Elie Tahari’s path over the past 45 years hasn’t always been a smooth one, but he has managed to persevere in the rough-and-tumble world of fashion. What started with tube tops selling for $2 a piece has grown into a fashion company whose collection and licensed products are expected to generate $1 billion in retail volume this year.
As the brand gets ready to present its fall 2019 collection at Spring Studios on Thursday, (which will be live-streamed on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook Live and include runway appearances by Christie Brinkley and her daughter Sailor), Tahari spent time last week — amidst a model call — reflecting on his 45th anniversary and what the future holds.
The company has survived in what’s become a very challenged and fractured sportswear industry, while many of its competitors over the past 45 years have disappeared or changed hands. The fact that Tahari, at 67 years old, still owns his own collection business, and remains passionate about it, is a testament to his grit and can-do spirit.
Tahari’s upbringing was far from ordinary. His parents left their native Iran for Jerusalem, where Tahari was born, and he spent part of his life in an Israeli orphanage after his parents divorced and his mother had epilepsy. In 1971, when he was 19 years old, he came to the U.S. by himself. “I came to visit and I never left,” said Tahari in an interview in his showroom at 510 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. He said his brother was a messenger for El Al Israel Airlines and got a free ticket, which said “A. Tahari.”
“I changed it and wrote E. Tahari [on the carbon copy]. It was a standby ticket to New York and back. I came for a few days, had $100, and ran out of money. I never wanted to leave,” said the designer.
Tahari slept outside a few nights and then went to a shelter on St. Mark’s Place in Greenwich Village, where hippies congregated, and that’s how he learned about fashion. The shelter gave him a day job as an assistant to an electrician, who serviced the garment center. At night, he worked in a clothing boutique in Greenwich Village called Fig Leaf selling clothes. The boutique owner, Howard Levy, had a manufacturing company called Cactus and would come to the store and ask the salespeople what styles the customers wanted.
“I used to give him ideas and he took me under his wing to the manufacturing side,” said Tahari. “Then I came up with the tube top.”
Inspired by the Seventies’ club culture, and the propensity of many young women to go braless, he found bandeau-like, printed Indian gauze fabric tubes in a New York store owned by Murray Kleid, bought up the stock and had elastic sewn into the pieces. They became a disco-ready sensation.
Tahari then opened Elie’s Boutique on 53rd Street, between Second and Third avenues. He sold merchandise manufactured by Cactus, along with other brands. Tahari would go into the market and buy lines. After running it for a year, he sold the store for $14,000.
“I sold it to an Israeli woman and went back to Israel and thought I was rich. I realized I couldn’t even buy a car or a house,” he said. He returned to the U.S. and opened another boutique called Icarus, on Lexington Avenue and 58th Street, right near Bloomingdale’s, which was very successful.
It was a multibrand store and carried a lot of Cactus tube tops. The store lasted many years, but after a year, Tahari exited and started manufacturing tube tops, disco dresses, including the tube dress and handkerchief dress, under the Morning Lady label. The company sold its stock from the backroom, rather than a showroom, to small boutiques. “I didn’t know any better. It was cash and carry,” said Tahari. “We used to sell the tube top for $2 and it retailed for $4. We made them in the U.S.A.”
“Then we were so hot, we started selling from the showroom. Casual Corner and Ups ‘N Downs would come and buy huge quantities,” he said. “Those days, whatever you could manufacture, as much as you could manufacture, there was a customer for it,” he said. Tahari was only selling small stores, including Syrian boutiques. His brother, Harvey Tahari, took over Icarus.
Tahari described his female customer in the early days as a “hippie.” One day, his pattern maker said to him, “Everybody’s copying us. Why don’t you change the name to your name and you’ll get more money for it?” At the time brands such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Anne Klein were using the designers’ names. He changed the label to Tahari in 1974.
As the Eighties approached, women began making their mark in the workplace, and Tahari sought to create clothes to make them feel powerful. Previously, he said, women were wearing printed polyester dresses and wrap dresses. He started designing a power suit and work pants, which became his most popular styles. The pants had a flat front and were made of soft fabric. He pioneered the bridge movement and became one of the top names in modern sportswear.
Bloomingdale’s was the first department store to believe in him. Marvin Traub, the retailer’s former chairman and chief executive officer, wanted to put him in a highly trafficked area, near brands such as Jones New York and Evan Picone, but Tahari refused and wanted to be housed with designers. “I asked to be in the middle of the designers. He gave me a shop and we were hot and on fire,” he said. A Bloomingdale’s ad in The New York Times in March 1983 proclaimed the Tahari boutique “a pleasure palace, a hexagon complex with two pavilions in a luxurious Chinese motif,” noting that the Tahari name “may be new to you but remember it well, for Elie is one of the prime design talents of the Eighties.”
Asked how things have changed since those heady days, Tahari said, “In the early days, there was no computer. When the computers came out, it changed the business. Buyers weren’t merchants anymore. The people who were analytically good became in charge in department stores. That’s when I stopped going to the showroom. A woman would come in and say, ‘The double-breasted jacket, we stopped selling the double-breasted jacket.’ And I would say, ‘This is a different jacket. That was a long jacket, this is a short jacket.’ They would not get it. Because they weren’t merchants anymore. I stopped going to the showroom when computers came out. It became a numbers game.”
Tahari said the most successful period for the company was from the 1970s to the 1990s, when the company really hit its stride.
Eventually Tahari moved to the contemporary areas of department stores. Today his line is housed in “Modern” departments.
Denise Magid, executive vice president, general merchandise manager of ready-to-wear at Bloomingdale’s, Bloomingdales.com and Concessions, said, “Elie has been a valued member of the Bloomingdale’s family for years. He has a deep understanding of women and what it takes to make her look and feel her best, which has enabled him to build this incredible business. Season after season the collections offer inspiration and style, which is exactly what the Bloomingdale’s customer is looking for.”
Brooke Fisher, vice president, women’s contemporary at Bergdorf Goodman, said, “In a world that is often dictated by trend that can change from season to season, Tahari remains consistent to the brand DNA, and I think that the customer appreciates that. Tahari makes really useful, wearable clothing for the modern woman which is always as fashionable as it is functional.”
Ken Downing, senior vice president, fashion director at Neiman Marcus, observed, “It all started with a tube top 45 years ago. Who could have imagined Elie Tahari would be dressing generations of women for their careers, their casual and most memorable moments. Elie’s love of color, flattering silhouettes and understanding of the ever changing needs of a woman’s wardrobe have made him a go-to designer for his entire career.”
While product has always been his forte, the management of the business has had its share of upheavals.
“I’m not good at managing the business. I’m good as a merchant, as a product person,” he admitted. No matter who was designing the collection over the years, Tahari has been involved in design. “I’ve always been involved with the product and I’m always in charge of the product. That was our strength,” he said.
Today the company is run by a group of people. Susan Klope is vice president of design; Susan Mazursky is controller; Scott Vogue is chief operating officer, and Robyn Goodman is vice president of sales. Tahari said that Klope has been with him “almost from the beginning.” Kobi Halperin was her assistant and when she left, Halperin took charge of design. When Halperin left, Klope came back.
Halperin, who designs his own sportswear collection that is financed by S. Rothschild, a New York-based firm, spent 13 years at Elie Tahari and became executive creative director. “I had an amazing opportunity to learn about the industry and to learn what to do and what not to do,” said Halperin. He said there were some “amazing moments,” and “less amazing moments.”
“The experience at Elie Tahari prepared me for what I am today,” Halperin said.
Last year, Tahari and Bluestar Alliance LLC formed a joint venture company, TBH Brand Holdings, LLC. Elie Tahari contributed the intellectual property for the Tahari and T Tahari collections, along with related trademarks, into the joint venture with Bluestar, which is responsible for the day-to-day management and licensing of those brands domestically and internationally. In addition, TBH Brand Holdings assumed responsibility for the licensing management of the Elie Tahari core trademark with a focus on expanding the brand’s global presence and the opening of Elie Tahari stores worldwide. The designer retained ownership of and manages the Elie Tahari brand.
“They’re doing a terrific job and they’re very good partners,” said Tahari of Bluestar.
Ralph Gindi, chief operating officer of Bluestar, said about the joint venture: “It’s going really well. Elie’s designer collection does well at retail, adding a very nice halo effect.” The company introduced a full men’s wear collection, from footwear to headwear, including men’s intimates, outerwear, and cold weather accessories, and the women’s side is doing well under the Tahari, Tahari ASL and T Tahari trademarks, Gindi noted. As for licensing more categories under the Elie Tahari label, he said, “We’re taking it very slowly.”
Overall, he said, the brand has a lot of reach and a very strong history, and they’re looking to expand it beyond the U.S. and Canada. “It’s well known around the world. We think it will have a nice impact in better department stores around the world,” said Gindi.
Overseas, Tahari has shop-in-shops in Harrods in London and Galeries Lafayette in Istanbul, as well as freestanding shops in Istanbul and Doha, Qatar. In the U.S., Tahari has 23 stores in total, which includes seven Collection stores and 16 outlets. Tahari said the company wants to open more stores, but they would most likely be outlets. The brand has 600 points of sale internationally.
Addressing some of the biggest challenges he has faced over the past 45 years, Tahari turned to markdowns, which has been a constant complaint throughout his career. “When the department stores started asking for markdown money, it became a big challenge to the whole industry. It hurt them because it became less merchant and more computer-oriented,” he said.
Despite that constant refrain, the business continues to plug along.
One of the newest developments at Elie Tahari is the brand’s first fragrance, which is tied to the company’s 45th anniversary. The fragrance is licensed to TPR Holdings. Each of the chairs at the fashion show will have a sample bottle. The Elie Tahari Eau de Parfum (30 ml) sells for $68, and the Elie Tahari purse spray is $32. The fragrance goes on sale in April.
Asked whether he still gets as excited about design as he was in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, he replied, “Product always gets me excited.” The fall collection has a definite Seventies (think Ali MacGraw) vibe “which is up my alley,” said Tahari. There’s a lot of color.
“It’s such a different business now,” continued Tahari. “The industry is going through big challenges, and it’s challenging. We have loyal customers and we’re holding our own. I don’t see double-digit growth.” Among the company’s biggest accounts are Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, and Bergdorf Goodman.
Tahari said he still visits the stores to see how his departments look and how the line is selling. When he’s not happy about how the shop looks, or how it’s merchandised, he gets upset. “There’s a lot of frustration,” he said. He’s considered doing the concession model, but hasn’t done it yet.
Tahari described his customer as being between 30 and 60 years old. He said he’s also getting some of the contemporary customers. “She wants quality and she wants good fit. The customer wants to be cool,” he said. His line is distinguished from some of his competitors’ by its fabrics, subtle details, mixture of textures, and hardware.
When asked about his reputation as being difficult and that the firm is known as a hard place to work, the designer disagreed.
“I don’t think it’s a tough place to work. I think we’re tough on ourselves, on the product. It’s a tough business,” he said.
He described one of his proudest moments during his career as launching Theory in 1997 with Andrew Rosen. “That was a good time. When stretch fabric came out, Theory started with low-cut pants,” he said. Asked whether he’s gotten over his anger about the way things ended with Theory, he said, “Yes, we settled everything.”
Tahari sold his stake in Theory to Link International and Fast Retailing in 2003. In 2006, Tahari sued Rosen and 10 other defendants in New York State Supreme Court in a dispute over the sale of the brand. Ultimately, the case was settled out of court.
He also said he was proud of designing the tube tops and the women’s suits.
As for one of his most memorable moments, Tahari recalled when he first launched the tube top. He went to a trade show at the Hotel McAlpin in New York with a carton of samples and push pins. He went to the show’s reception desk and asked for an application, and they said they’d let him know for the next show. However, he wanted a room for that show.
“I snuck into the show. I went to the top floor, and I hung my tube tops with push pins in the hallway and gave purchase orders. There became a crowd in the hallway. The security guy comes to me, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I said I just came from the admitting office. By the time he called to find out, I moved to the next floor, and then the next floor. We sold 250,000 pieces. That’s how I started. I was very crafty,” said Tahari.
Looking to the future, the designer reflected on where he sees the Elie Tahari business headed.
“The business is changing so fast. I’d be a fool if I say I know where it’s going. It’s definitely going digital,” he said. He said the company has a good e-commerce operation.
Among the Tahari licenses are men’s wear, coats, a new footwear license, and a successful eyewear business. Tahari also has a home deal with T. J. Maxx, where he sells the retailer’s Home Goods division. Under the Elie Tahari label is the new fragrance. Eventually, he’d like to do color cosmetics and add more luxury products. Bluestar gets a portion of Elie Tahari licensing revenues, but doesn’t control it.
Today, the Elie Tahari collection generates about $200 million at retail, down from a peak of $300 million in 2010. The whole company, including licensees, expects to drum up $1 billion in retail volume this year.
In addition to his apparel business, Tahari has been active over the years in the real estate market — both commercial and residential. He owns a dozen commercial buildings around the world. Tahari has been honored in the fashion industry, including Elie Tahari Day (conferred by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg marking Tahari’s 40th anniversary in business in 2013), Ellis Island Medal of Honor and the Brand Vision Award from Fashion Group International. Last year he was presented with the Leader of the Arts Award from Identities, Harvard College’s student-run fashion show. Tahari is also involved in several philanthropies such as God’s Love We Deliver, Spirituality For Kids, Children of Chernobyl Foundation and the Worldwide Orphans Foundation.
As for whether he’s ever thought about selling the Elie Tahari business, the designer said, “It’s crossed my mind recently, that’s about it. I haven’t done anything with it.” He said his son, Jeremy, has a hip-hop line called Sash, which he’s developed while at boarding school in London, and his daughter, Zoe, is 14.
Tahari believes he’s mellowed out somewhat and doesn’t get as frustrated with the business as he used to.
“It’s a lot easier, and you get less upset, since the Kabbalah. You learn that everything happens for a reason in life,” he said.