Up in Arms

Next spring women in Manhattan could be wearing dresses, skirts and blouses, or even underwear, emblazoned with rifles, submachine guns and pistols.

NEW YORK - Next spring women in Manhattan could be wearing dresses, skirts and blouses, or even underwear, emblazoned with rifles, submachine guns and pistols. The fashionable woman looking for a slightly more refined message will have an alternative: dresses with oil-well prints, which will go nicely with U.S. Army-issue water canteen belts accessorized with silver buckles.

The designer behind this arms-print collection is Nili Lotan, an American-Israeli and a familiar figure on the American fashion scene. Until two years ago she usually worked behind the scenes with designers such as Ralph Lauren and Liz Claiborne, but now Lotan has her own label.

To judge from the fashion press, Lotan is doing well: her collection was recently written up in Marie Claire, Vogue, Women's Wear Daily, The New York Times and New York magazine. "I'm sick of drawing flowers, circles and stripes, and decided to look for graphic shapes that would express my experiences," says Lotan, explaining the rationale behind her new collection, which will be presented in January 2007. "This is not about a protest, but rather an expression of what I feel. I want to stimulate women to think. What's happening around the world today bothers me. What's happening in Israel and the Middle East bothers me even more. I was in Israel for a week during the war in Lebanon, and I am very worried. Still, I thought up the idea for dresses with gun prints beforehand."

Lotan realizes that her collection may not interest fashionistas from Park Avenue.

"I don't think that these are prints that many women will want to wear," she admits. "I don't think many women will want to express their political opinions via their clothes. Even so, I believe there will be some who will buy [my collection] because it will give them a unique power. There are even some who think it is very sexy."

In an era characterized by the relentless quest for unique designers, Lotan appears to be a rising force. More than a few celebrities wear her designs, including Paris Hilton, Sandra Bernhard, Liza Minnelli and Martha Stewart, who wore a Lotan blouse on her television program.

"Helen Hunt phoned me and said she wanted to come to my studio to see some designs," relates Lotan. "She left a message on my answering machine: 'I'm crazy about your clothes.'" Lotan's creations can currently be found in 150 stores worldwide, mostly in the U.S., but also in Europe and Japan. In New York they are sold by Barneys, the largest luxury clothing store on Madison Avenue and also at Scoop, which has 12 branches designed for women with very deep pockets. In Los Angeles, her designs are sold at Hillary Rush and Jill Roberts, where many stars shop.

What about Israel?

"At the moment I have no plans," says Lotan, "but some day I will open my own store in Israel." Lotan designs mainly luxury women's wear, but sometimes also tries her hand at children's coats, men's shirts, jewelry, scarves, belts and even buttons.

"There are two prominent elements in my work," explains Lotan. "First, the military element, and not necessarily its aggressive aspect, but rather the perspective of the functionality of the uniform. Second is the inspiration from men's clothing. I have always been a tomboy, always worn masculine clothing and used them to express my femininity. Masculine clothing gives women a certain strength."

Expression of Israeliness

Lotan's clients may not detect it, but her Israeliness finds expression in her clothes. She visits Israel often and even though she says she is already American, she is very connected to Israel. Her clothing labels bear the number 2609988, which is none other than her army ID number.

Local embroidery is also incorporated into Lotan's clothes. On a quest for Yemenite embroidery, she met with several older Yemenite women, but says she came to the conclusion that she finds Palestinian embroidery more interesting.

"Yemenite embroidery has one motif," explains Lotan, "while Palestinian embroidery is a whole world. Now I visit a group of women in Segev Shalom, near Be'er Sheva, for ideas. I also plan to use ideas from the sources that inspired Maskit, which I feel is a wonderful project."

The embroideries are a minimal component in Lotan's clothes. "No one would ever figure out where they came from. Even the outfit Paris Hilton wears was inspired by a Yemenite woman. I use these ideas in only a few of my clothes, but they give me a lot of pleasure."

The prices Lotan charges are not sky-high, in New York terms. A blouse costs about $270 and her most expensive evening dress sells for $1,000. Wool coats, which are a major component in her collection, are tagged at $700-$900. Lotan recently embarked on a "direct retailing" path, opening her own store in the Tribeca area of Manhattan.

"I make a limited number of each item, and that's all," she says.

"This way I can promise customers an original feeling. Some of my designs are available only at my store. I can do what I want, without being dependent on buyers from other stores.

"I do whatever I please, and make a profit, too."

Lotan, 49, was born in Netanya. Her father, Moshe Shapira, was a well-known building contractor there.

Lotan studied at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design and married Zev Lotan, an Israeli Air Force pilot. They lived at Tel Nof Air Force Base and when he completed his service, they moved to New York to continue their studies.

Through a member of her husband's squadron, Lotan met an American businessman who was impressed with her talents, decided to start a clothing design venture with her and sent her to the Far East. She later received an offer to join Liz Claiborne, where she rose to vice president and managed a casual clothing subsidiary. She left after six exhausting years.

"I began to think about returning to Israel," recalls Lotan. "I spoke with a few fashion market players to see if there was room for me to do something [in Israel] with my experience. Dov Lautman [of Delta Galil Industries] finally told me that the best thing would be for me to go back to the U.S., and to come here when I retire, with a gold walking stick.

"That's when I joined Ralph Lauren," continues Lotan. "I only worked four days a week because I wanted to be with my children.

"With Lauren I learned that you have to stick with what you are. He was into American symbols like Kennedy and the Wild West, no matter what Prada and Gucci were doing. I worked there in men's clothing design."

Out on her own

When Lotan decided to go out on her own, she went all the way, including leaving her husband of 26 years, and now lives near her store in Tribeca. When asked about total sales, Lotan prefers not to answer. She does disclose, however, that she has a team of nine workers.

"I do everything myself," she says. "I have no public relations person. I designed my own Internet site, my store and, of course, my clothes. I only outsource the manufacturing.

"I have traveled a long, hard path these past 26 years," she continues, speaking from her studio in the basement of her new store, "sometimes at the expense of my three children.

"There have been many long work days, with very few hours of sleep at night, far away from home, which for me is Israel."