NEW YORK — “Pablo Picasso once said, ‘A good artist copies, a great artist steals,’” designer Elie Tahari told a gathering of design students at the Fashion Institute of Technology here last week. Tahari was discussing his rise to fame, which started with a $2 tube top he designed after noticing them on the streets of New York City in the Seventies, and repurposing it to ultimately create a multimillion-dollar business.

This story first appeared in the April 9, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Though fame came almost overnight for the designer, Tahari — celebrating his 40th year in business — said it was hardly an easy transition. He overcame adversity, fighting through poverty, becoming orphaned in Israel and then creating an empire with only $100 in his pocket. Today, Elie Tahari is a global brand worth $500 million.

“I have a passion for fashion — and fashion is compassion,” said Tahari of his key to success.

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He moved to the East Village from Israel in the Seventies and was immediately drawn to the hippie movement, especially with women who wore loose clothing, without bras. But it was his ventures out at New York City nightclubs and iconic venues such as Studio 54 that gave him the most inspiration.

“I used to hang out at clubs all night long, and studied the women,” he said, with a coy laugh.

Thus came his first foray into creating a fashion business, named after his muse, the aptly titled “Morning Lady.” The name changed, his business remained.

After tube tops came suits tailored to a woman’s body, a concept that Tahari said took his business to a more serious level.

“I didn’t have a name for the brand,” he recalled. “Someone then suggested: Why not name it Tahari? You can make more money. Look at Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren.…Make more money?’ I decided to do it!”

The advice was good, and after a few years, Tahari saw his business grow exponentially.

His biggest advice for those seeking to follow in his successful footsteps? “Be humble. Don’t have an ego,” he said. “When I go into work, I go in with passion and love — because that’s what I want to do. It’s not the harvest we harvest today, it’s the seed we plant today [that creates success].”

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