In a Rare Interview, Nili Lotan Speaks on Her Decades-Long Fashion Career

Welcome to our podcast, Who What Wear With Hillary Kerr. Think of it as your direct line to the designers, stylists, beauty experts, editors, and tastemakers who are shaping the fashion-and-beauty world. Subscribe to Who What Wear With Hillary Kerr on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

It's not often that Nili Lotan blesses the industry with a sit-down interview. Lucky for us, the notoriously private designer recently spent some time with Who What Wear co-founder Hilary Kerr to look back on her life, career, and design muses. Before launching her eponymous label in 2003, the Israeli American fashion designer had an extensive career working for a handful of classic American brands during the '80s and '90s. Her successful design career has spanned a plethora of memorable women's designs, the foremost being military-style jackets that hearken back to her mandated stint in the Israeli Air Force. Tune in as she details her long history with fashion, where her creative inspiration comes from, and her decision to launch a collection with Target in this week's podcast. Keep scrolling to get a glimpse of our favorite moments below.

You are a celebrated designer with years of experience under your belt and an enormous amount of respect within the industry. I'd like to go back and talk about how you got your start in fashion. I read that when you were growing up in Israel you'd go to a local fabric store with your mom and that she would actually sew clothes for you, which is amazing on many levels. I'm curious about how you fell in love with fashion. Do you remember any of those pieces your mom made for you that were particularly near and dear to your heart?

I love starting with my mom. My love to style had started with watching my parents, learning about style from them. They both came from Europe in the 1940s, came from very stylish houses with a lot of style and culture. They landed in Israel—which had no style and no class, just sand and a beautiful beach—and had to start their life with no means, create style from nothing. Watching how culture was important to them and how style was important to them with very little that they have, they instilled in me the importance of style. It is not a luxury. It is something that is part of who you are. I think I was born, luckily, with the gift of being able to see things creatively and to be able to draw and to be able to express myself creatively. But as I grew and I had to make a decision [about a] profession as a grown-up, my mom was actually the one who directed me to a fashion school that was in Tel Aviv. [She] felt that my father would be okay with me studying there. My father had all kinds of expectations of me becoming something a bit more academic, follow his footsteps as a lawyer or whatever it is that is the right thing for a nice Jewish girl. But obviously, my talents and strengths were in a different place.

[My mom] was sewing, knitting because we couldn't find any clothes in Israel at the time that was beyond the basics. She used to ask me what [I wanted, saying] I will make it for you. It was really an expression of what I wanted rather than what she wanted. You asked about specific pieces—a blazer. There was no way that when I was in my 18th year I could find a blazer for me. There was no blazer in Israel. She basically made, from scratch, a navy blazer. I remember it was always Friday that you finish the project because she knew that Friday night I would go out with my friends, and I would want to feel good, and I would want to dress [up in] something new. The reason I remembered the blazer—although she did many things for me—is because it was so complicated to make structure-wise, and she was doing [it with] a little, tiny sewing machine. She not only was so talented, but [she was] also a great mom and wanted to give me anything to make me feel good about myself.

I read that you grew up wearing uniforms during school, including during your two-year military service. Do you think that influenced you as well?

Absolutely. It didn't necessarily influence my designs, but it influenced who I am. From a very young age, we were in uniform. I think there's something to a uniform that unified all mankind under that same community. There's no rich and poor, and there is no "Who's clothes are you wearing?" It takes the attention from "What am I going to wear today?" to things that are more important than that. During high school, it's tough because this is the time that you want to express yourself and to look different. I was cheating a lot. I was wearing my Levi's jeans instead of the other pants that everyone was wearing, and I was wearing a blue shirt that wasn't exactly the shirt of the uniform but was blue. Sometimes, they caught me and put me in the corner, and sometimes, they let it be. But then in the army, obviously, it's different. Uniform also brings discipline. When you're in a uniform, you have a sense of responsibility to the community that you're serving at the moment. I think having the opportunity to be in a disciplinary environment for so long also contributed to who I am. I'm a very disciplined person. I know what I need to do, and I get it done. But at the same time… coming out of it, you come out wanting to express yourself after that. It brings maybe even more creativity. For two years, you've been wearing the same thing, and now, you can wear anything that you want. It's quite exciting and refreshing.

The elements of uniform in my collections and the military in the army green that appears quite often in my collections is not necessarily coming from [wearing a] uniform. I think it comes from growing up in a country where the army is something that you're very much aware of on a daily basis. You see soldiers everywhere, guns, uniforms. You learn to live with it and accept that this is something that protects you rather than something that is aggressive. You feel safe. Unfortunately, sometimes, the police are an aggression and not so much protecting. But to me, as a child growing up, the army was someone who keeps us safe. So that's why, maybe, there was so much of that in my work in a good way.

You've worked for some incredible companies throughout your career—Liz Claiborne, Ralph Lauren, Nautica, so many esteemed brands. What were the most important things you learned from your experiences because they are quite different?

When I started, I just wanted a job. I didn't realize that I was really jumping into the ultimate corporate American companies with such clear rules and disciplines. It fitted me at the time. Liz Claiborne was an incredible company. It was ran like the army or like a government. There was Liz herself and her husband, Arthur Ortenberg, who was the president, and she was the vice president. The size of this company for the '80s was unheard of. Liz nailed the needs of the woman at that time and delivered it. She had all the infrastructure to create what she had imagined and thought, and the discipline Art installed in the company [helped] people to carry on that vision. I learned a lot besides meeting a lot of interesting people. I learned about the process, what is the right process to bring a company from zero to a multimillion-dollar company. It needs to have rules and regulations. Otherwise, people get lost. When you're running an army, you need to have a leader, and you need to have rules. So I think that's what I've learned. I didn't think I would ever use them because I wasn't planning, at the time, to have my own business. But clearly, I've learned a lot, and I implemented it and am still implementing it.

One of the things that I loved about them is how much they appreciated the factories that they work with, the people behind the factories, the owners. They used to have a beautiful ceremony once a year, where they [thanked] all the factories and the mills that they worked with, with a huge party. They would honor them with a pin for being five years with the company or 10 years with the company. There was just so much respect and empathy and understanding to everyone who contributed to their success. I remember the first collection that I did for them. I got back to my studio, and there was a bouquet of flowers on my desk with a thank you note and with an envelope of stock options. I was young. I was 20-something, and I didn't expect this. I did it because I wanted to be the best in what I am. I don't work for the reward. I work to really do the best that I can with what I'm doing and to enjoy it. So having someone recognize the fact that I was outstandingly good was really special.

What is your best style advice for women?

Keeping it simple and true to yourself is the best thing. You have to have 12 or 20 pieces in your closet that are your go-to pieces. When you feel like "What am I going to wear?" you automatically go there, and you feel good, and you feel safe, and you feel like "Oh, I can do anything I need to do with this because I'm not distracted." Create a wardrobe strategically. What works for me? What doesn't? What are those pieces that I love and I always go back to and feel comfortable with and have a good version of it? Not an old version of it, not a ripped version of it. If you have a favorite sweater that you love and it already has holes in it, get yourself a new one. Always refresh your wardrobe with the same function but a new piece that makes you feel good with yourself. It's very simple. You don't need to work so hard. Honestly, I don't think you need too many shoes. I think you maybe you need a boot. You need a flat shoe. You need a heel. You need a sneaker. That's it. You don't need too many belts; you need one wide, one narrow. You don't need too many bags. You don't need too many coats. You keep it simple and small. That does not mean that you're going to wear your same clothes forever. Get into the habit of treating yourself every once in a while with a new item. All you do is just add pieces to it. You'll see that, at the end, you'll end up with a beautiful wardrobe that is consistent and focused.

Shop Nili Lotan for Target

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Next up, check out our previous episode featuring TikTok fashion influencer Remi Bader.

Related Stories