NEW YORK — On the sixth floor of Barneys, the luxury department store in Manhattan, you can find clothes by fashion designer Nili Lotan hanging on the rack with those by famous designers and brands like Yves Saint Laurent and Moncler.
Lotan, 60, began working as a designer almost 30 years ago and is now at the peak of her career. No one who follows her on social media or reads fashion blogs and magazines can ignore her presence.
Her clothes are worn by models like Gigi Hadid, Gisele Bündchen, Kendall Jenner and Natasha Poly, singers Rihanna and Selena Gomez, and actresses Gwyneth Paltrow, Demi Moore, Julianne Moore and Gal Gadot. She also has her own stores in Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood and East Hampton on Long Island, and two weeks ago she opened one on Madison Avenue.
The New York fashion industry, just like elsewhere, is experiencing a crisis due to high production costs, soaring rents and customers fleeing to the internet, where everything can be bought cheaply. But Lotan says none of this has affected her business, which she runs herself. On the contrary, she says, having identified the online trend early, she has cooperated with it and benefits from its advantages.
“The internet opened a new world for designers. If in the past the magazines were the ones that set the tone in fashion, today power has moved to the bloggers. The important fashion magazines tended to write about designers who advertised in them, and that cost a great deal of money," she says.
"Today, thanks to the bloggers, there’s a cheaper way to advertise yourself. Most people today get their news from social media, and there the bloggers rule. Happily for me, many of them like what I do.”
Lotan’s clothes are sold in 250 stores worldwide. Most of her customers are women between 25 and 45.
“I’m practical about the clothes I design,” she says. “Many designers try to be artistic and do crazy, unusual things. I obviously want my clothes to look good, but they have to be practical. I’m a size 34, and I try everything on myself before I put anything out.”
This may be why her clothes are more suited to very thin women.
Her clothing ranges in price from $150 to $1,500. A pair of Lotan jeans, for instance, sells for $375. “These aren’t cheap prices in Israeli terms,” she says. “But when you compare them to clothes by other designers sold at Barneys and meant for working women or wealthy women, these are affordable prices.”
Lotan declined to divulge details about the scale of her business but was willing to say that her company’s annual revenues clock up in the tens of millions of dollars.
“People can bring in money and not make a profit, but my business is very profitable. Over the past five years my business volume has grown at an annual rate of 30 percent," she says. "This year I began to sell on a large scale over the internet, and business in this sector jumped 300 percent. I foresee annual growth of 20 to 30 percent in online sales in the coming years.”
In Tribeca, one of Manhattan’s trendiest neighborhoods, Lotan has an impressive studio. Her workshop is in the basement. That’s where her team, which includes two image consultants, a cutter and five seamstresses, develops the collection.
“I design everything here," she says. "Many designers have sub-designers who work for them, but I do everything. I have 50 people who help me with the execution and sales." Every three months she sends out 100 to 120 designs.
"The new trend is to make ‘capsules,’ or mini-collections, which go out to the stores and the website every few weeks instead of a year in advance, as used to be the norm. I make everything in New York, and it’s no more expensive than making it outside the United States," she says.
"True, when you manufacture in large quantities it’s harder, but in the quantities I make it’s possible. Moreover, China has become expensive, and this way I don’t have to travel far away. Only my sweaters are made in China.”
In her studio, Lotan showed me a collection of military clothing from Japan, Korea and the United States that she has collected over the years. “These uniforms are a source of inspiration for me — them and the blue color of the Mediterranean Sea that I saw from my childhood home in Netanya. But I’m explicitly not militarist; my clothing is a kind of ‘they shall beat their swords into plowshares.’”
She says the Israeli facets of her personality are expressed in her clothing; once upon a time they carried tags with the number 2609988 — her dog-tag number in the army.
Leaving law aside