Does My Kibbutz Look Big in This? Israeli Designer Channels Hippies for Spring

Against the hodgepodge of spring 2009 fashion—eccentric prints, sweatshirt material, crumpled and rumpled looks, space-warrior wares and butterfly prints and embellishment—Israeli-born fashion designer’s Nili Lotan’s collection stands out as a beacon of sexy minimalism. Inspired by Woodstock and the Paris student rallies of May 1968, it includes frocks superimposed with pictures from these events: awareness-raising, on silk.

Through clothes, Ms. Lotan, who is in her early 50s, gets people to think about issues that are important to her. Each line is “motivated by a specific event or place that I think should be out there in terms of conversation,” she said the other day. In spring 2007, the designer’s clothes featured oil-rig and machine-gun motifs, created in response to the 2006 war in Lebanon. For fall 2008, she has drawn inspiration from the 1929 Wall Street crash and photos of the Berlin Wall and the Separation Wall in Jerusalem.

In 2003, when Ms. Lotan started her business, military-style jackets made up the majority of her collection. She has since broadened her line to include bikinis and evening gowns; dresses and tops make up the bulk of the forthcoming season’s offerings. Since September 2005, she has incorporated handmade jewelry and embroidery by Bedouin women in Segev Shalom. “It’s all an evolution. Each collection is a sequel to the one before,” she said.

The low-key but sexy garments sell in high-end boutiques and department stores across the globe, retailing for around $250 for tops and trousers, and $700 for evening wear and jackets. A mother of three, Ms. Lotan learned her craft working for Adrienne Vittadini, Liz Claiborne and Ralph Lauren, where she designed for the men’s wear line, But she much prefers creating things for women, especially confident women. Who would she most like to see wearing her clothes? Cameron Diaz? Michelle Obama? “Just women,” Ms. Lotan said.

Her design philosophy is written in large letters on the wall adjacent to the entrance of her two-story, 2,400-square-foot flagship store on the south side of Duane Street in Tribeca: “Fashion is about change and evolution that is based on one’s personal references and point of view. We express ourselves creatively through the clothes we propose and wear. I believe in individual expression through contrast and contradiction. Therefore, I would like to offer variations of style and textures that may be eclectically combined to reflect a woman’s personal style, mood or attitude.” An antique motorized dry cleaner’s rack featuring a few designs rotates in the window. With a backdrop of stark white walls, the store is reminiscent of an art gallery. Every garment is hung as an individual piece of work, and only one example of each design is visible. Additional sizes are out of sight, as if you were in your own closet. “You don’t have five pieces of each item hanging around, do you?” Ms. Lotan asked.

In the rear of the store hang two billowing columns of white silk curtains from ceiling to floor, more suggestive of an avant-garde installation than the actual spacious dressing rooms they are. Meanwhile, Plexiglas planks provide shoppers with a bird’s-eye view of Ms. Lotan and her employees toiling in the subterranean studio. On any given day, shoppers will witness anything from clothes being made to models being fitted to sketches being drawn. “I expose myself,” Ms. Lotan said. “This allows people to have direct access to me. Everyone can see me. Everyone can talk to me. It is more like you are coming to visit me.”

Does My Kibbutz Look Big in This? Israeli Designer Channels Hippies for Spring