Her designs are wild and woolly and her sweaters are about the hottest on the market, but Lisa Nichols, 25, hasn’t a clue what to do with a pair of knitting needles. “If I did know how to knit,” she says, in her lazy North Carolina drawl, “I probably wouldn’t design these difficult sweaters, ’cause then I’d know how really hard they are.”
Hard to knit, maybe, but hard to sell, never. Nichols’ beautifully crafted creations are handmade in Uruguay, where the firm she works for, Berek Ltd., has used skilled and relatively inexpensive women knitters for years. The sweaters retail in the U.S. for about $250 each, yet Bloomingdale’s, Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman can’t keep them in stock. “Each one is like a piece of art,” says Bendel’s buyer Robin Klein. Wearers of the “Lisa Nichols for Berek” label include Goldie Hawn, Jaclyn Smith, Barbara Walters and Christie Brinkley, whose husband, Billy Joel, bought her one for their honeymoon. “The woman that’s going to buy me definitely has money,” Nichols concedes, but she is proud of her product’s durability. “What I most respect is something you bought years ago and can still wear now. That’s the difference between a fad and traditional style.”
Nichols’ sweaters are an extension of their creator’s perky personality. In honor of her favorite movie, Gone With the Wind (“I’ve seen it 35 times”), there is a number decorated with Tara, Scarlett and Mammy. Other sweaters include characters from 101 Dalmatians, a “diet sweater” littered with carrots, a tossed salad and a tape measure with pigs marching along it (Jane Fonda has this one) and a “football sweater” complete with pigskins, cheerleaders and pom-poms.
The pampered youngest child of a Durham, N.C. clothing shop owner, Nichols claims she “grew up in a dressing room” and by 8 was drawing fashion designs. She was so impatient to get going in the world that she dropped out after two years at Virginia Commonwealth University and eventually landed a sales job at the elite Berek. There, “I just kept pushin’,” she says, and soon won the chance to design. Her line now grosses the firm $12 million a year. She and husband Jeff Johnson, a 6’4″, 250-lb. Wall Street trader (“He’s the biggest guy you’ve ever seen—but he’s intelligent big”), have a flat in Hoboken, N.J., but that’s only home base. Still pushin’ to rise in the world, Lisa and Jeff bought a $65,000, four-seater airplane just, she says, “to visit some friends and kind of bebop around.”