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Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Dudi Hasson
Fashion designer Nili Lotan worked for other companies — including Liz Claiborne, Nautica, and Ralph Lauren — for 23 years before she started her own line in 2003. Ever since she’s been in charge, Lotan has been following her instincts to create classic pieces she wants to live in. Known for her timeless staples and high-quality garments, Lotan was encouraged from a young age to develop her personal style. Growing up, she recalls her mother whipping up a blazer the night of a party so her daughter would have something stylish and made with love to wear. She maintains this personal connection to her designs, still trying each piece on herself to make sure it’s just right.
Sustainability is a big part of Lotan’s practice. The key to sustainable fashion design, she says, lies in creating lasting clothes that can be passed from generation to generation and in reducing waste in the production process. For decades, she’s created elegant pieces for women that she hopes are easy, simple, and quality over quantity. Now Lotan is expanding her catalogue, launching menswear (a little something for the boyfriends of the women she’s been producing clothes for all these years, she says), swimwear, and handbags lines within the coming months.
On this episode of the In Her Shoes podcast, the Cut editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples talks to Lotan about sustainability, why she doesn’t do fashion shows, her love of flip-flops, and more.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Lindsay: Welcome to In Her Shoes. I’m Lindsay Peoples Wagner, editor-in-chief of the Cut. For the next few weeks, I’ll be taking over this feed and talking to people we at the Cut love and admire or just find interesting.
Nili Lotan is a New York–based fashion designer who found her own path to success. She started at some of the top American fashion houses like Ralph Lauren, Liz Claiborne, and Nautica. Then she decided to launch her own namesake brand in 2003, making her brand built on classics and sustainability. She just announced that she’ll be launching into menswear, some swimwear, and some handbags that I’m very excited to see. We got to talk to her about how she’s stitched her way through the industry, what makes good womenswear, and her plans to shake up the menswear industry. Thank you so much for joining us, Nili. I’m such a huge fan, Nili. I’m very excited to talk to you.
Nili: Oh, thank you!
Lindsay: The show is called In Her Shoes, so I have to ask because I’m curious: What kind of shoes do you either have on right now, and what’s the story behind them, or what are your favorite pair of shoes, and what’s the story behind them?
Nili: I’m laughing because I actually just put on my flip-flops because my sandals are right next to me and I have an issue with the closure, so I just put on my flip-flops, but —
Nili: There’s something iconic about these flip-flops. For years in the summer, I used to walk around with flip-flops because it’s just the most comfortable shoe for me. And although I could wear the most elegant things on the top, I still wear my flip-flops, summer and winter. I remember when I met my husband, he asked me, “Why are you wearing flip-flops in the middle of the winter with a fur coat?” and I said, “It’s cool.” So right now, this moment, I’m wearing these leather flip-flops. But most of the time, I wear boots — ankle boots. I find it the most comfortable to carry me through the days.
Lindsay: Very cool. It sounds very chic, I have to say. Do you remember the first pieces of clothing that you made, or growing up, were you always into designing, or how did that start for you?
Nili: Yeah, so the love to style actually started with my parents. My mom and my dad were very stylish. I mean, they came from Europe to Israel in the 1940s. My mom learned how to sew, so she actually learned how to make patterns and sew herself. And as I was growing up, I always saw her sewing and she made me my very first kind of stylish or fashionable clothes because there, it didn’t exist. I used to look forward to get a hand of a French Vogue and see what Saint Laurent was doing at the time, because this was my only window to style. Watching the Kennedys and Jackie O, what she was wearing, that was my information.
Nili: So the very first item that I remember that my mom did for me, sewed for me, literally in a couple of hours, was a blazer. And this is something that I have a very strong memory of because she started it in the morning and ended it by the time I had to go to my party. I was basically wearing it with a tank top and a pair of kind of bitten up jeans, and probably flip-flops. That was my cool outfit for the evening, and she made sure that she had it done from start to end in a couple of hours so I can have it. There was so much love in this blazer. There was so much intentions of a mother in this blazer that I will never forget it.
Lindsay: That’s a beautiful story. I mean, when you started out in the industry, because of that, did you have a really clear idea of how you wanted to build your brand or were you just going off of loving the design and the creativity by it?
Nili: So I actually have an interesting story because, when I started my career, I started working for other people back in 1980 when I landed in New York. It was very much like a natural process from finishing school, fashion school, and starting to work for other people. Only after 23 years had I actually came up with this idea that actually it’s time for me to express my own style, my own vision.
Lindsay: Twenty-three years. Wow.
Nili: Yeah. So 23 years I worked for other people, about six years on an average from one company to another. I kind of invested my time in learning the skills, the industry, the processes when I started, so I think I had all the tools to do it, plus my own style that I actually felt that I needed to define. I had my own style, but I needed, for my own sake, to define it in a way that I will differentiate myself with everybody else that was designing at the time. It was actually the funnest part in creating this business. It was, really, initially coming up with what is it that I stand for, what is my style, and make it clear through the collection that I was designing.
Lindsay: Right. Boiling that down to your core principles and your own style and how you dress, how did you narrow that down? And what are the rules or just guidelines that you follow in your own personal style that have translated into the brand?
Nili: It took ten years till I actually stood and said, “I got it.” I got it in the sense that my brand and my collection communicates accurately, “What is it that I want it to communicate?” But in terms of how do I define my own style and how did it help me in designing my collections, No. 1 is “easy.” Easy, nonchalant, don’t make it difficult on yourself. Don’t get overcomplicated and overly thinking about what you are wearing. I think the simplest thing is the purest thing and the most authentic thing. The thing that comes to your mind first is probably the right thing to wear. I think every woman develops their own style at a young age, or at least I hope so. I hope that mothers take it under their responsibility to encourage their daughters to develop their own style because style is a communication. Style is the way you communicate to the outside, to the world.
It’s exactly like speaking eloquently. Dressing in style is dressing eloquently, in a way. I think there is things that we’re drawn to naturally, and it depends where you grow up. It depends what are you surrounded with. For me, it was very simple. I wear a lot of black, I wear a lot of white, so that makes it simple. I don’t wear too many prints or complicated patterns. I’m drawn to leopards and kind of rock and roll prints, I should say. I could call it that way. I’m drawn to specific music and time. The ’70s are a huge influence on what I do, the ’60s and the ’70s music. So what informs my form and my color stories is very neutral, and black and white comes from my love to Noguchi, Brâncuși, the art that I love, the music that I listen to. All of this informs my own style.
I think the most important thing is less is more when it comes to jewelry, when it comes to wardrobe. I don’t have a lot of clothes. I have important pieces that allows me to create different combinations, different looks, that every time I look fresh, I could be wearing the same shirt in different ways, the same jacket in different ways. It makes travel very easy. It makes life very easy. It’s not about the quantity; it’s the quality. That’s pretty much my theme in big, and then of course, when I started this business, I started with essential, luxury pieces for a woman’s wardrobe. This was important for me, as I’m designing the collection for women, is how to give her the base, and from there, start adding layers because I think the most important thing is to have the best denim, the best jeans, the best black trouser, the best cotton pant, the best white shirt, the best coat that could carry you throughout the winter. And then when you have all your essentials, then you can start adding the fun part.
Lindsay: So tell me about those initial pieces. Why did you choose to produce them? What is it in the details of them? Obviously, there’s a ton of designers who make black pants. What kind of black pant and why produce that kind of black pant, and what’s the ideology behind those pieces that you really started out with?
Nili: In any pants, the No. 1 element that needs to be perfected there is the fit, because if you don’t feel good in your pant, you don’t feel good and then you are uncomfortable through the entire day. So I perfected the fit of the pant, and I’m actually known for the fit of my pant. The items that I sell the most is pant because it was super-important for me to come up, technically, to a fit that a woman feels comfortable in, and that is technical. That is beyond beauty. It’s really sliding into something that you feel at home. And a pant is a difficult one, so it was very important for me to perfect that. It’s the perfect black fitted pant, not just the black pant.
On top of it, obviously, I like things to be sexy. Sexy not in a way that they are vulgar, but sexy in a way that they project something to the outside that’s stimulating, that it’s engaging, that it’s cool. And so to me, there’s certain points on a woman’s body, whether it’s a shirt that I do or a dress that I do, a pant that I do, that I like to emphasize, and it’s not the obvious part. It could be the neck of a woman or the ear of a woman, or behind the ear of a woman, or it could be a certain point where I open my neck lines. Or in a pant, it could be where the pant ends. I think ankle length pants are super cool and chic. Different things that we can go on and on, but it’s the fit. Beyond the fit, it’s where things sits, and then, of course, the fabric. I use only Italian fabrics, and Japanese in cases, but it’s all really high-quality, high-price fabric.
It’s very important for me that the quality is in there, that the fit is in there. So when you create something, it needs to be accurate from fabric, from color, from fit, and that’s what drives me. What drives me is to do the perfect pant for me, I should say. And then, I hope that it’s good for other people as well. Because one of my benefits is that I’m a woman and then I can try things, everything that I design —
Nili: And bless it and say, “Yes, this is the best pant I’ve ever had, and therefore, I’m going to get it out.” And then hopefully other women find it the same. Obviously, it has to do with type of bodies and different women like different things, so I can only think about myself and obviously think about how does that shape up to different types of body and different shapes. I try to do my best on that, but I have to admit that I try everything on myself.
Lindsay: Right. You focus so much, though, on high-quality fabrics and really clean cuts, and obviously there’s many conversations in the industry around sustainability or also just being smart with what you wear, but you’ve been doing this from the beginning. I was curious about how that has been as an experience since the fashion industry moves so fast. There’s always new trends. There’s always new ideas and being a designer who’s rooted in such minimalism, how has that been to really stick true to who you are and what you want to create?
Nili: I think sustainability has changed. The terms has changed in the years of what people look in sustainability. To me, sustainability, from the very beginning, was how not to waste, how not to create things that we are not using, how to maintain a small wardrobe, how to maintain a small team, how to try to make clothes locally, domestic, and prevent spending flights and gas and travels. And on top of it, of course, use quality materials so they last forever. Timeless clothing. This is where I see sustainability.
Today, people talk about sustainability. They also mean using recycled materials, using thick, grown, made man materials versus others. I think this is a little more difficult to do because the process of making clothes is not a sustainable process, and I think it’s going to take years till we’ll learn how to make clothes from air. Because by creating fabrics and threads and buttons and zippers and everything that goes into our clothes, we are not sustainable, so I think the only way to be sustainable, honestly, and not just talk about sustainability for the sake of sustainability is really try to do less and high quality so everything lasts for a long time.
And stop with the disposable clothing — do clothes for women that they will carry on and pass on to their daughters. So that’s where I’m focusing it, not to put down all the efforts of creating new materials. I think it’s amazing, but I think it’s going to take some time, and I think some of it is already around. I have not been experiencing them on my collections. I like to use cotton. I like to use wool. I like to use natural materials. I don’t use plastics. I don’t use anything that is unsustainable. That is where I put my efforts, and I think being a minimalist does help.
Lindsay: You’ve also talked about your disinterest in flashy runway shows or a lot of the things that I think the industry kind of has sustained itself on that are also not sustainable. What was your instinct about that so long ago, and what has been your driving force behind that?
Nili: I mean, I still don’t do fashion shows, and it’s been 18 years of business and a successful business, so I guess it’s not necessary. I build my business based on my direct connection with women, of really thinking about what does women need and making sure that I answer women’s needs. I have a direct communication to them, and I think that now with the social-media world and e-comm, there is a direct communication with the client. So to me, the fashion shows are great events and it’s a great industry opportunity to celebrate and to meet. But from a business perspective, it’s a waste. To put a show together, it’s anywhere from a quarter to a million dollars, depending on how big the company is. That money, personally, I’d rather invest in opening stores and right away to see the revenues coming back to me rather than spend my money and hope that this would lead to a strong branding tool.
I never had that kind of money because I started my business with $25,000 of my own, and I’ve never had anyone invested in the business and put a lot of money to the point that I can say, “Okay, let’s spend half a million dollars on a show, and let’s see what it brings us.” I didn’t have that luxury. So instead of that, I opened a store in East Hamptons and in Tribeca that cost me, altogether, to open, $25,000 to $50,000. And then in one year, I saw revenues that were four times, five times more.
Immediate revenues that helped me progress and develop my next collection. So I was working on this kind of a mode, rather than just putting money and hoping that it will get a return. There’s no doubt that fashion show is a great marketing tool and branding tool. It took me 18 years to get where I am and some people did it much faster because they had fashion shows, but I wasn’t looking for the shortcut. I was really looking to establish a business that I’ll be very proud of, that I will have a collection that will be of help for as many women, as much as it does to me, and share it. I was less interested in the branding concept.
Lindsay: I mean, in your 18 years though, did you ever have doubts about how you were running the business, just as social media has become such a big part of the fashion industry and people constantly having a show or doing some big campaign, doing all the flashy things? Did you ever doubt what you were doing and feel like, Oh, everybody is going this way, and I’m going the other direction, and am I actually really doing the right thing?
Nili: No, I don’t doubt. When I doubt, I change. I am very much an intuitive manager. I pretty much run my business and take decision intuitively. My background is art and fashion. I never studied business, and yet I run a close to a $100 million business today, and I have 100 people working for me in a successful business. I really got there through my intuition and my gut. Obviously, my intelligence, but it’s really by not guessing myself, but what I go is what I feel. And it’s not that I’m ignoring what’s happening out there. I’m totally part of social media and I’m totally part of everything that’s happening out there digitally, but I don’t put the emphasis on it. I put the emphasis of creating beautiful clothes and making sure that I am hitting the culture correctly. That is, I’m giving the women what they need —
Nili: — at the moment. What is relevant today? What does women need today? Young women, all the way from 25 years old to my age, 65 years old, what is the need? Considering what’s happening in the world, considering what’s happening in culture. So I’m very much aware of what’s happening. It’s just I choose which train to go on and which not, and I do this intuitively. I’m sure that for other people, other thing works, but for me, that works.
Lindsay: Did you have to make any shifts around your business or just the way that you work, throughout this pandemic? Did you have to pivot at all or change anything? Obviously, your brand is continuously relevant because it’s something that people can wear all the time and is not so event-driven, like a lot of brands that only do cocktail dresses or something like that. I think really suffered and, obviously, we saw a lot of brands close down, but I’m just wondering what that process has been like for you in the past couple years, and any challenging moments or things that you kind of thought through in a different way because of the pandemic.
Nili: Yeah, absolutely. I think the pandemic puts us all on our toes in any position of rethinking everything that we do, whether it’s in our private life or in our careers and work situation. I didn’t stop for a minute during COVID. I am always saying that I want another one because everyone got to read books and see shows on TV and I didn’t, so I need one more. Of course, I’m joking. I don’t want to pay the price of COVID, but I could take a few months vacation at any given time. What I did, I actually had to work double the time if it’s ever possible. I basically got up in the morning, got myself all dressed up, ate breakfast, sat at a table and basically had a kind of war room in my living room, attacking the issues as they came towards me one by one.
Of course, because we are in the fashion industry, manufacture things so much in advance, the first thing that I was worrying about is inventory and made sure that I spoke to all my biggest client, top clients, and made sure that they actually want that orders that they ordered pre-pandemic, and I’m not just making clothes for the sake of them putting them on sale somewhere. I got hold of all my partners and decided that I will reduce the manufacturing of all the orders that I received in half, so I’m not producing things for no reason. Obviously, we all actually found out that if we had made all of it, we would’ve sold it, but it was cautious, and I’m glad I did that.
The second thing I did is on my retail side; I had to close all my stores like everyone else. I tried to shift most of my sales team, that were now on leave, to help on the site, on the e-comm. And what I did is I created e-styling, which was basically selling through the site to our retail clients and to our e-comm clients, where they meet someone on the site and they share the site, and they’re able to buy through the e-comm, but with the help of a salesperson. I also created a site that’s called Giving Back. It no longer exists, but throughout the pandemic, where I was raising money for different organizations that needed the money by putting all my inventory on that site and selling it at 70 percent or 60 percent off, I can’t remember, and 10 percent of the sales had gone every two months to another organization.
I kind of tried to help and give at the same time, help myself and give at the same time, where most of the things that were important is, No. 1, not to end up with inventory, and No. 2, how to shift the type of clothing that was relevant. What I did is I hooked up with a manufacturer that the majority of their product was sweatshirt and sweatpant and T-shirts, and all these comfortable clothes that we all wore during the pandemic, and started to produce, focusing on that category of clothing. That kind of kept us during the pandemic to stay afloat.
And then when the pandemic was almost over, we shifted back and actually went all the way to the other extreme and started to do the most luxurious clothes and the most ornamented inspiring clothes, because I think after all of us were wearing pajamas, especially my client who actually made more money during the COVID, fortunately, than actually lost money, because a lot of my clients are in the upper echelon … I think that’s where the market was flourishing and actually, quite a lot of people though they lost their job, they not necessarily lost money, and they had money and interested, actually, in buying more luxurious clothing. The luxury segment after COVID has actually grown tremendously.
Lindsay: Yeah. You’ve also, throughout this, raised a family and been building a brand at the same time. What have been your favorite moments and challenging moments of navigating both of those things?
Nili: So my kids are grown up. I have three and my husband has three, so together we are a family with six kids. They are from the age of 27 is the youngest, and 41 is the oldest, so they’re pretty much on their own. I did raise a family when I was working for others. My daughter was born when I was 27, my oldest, and my youngest when I was 39, so this was the time they were difficult for me to be working in the industry, and at the same time, raising young children and giving them the kind of home that I wanted to give them. This is a whole bigger conversation that I actually like to have because I think women always, no matter what year, no matter what era, we are struggling with the natural instinct of a mother to be with her children, and at the same time, the natural instinct of really maximizing the potential within herself.
I think there is a constant conflict because in our culture, the major responsibility falls on the mother. So I think things are changing now, and I could see it on my children. I have a granddaughter now and I could see how they raise her equally and the burden falls on both, but in my generation it was different. I think for me, I’m on the grandchildren now, so it’s less complicated because I can only visit them and I can leave.
Lindsay: Grandchildren are the best.
Lindsay: Since you’ve been in business 18 years, what do you think has changed the most in the fashion industry since you started?
Nili: I think sustainability is a big deal. I think that people in the industry are much more aware of how much they’re producing versus they were back then. The material that they’re using, whether to do a show or not to do a show, I think all these things are much more meaningful and people pay much more attention than they were 18 years ago. I think fashion goes in cycles and still does, so I think a lot of the materials that I’ve been using in the past, I’m using now. But the materials are getting lighter, which is definitely something that I’ve been seeing throughout my career. The males are putting a lot of attention of creating fabrics that are not only as sustainable as possible, but also lighter in weight. I think the retail experience, or the e-comm experience, has been changed dramatically in the last 18 years. I think a lot of women, pharma women shopping on e-comm.
When I started, there wasn’t any e-comm. I started my e-comm in, I believe it was 2012, and it was pretty much at the beginning. I’m sure people started at 2010 already, maybe, or 2008, but there wasn’t much in 2003 on e-comm, certainly not in fashion. I think social media is a whole new thing that started somewhere around the same time, and then evolving from Facebook to Instagram, from Instagram to TikTok, from TikTok to God knows where it’s going. So there is definitely a constant evolution on the digital side of things, which changes the way people shop and experience the shopping, but the clothes are clothes and at the end of the day, nothing change in clothes. It’s very similar to what my mother wore.
Lindsay: I love that. What would you say is next for the brand and what are you thinking about now?
Nili: So quite a lot, I’m launching men’s in two weeks.
Lindsay: Oh, amazing.
Nili: The men’s collection. We are already on the third collection, but it’s being launched to the public in two weeks. We’re doing this on the site and our retail stores, as well with about six partners that are my partners in women’s, and they are collaborated with me on men’s. I’m designing for a man who is the husband or the boyfriend of my woman, and that completes my lifestyle. I felt that I was giving my woman so much beautiful clothes and elegant clothes, and we left the guy behind. We are basically giving this woman the opportunity to buy her husband, or bring her husband over to the same stores and to the same site to buy him, so they could be equally elegant, so that’s the men’s. Then, I’m launching accessories, bags, which I’m really excited about.
Lindsay: I’m very interested in that.
Nili: Yeah. September, October. I’ve been asked quite a lot, “What is the Neely bag?” And so during COVID, I launched two bags, kind of for the fun of it, to see what is my experience to dealing with leather and bags because I’ve never done it before. I experiment with that. But now, I’m actually launching, officially, an accessory line of small leather goods, bags, belts, and I’m really excited about it.
Lindsay: When are the bags coming out?
Nili: So I’m hoping September. Mid, end September. I am only going to sell it on my DTC, on my site, and on my stores.
Nili: And then in September, I will offer it to all my partners in wholesale to be able to have it on their distribution channels, probably next fall. I’m also opening new stores. I just opened Palm Beach and I just signed a contract of a store in L.A., the first one.
Nili: And I’m really excited about that. I’m working on swimwear. That’s also very exciting for me, hoping to launch it for high summer. That’s what’s happening to me on my work environment. On home, I’m building a house.
Lindsay: This now makes sense of why you said you needed a vacation.
Nili: Yeah. I just took one, so I’m happy. During the pandemic, I bought a gorgeous home upstate that was designed by the architect Marcel Breuer, which is a very unique house back from 1953 that was restored, and I’m very lucky to own it. And recently, I bought the house next door and I decided to act as an architect. Architecture is my hobby, and I decided to actually practice my hobby and not just admire it, but actually do it. I took someone to help me and I’m basically redesigning a home right next door and trying to kind of make it the sister of the Marcel Breuer. I’m not Marcel Breuer, never will I be, but at least we share the same aesthetics and less is better, and all the main aesthetic and mottos that I go by, he did, too, so I am actually very excited to design this house. That’s a big project and I’m a grandma, so that’s a project too.
Lindsay: I’m very, very excited for you and very excited for the launch of the menswear and swimwear and bags. I mean, the business is obviously doing amazing, $100 million business, so congratulations to you-
Nili: Thank you, Lindsay.
Lindsay: On all your success and everything amazing going on, so thank you so much also for doing this. I really appreciate it.
Nili: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Lindsay: In Her Shoes is hosted by me, Lindsay Peoples. This episode was produced by Mona Hassan. Our engineer is Brandon McFarland, and our executive producer is Hanna Rosin. The Cut is made possible by the excellent team at New York Magazine. Subscribe today at thecut.com/subscribe. I’m Lindsay Peoples, and thank you so much for listening.