a stock shortage. In the final analysis, the change caused by the coronavirus manifested not in terms of sales but in the order of priorities.”

What do you mean?

“I streamlined the company in a way that wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the coronavirus. I went from person to person, department to department, and asked them to describe their work processes so I could understand what they were doing. Suddenly I saw people zipping past me in the studio there, and I would ask, ‘Who’s that?’ It’s a small company, and I realized that something was wrong. Because when I set out to start the company, I wanted to meet not only everyone in it, but their life partners as well. That interests me. And now I realized that something had slipped by me here, that some work practices had arisen that didn’t suit me or my point of view. I replaced a large number of employees; my whole management staff is new. Not because they weren’t good before. They were wonderful – but only up to a point. I had to move on with others.”

One of the changes fomented by the pandemic is that Lotan’s company has become almost all-female. “We always had women in the company, but we never had so many in management. I decided that I had to let go – that if I wanted to develop the company, I need to let people with better knowledge than mine do their jobs. And then, as part of the process of finding new managers, I brought in mostly women.”

What does that mean in practice?

“I would say that of the 65 people who work at headquarters, 90 percent are now women.”

Does it make a difference that you now have a female majority in management?

“I don’t think it matters too much,” she says, pauses momentarily to reflect, and continues, “I think that first of all I have a sensitive spot for women. Mothers. There’s a place in me that wants very much to give them the space to develop themselves. I think that even today, still today, women find it difficult – compared to men – to fully realize their skills, because they have this double responsibility of motherhood and career. That’s the way it is. We give birth. Clearly there are marriages of all types today, and having children is done in a variety of ways, and there are fathers who are identical to mothers, as it were. But there are more women [in the dual role].”

And for yourself and for those who work for you, do you think you have found the mix that combines professional and private life?

“The first thing I heard when I started to work at Liz Claiborne, was ‘Are you married?’ I said I was, and then the interviewer asked, ‘Do you have kids?’ I told her I did, and she asked: ‘So how do you intend to do this?’ I had the challenge of proving that even though I am a mother, and even though I am married, I can be as good as my talent allows. I had another problem back when I worked in a very large company and I gave birth. I wanted to breastfeed. Breastfeeding is limiting; you need to be home at certain times. All the inventions we have today didn’t exist then. So I asked for that flexibility. It didn’t make me less of a designer. It didn’t make me less loyal, less industrious. I wanted to find the fusion of motherhood and self-potential. I asked them to give me that option. But they didn’t. They made things tough for me.”

Models photographed in Israel wearing designs from Lotan’s 2021 spring collection. Credit: Simon Elmalem

That was the only point in the interview, which was conducted at a cheerful pace against a background of clinking glasses of cold soda water and an orange-flavored old fashioned, that Lotan, a mother of three, lost something of her cool tone of her voice, and turned emotional.

“I believe that my vocation is not only to make clothes but to empower women. To give women this place, this space, in which it’s all right. If you need to breastfeed, then breastfeed. If you need to go to the school to speak with a teacher, that’s all right. I know that you will make it up to me, because it’s important for you to do the work with the maximum that you can. It’s a matter of give and take. I believe we all have the desire to be the best we can be, and to serve the goal for which we spend the whole day there, damn it. I believe that when you give a person freedom of choice and flexibility, he pays you back. He pays it back to himself. I know from myself that when people were hard on me, I said, ‘You know what? I don’t want to work for you.’ It’s important for me that in places where I didn’t get that reinforcement, I myself will provide the support.”

Does it work?

“Look, it’s hard to say. But there’s something about the idea that when you’re a mother and you know that at 5 P.M. you have to go home, then you do the work. You don’t go for eight coffee breaks, because you know you’ll need to leave. And if you want this job, you have to do what needs to be done. And that’s also true for men, of course. In my generation, the domestic tasks simply landed on women. Today it’s a bit more balanced.”

Tribeca-Tel Aviv

The change toward a more female management in her company was not the only transformation Lotan undertook during the pandemic. Today she is about to embark on a series of significant steps which, if all goes well, will propel her toward consolidating her company’s status as an international fashion house. At the end of June, she will launch a capsule collection together with the popular sports brand Champion. In recent years Champion has penetrated public awareness thanks to its collaborations with a series of designers and fashion houses that are considered trendsetters in the industry, among them Rick Owens, Coach and street-fashion brands Supreme and Off-White.

Models photographed in Israel wearing designs from Lotan’s 2021 spring collection. Credit: Simon Elmalem

Lotan: “It started by chance through [American designer] Todd Snyder, who’s a friend. He told me that he was collaborating with them in men’s fashions, and that they were looking for a designer of prestige women’s fashion. I spoke with the CEO of Champion at the start of the pandemic, and then throughout the coronavirus we didn’t speak,” she reveals.

But in March, after the world started to dream of a post-lockdown life, the conditions began to gel, and the collaboration – Lotan’s first ever with another brand – was conceived.

“It’s a collection that’s different from all their previous collaborations,” she says. “It’s a lifestyle collection, not one of sports apparel. I integrated their activewear with my collection; I used the iconic items from my collection and mixed them with theirs.”

The collaboration, featuring outfits in black and white, and a military parka of vast dimensions, is faithful to her pseudo-male style. The price range is commensurate with her brand, reflecting the use of Italian textiles and meticulous craftsmanship (“We manufacture in the factory that manufactures for Celine and Saint Laurent”).

“I told the CEO I’m interested in producing athletic clothing because I am very athletic myself,” she says, explaining why the joint effort with Champion attracted her, even though she usually doesn’t design apparel of this sort herself. “I am at the gym every day. The whole time of the coronavirus I had video sessions with my Israeli trainer, an hour a day. That’s what gives me vitality and energy.”

But Lotan is also a businesswoman, and as such understands that this is an important economic opportunity. After all, collaborations between brands, in which the one riffs off the reputation of the other, have become a widespread strategy in recent years, and one of the best ways to attract public attention. “We are doing insane PR around this,” she says candidly.

Collaborations are also a proven way to reach new target audiences, and in this connection Lotan has more plans.

“It’s funny,” she continues, “but just as the CEO of Champion called me, someone else called and told me that a large, popular American retailer wanted to collaborate with me. ‘That’s really funny,’ I said to her. ‘I’ve never done a collaboration before, and suddenly it arrives from two different directions.’” Although she can’t divulge additional details, she hints that if everything goes as planned, in another few months she will launch a capsule collection at a price range on the lower side of the barrier.

“I am still the only designer in the company. I have a technical department that develops my designs, but I design everything alone. At some stage that will have to change, because I’ll drown,” she says, laughing.

And that is not all: Along with the new projects – and the launch of new lines, such as a collection of leather bags and accessories – Lotan’s brand is heading for major expansion: Her three brand stores in New York will be joined by three new ones. “Between June and September I’m opening stores in Aspen and Palm Beach, and by the end of the year we’ll have a store in Los Angeles,” she reveals.

And then, after a short pause, she adds, “And maybe also in Tel Aviv.”

You know, it’s surprising that your international expansion will be here, too, because Israel isn’t known for its luxury fashion market. Why open in Tel Aviv?

“I see my brand as Tel Aviv-New York, Tribeca-Tel Aviv. I really see it like that. I feel that I owe it [to the city], that there’s so much of Israel in what I do I do that it’s simply a logical step. Even if it seems to be not logical. By the way, 20 percent of my buyers on the website are Israelis. Very surprising. Not to mention my followers on social media.”

The commitment to her origins that Lotan talks about exists in practice, too. Unlike other Israeli designers who are active in the international arena, for her Israel is present in everything she does. Even though hers is a New York brand, visitors to her website will see clothes from her 2021 summer collection photographed against the background of the Hilton Beach in Tel Aviv. On her Instagram account she always posts photos from Tel Aviv or of her outings with Broza; she has worked for years with Israeli talents, among them stylist Simon Elmalem and photographer Dudi Hasson; in the past her army I.D. number appeared on the labels of her clothes; and some of her designs are clearly influenced by local fashion trends. Although Lotan did manage to return to New York just before the situation in Israel flared up during the recent army operation in the Gaza Strip, there is no doubt that the next question is called for:

Do you feel comfortable externalizing the Israeliness? Do you get ricochets?

“Look, I am not getting into politics. I don’t know if anyone ever asked you to define yourself in four words. As for me, the first two things I say are: ‘Israeli’ and then ‘mom.’ Before I say ‘designer’ or anything else. Because I truly feel that this is what defines me. I am first generation [born] in Israel. My parents are Europeans who immigrated here after the war. I think I was formed in Israel. All my [aesthetic] references derive from Israel. They are not necessarily Israeli in themselves, but they happened when I was here. My values are the ones I received from school, the Scouts, the army, Maccabi [sports club], groups of friends, family. I am very proud of that. I think that my parents went through a lot to get here. I didn’t steal from anyone, I didn’t take anything from anyone. Obviously there is the other side, which harbors feelings of anger toward us, but as for me – as an individual – my parents found a haven here. And they raised me free and happy. This is my home. Whether I am the owner of this home – that’s already another story. I am not the owner. I can’t say ‘This belongs to me,’ but I am an Israeli. What am I if not an Israeli?”

By the end of the interview the Tel Aviv sun that greeted us in the afternoon had already gone down. “Look at all the people here,” she says about the packed bar. “As if there were no coronavirus.”

Lotan picks up her small black bag and hurries to another meeting, for which she’s already late. “So maybe we won’t just have David Broza performing only at Masada,” I say jokingly just before we get up from the table, when Lotan – a well-known fashion-show avoider – mentions that she suddenly has a yen to do a show – in Israel.

“Maybe,” she says, her eyes glinting for an instant. Then she thinks for a second and adds, “It could well be. David will play, and I will show.”

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