Tahari Talks Tough Love

Elie Tahari is feeling a lot of love.

Elie Tahari is feeling a lot of love — so much so that in his presentation, Tahari mentioned the word 18 times. For the designer, a special kind of love for merchandise and service enables him to romance clients.

“We are not looking to have a one-time sale, a one-night stand, as I call it,” Tahari said. “We are looking to develop relationships. I remember when I took my wife on a first date, and I was looking for a relationship. I made sure that I invited her home for dinner. The table was set properly, the lighting was great, the music was great, the fireplace was lit. It’s no different in retailing. The store needs to be romantic and seductive. It needs to be sexy.”

Just as Tahari got the girl — his wife, Rory, who is also the label’s creative director — the designer has been attracting clients who have made him one of the top resources on the bridge floors, where the brand is often positioned as a segue to the contemporary area. Elie Tahari runs a $500 million business, selling to more than 600 doors in the U.S., including Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom and Macy’s West. He has five freestanding boutiques and recently launched T Tahari, which is exclusive to Macy’s.

It’s a far cry from the mid-Seventies, when Tahari moved to New York from his native Israel with little money but lots of ambition.

In his presentation, Tahari recalled juggling two jobs at the start of his career: an electrician in the garment district and a salesman in a retail store in Greenwich Village. The early experience taught him a crucial lesson about retailing that he carries with him. “I remember a customer walking into the store, and we wouldn’t let the customer walk out of the store without being in the aura of love, being serviced and making sure she [walked] out of the store happy,” Tahari said.

Tahari has recently embarked on opening a chain of upscale freestanding retail units he calls “luxury stores,” which have launched in Boston, Atlanta and in SoHo. They offer a selection of his empire, which keeps growing.

This story first appeared in the November 15, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

This fall, the designer added accessories to his roster, launching about 50 styles of shoes and 23 handbag designs made in factories he purchased in Italy. These plants will enable him to develop special products for his own stores that will not be wholesaled. The new crop of stores also offer a smattering of his new men’s wear collection, which has the same luxury sensibility with a nod to details as his women’s designs.

“There are five elements that I look at a store and say, ‘This is going to be our philosophy, this will be a successful store,'” Tahari said. “The most important thing is the content of the store, the product. Out of five things, three would be about product: quality, fit and price ratio to quality.”

Service makes up number five, and, in Tahari’s world, that all boils down to one thing: that four-letter word. “She needs to be treated with love from the moment she walks in to the moment she walks out,” he said. “As a business in a community, we have responsibility in the world, and we need to put a drop of our love into the ocean. We need to share our love with everybody around, and I truly believe that’s the success of any business.”

The love starts long before the retail level. “When I start picking color or fabrics or silhouettes, every process is done with love,” he said. “It starts with love and doesn’t end when the alterations are finished. We love every process until the consumer buys it, wears it, enjoys it, dry-cleans it and still gets satisfaction.”

The sales staff should be just as titillated by the product to do the job successfully, and Tahari conceded that it is difficult to find the right people for the right jobs.

“But if we create a product that people love and want and are excited about, and we open stores that are exciting and inspiring, people come,” he said. “When airlines went into business, I was in Israel, and I remember how everybody wanted to work for an airline because they’d get to travel. We try to create a luxury retail environment that everybody would want to work for.”

During the Q&A session, the designer discussed everything from his daily routine to his feelings about how retailers merchandise his collection.

“I try to walk into one of our stores only when I feel good,” Tahari admitted, “because if I am feeling bad, I can’t take it, I get agita. Even if the store is perfect, with a perfect manager, I still see so many things that are wrong, It’s part of doing business. Sometimes I drive by Bergdorf Goodman, and my wife says, ‘Let’s go and see our shop,’ and I say, ‘Mmm, not today.”’

Of course, how Tahari feels on any given day has much to do with how he gets out of bed in the morning, and his account of that process had the crowd in stitches.

“I get out of bed, and I look around and say, ‘Don’t you f–k with me today,'” he said. “I tell the spirit, ‘Today, I am in charge, and you are not going to screw with me,’ and that’s how I start my day. I don’t wake up in morning and pray that all problems disappear. I pray that I will get stronger when they come, [so] I can face them.”

“It’s about keeping the spirit up all the time,” he added. “We have no choice. I tried it the other way, but it didn’t work.”

In the future, Tahari plans to expand his reach with new products to create a lifestyle brand.

“Somebody once said, ‘We won’t drink the wine before it’s time,’ which is so right, or ‘The kick in the butt is good when you are facing the right direction,'” Tahari said. “We just started ladies’ shoes and men’s wear this year and are launching luxury handbags. Men’s shoes will be our next category. We’d love to be in more accessories — furniture, sheets and towels — but each one when its time comes. Many of you in the room can give me a kick in the butt if you are in those businesses.”