Elie Tahari showcased a candid sense of humor and self-awareness in a talk at the Fashion Institute of Technology on Monday afternoon as part of the school’s “Faces & Places in Fashion” lecture series, reflecting upon his lengthy career and the future of the brand. In an introductory video that originally aired on CBS Sunday Morning, students learned about Tahari’s childhood spent between Iran and Israel and how he was briefly homeless upon moving to New York City in the Seventies — a time he recalls not as a low point, but as a “great adventure.” In a classic rags-to-riches story, Tahari spent several nights sleeping on benches in Central Park — the same ones he now lives across the street from — with a $5-a-day budget before landing a job as an electrician in the Garment District, which spurred his interest in fashion.
Here, some highlights from the hour-long chat moderated by FIT professor Joshua Williams, which included a Q&A session with students.
On how New York City inspired him:
New York has been everything to me. It’s a unique city in the world. We’re lucky to be here….I actually used to run away from school when I was 10, 12, 14 to sneak into movie houses and watch movies, one after the other. That’s what brought me to New York….I wanted to be in a different culture. If you come from overseas, you can go anywhere in the world, and you don’t feel as comfortable. Once you come to America and to New York, the consciousness is completely different. It’s hard to explain it to someone who grew up here, but when you go to other cities you feel that something is closed off to you. When you come to New York, everything is achievable, possible and open to everyone.
On his first fashion memory in Israel:
I didn’t have the luxury to learn about fashion, and I didn’t know much about it. But I do remember that I spent all my money at around 12 years old to make myself a pair of pants at the tailor. I definitely paid attention to shapes. It was a pair of bell-bottom pants inspired by Elvis’ movies.
On how he became seriously interested in a fashion career:
I got a job as an electrician in the Garment District, and that’s really what brought me to the industry. At night, I used to work a second job in Greenwich Village selling clothes during the hippie days back in the Seventies. So I sold clothes and worked in showrooms doing electrical work during the day….I got electrocuted so many times because I was [too busy] looking at the models.
On designing for real women:
Like anything else in life, if you want to be successful, you have to do it with love, and you have to be as close to the truth as possible. The truth is that if you fit an average woman, you can sell more than if you fit on runway models. I fit on fit models, on average women. Each fitting could be 2-3 different bodies trying on the same thing. You have to be truthful to your customer….That’s who I’ve learned the most from — the customers.
On how the fashion landscape has changed over the years:
Fashion has changed drastically and dramatically, but fashion is about change. It used to be that there would be a new trend, like a miniskirt, and everyone wanted a miniskirt. And so that’s what you’d sell — a miniskirt. Those trends still exist, but they don’t exist in such big waves anymore. They exist in smaller waves.
On the oversize shoulder pads of his Eighties power suits:
The big shoulders…I called them ‘Delta Wings.’ I hope I won’t fall in love with that again. But that was a period of time. I don’t do exaggerated fashion [anymore].
On sticking to what you know and doing it well:
I make sure that I like the clothes we make. I have to like everything personally; it can’t just be good for business. And you can’t be everything to everybody. Some people try to do everything for everybody, and end up doing nothing for anyone. Other people focus on what they love to do — in their market — and they become better and better at that segment.
On his design process:
I start with some sort of idea because we’re constantly talking about ideas all year. When we’re thinking about the next collection, we have ideas about whether it’s long or sheer or bohemian…and from there we pick a color for the season. Color gives you an idea of what fabrications you want to use. Obviously, you have to have enough colors to do soft pieces….You can do a shocking pink blouse, but you can’t do a shocking pink suit. It’s harder to sell. So [I start with] color, then fabric, and then the silhouettes…but I wasn’t so sophisticated when I started. I would pick a fabric because it was well made and had good value. I picked colors that were in fashion, whether bright or dusty or soft. We used to make one blouse in 10 colors, one item at a time. That’s how we started.
On the inspiration behind his recent spring 2016 collection:
“Futuristic Nomad Crossing the Desert”…it’s very hard for a dyslexic guy to say, but that was the theme. It was a departure for us because we went very feminine and girly with longer silhouettes; more fluid and bohemian. There was fringe and lots of lace….The fabrics are very sheer in silk chiffon, but there’s a lot of texture.
On how he manages myriad aspects of his business, from accessories to home goods:
The answer is not very well. Like everything in life, it’s all about people. We have some great people that run different departments. If you have the right people, it’s easy. If you have the wrong people, it’s very difficult.
On embracing the culture of social media:
All my executives at the company are persuading me that it’s an important area. And I do believe it’s important. But there is nothing as important to me as making a great product, whatever it may be. The product is first — and the dressing is after.
On learning to love criticism:
The reason we don’t like some people in life is because they bring out something that we don’t like [about ourselves]. But the truth is that those people are helping you more than your friends who agree with everything you say. It’s the same thing in business. I used to get upset when somebody used to tell me that something didn’t fit, instead of embracing the person and appreciating that they cared enough to bring it to my attention. Bad news is really a blessing…it’s actually good news that you can do better. When somebody is truthful to you and tells you something doesn’t fit, that’s the most important person in your company. To be truthful is the most important thing in business.
On advice for aspiring fashion designers:
If I was a student, I would first learn — work [for someone else] and learn how to become better, more knowledgeable, more experienced. And then open your business. Opening a business is very hard. I believe that the future is on the Internet. I believe that you can start a fashion line and sell on the Internet and maybe in a few stores and become successful….It’s very hard to be profitable in department stores.
You appreciate everything more when you have a family and kids. I think about what to do with the business. My son told me, when he was eight years old, “Daddy, I’m gonna change the name from Elie Tahari to Jeremy Tahari.” I’m thinking, “How can I hand off [the business] in a way where it can run itself for a while…before he screws up everything?” [Laughter.]