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The Chosen Ones: An Interview With Nili Lotan

Israeli-American fashion designer on drawing inspiration from Emily Dickinson, the intersection of politics and style, and why her favorite holiday is Passover

Periel Aschenbrand
May 12, 2017
Photo collage by Tablet magazine.
Photo collage by Tablet magazine.
Photo collage by Tablet magazine.
Photo collage by Tablet magazine.

W Magazine calls her the “Queen of Tribeca,” but Nili Lotan was not handed the keys to the castle: She worked her way up the ranks of the kingdom, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Like most wildly successful designers, Lotan, whose partner is legendary Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza, also worked her way up the rungs of the fashion ladder. If her clothes look perfect, it’s because she spent 30 years perfecting her craft (Nautica, Ralph Lauren, Adrienne Vittadini, and Liz Claiborne) before she introduced her eponymous line to the world in 2003. She opened her first store in Lower Manhattan in 2006. Recently, she opened a concept shop at 87 Mercer St. but it’s only here until the end of August, so, consider yourself warned.

Her signature military-style jackets make total sense when you learn that she grew up in Israel where the military is omnipresent and spent two years in the Israeli army; how perfect they are can be attributed to her decades of education. Until very recently, she has never done a shred of advertising. She hasn’t had to—her line is sold in over 150 locations worldwide and as Vogue put it, she’s making clothes “for ‘regular’ women with killer taste.” And regular women with killer taste will always find the best clothing. And even though the likes of Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner have recently become devotees, they came late to the party and frankly, I’m not even sure they were actually invited.

I recently dropped by her studio in monsoon-like rain to interrogate her on her poetic new ad campaign, Hope is a thing with Feathers, photographed by Inez and Vinoodh.

Periel Aschenbrand: Hi Nili Lotan. I have so many questions for you, starting with the Emily Dickinson line. How did you come to “hope is the thing with feathers” as your mantra?

NL: Yonatan Geffen is responsible for it.

PA: The Israeli writer?

NL: Yes. The mantra came after the business idea and it just sat so well with the brand. The retail environment and the state of the business of fashion made me rethink a bit about my business. I have three businesses—an online business, a wholesale business, and a retail business—and they are three separate businesses, and each one reacts differently to the market. I realized, like everyone else, that the web business is growing 10 times bigger and ­very, very fast. So the movement of women buying from Web has been fast and it’s been tremendous. Which means two things. One, less and less women are going to visit physical retail; two, there is lots of real estate out there because people are losing their businesses; and three, you better make the experience of your store interesting otherwise they wont come. Which is the same thing about making your web interesting because the options are endless. So with that recognition, I haven’t invented it, I’m just reacting to it…

PA: I didn’t realize you were so business savvy. But you’re Israeli, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.

NL: Thank you. So, I was like, OK—I walked down Broadway, Greene, Mercer and every second store is empty. Those landlords must be desperate. Let me give them a call and let’s see how inexpensive I can get the rent. And that’s what I did.

So it started with the business. And then the poetry came. So I looked everywhere for a space small enough and found a nice space, negotiated it, took the space and then I was thinking, I know what I’m going to do here. I’m going to do a physical store for my online store. So when someone walks in, they should feel the brand. Why is this brand different than any other brand? And they should experience something, beyond just buying a pair of jeans, so that was my idea from a business perspective. And then, I said, OK, I need to align my social media and my web to give a woman the same experience. And then I started to look at my DNA and ask, what are the things that I stand for? And one of the things that I do stand for is giving a little more depth than just clothes. One of the things I’ve been doing for years is stating my state of mind on silk garments—social/political statements.

PA: What are they? Can you state them?

NL: Many protests. This is since 2006, It started actually with a gun print that provoked a lot of noise in the news—much later than when it actually happened. It started in 2007 when I toured with David in the war and I joined him, going from one shelter to another and I felt so ridiculous dealing with clothes while David is singing to people to make them happy during wars. And I thought, “What can I do?” So I went home and I basically designed a gun print which to me was a protest obviously—to express “enough, enough with these guns.” I printed it on scarves and made beautiful, sexy, silk dresses with it. One of them was purchased by Karolina Kurkova, the model, back then. Several years—six years after—there is the Boston Marathon incident and she decides to walk out in the street, in the dress and the entire media is on her and the next thing I know, I get a call from the New York Post and they’re like, “What do you mean by this dress?” And I was like, “First of all, it was taken completely out of context, this was made six years ago.” Stating my personal position, I said “I am against the use of guns.” Why was she wearing it? I have no idea.

PA: So the politics are international.

NL: Yes, but it’s not just politics. It’s just a thought to provoke a thought to provoke a discussion, a conversation, a dialogue. And not necessarily with me.

PA: Haha. That’s great. Talk to somebody else, you’re just out here making clothes.

NL: I’m just throwing you a lead. Let’s go back to why hope is the thing with feathers.

PA: Let’s.

NL: So after I realized this is what I want to do—I have to admit that in the past year, my soul was shaken. Shock and despair. The only word that came to my mind is the word hope. That’s my north right now. And I have to stay positive and move on and do what I have to do. So the next thing I did was call Yonatan Geffen and say, “Give me a good quote for hope.” And he said, “Have you read Emily Dickinson?” and I said, “No,” and he said, “Well go read it.” Yonatan is the one who sends me to read things.

PA: That’s great.

NL: And I went and read it and I said, “Right on,” and that’s where it started. And then I was on social media and I saw a video about people walking on Fulton Street and there was something about that movement that was hopeful to me. And I decided that I wanted to shoot a model, in white, walking against the stream of people, with feathers. And this is how I see hope. So I had a conversation with the photographers Ines and Vinoodh, who have been collaborators on a few projects recently, and I showed them the poem and as the best storytellers that exist, they captured that moment. So that’s what really created the imagery.

PA: What’s your favorite drink?

NL: Pellegrino with a twist of lemon.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

NL: Either scrambled or David makes the best over-easy eggs. The best.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

NL: I don’t. No coffee. Water with lemon.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

NL: Pesach. I was born on Passover night.

PA: Did you have a bat mitzvah?

NL: Yes.

PA: What did you wear?

NL: This mini white shift dress that my mom made for me.

PA: What shampoo do you use?

NL: I use a very special shampoo because I’m allergic to everything that is in soap. So I use a baby shampoo. California Baby. Tea tree.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

NL: Lox.

PA: Five things in your bag right now?

NL: My keys, my credit cards, my glasses, my sketch book, and a pen.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

NL: YSL boots.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.