Byline: Leonard McCants

NEW YORK — Elie Tahari is going through a metamorphosis in his life and business.
He is newly married and about to become a father for the first time, developments that are giving him a new perspective on life. At the same time, and not without some coincidence, he’s also in the process of revamping his 20-year-old company with a multifaceted strategy aimed at making it more of a lifestyle brand.
First of all, the bridge-priced sportswear and ready-to-wear company is incorporating the full name of its founder and designer as it moves to diversify its product offerings and focus on brand building. Under the direction of image consultant Fabien Baron, the signature collection will have a fresh Elie Tahari logo to be used on signage and labels, and throughout corporate materials to go along with a new company identity.
After 26 years in business and with volume of more than $100 million, Elie Tahari’s two lines, Tahari and Theory, have become retail staples. Yet with all the success he had garnered over those years — the company now sells to six divisions within department stores between the two collections, with sportswear, dresses and suits being key categories — he feels now is the perfect time for a change.
The company is involved in an aggressive plan to move away from individual merchandise segments and instead focus on building a lifestyle brand accompanied by leather accessories, and eventually incorporating a jeans line, swimwear and lingerie.
“It’s not about the clothing anymore,” Tahari said in an interview in his corner office on the 48th floor of the Grace Building, with inspirational views of lower Manhattan and the Hudson River. “It’s about the perception of the customer when they walk into the store. That’s our future: to give a lifestyle concept that people can identify with, just like when you walk into a Gucci shop or a Prada shop.”
The Tahari collection will become more casual and “weekend” than its current career-oriented incarnation and will compliment the new higher-priced Elie Tahari collection, which will settle in a price category between bridge and designer, sometimes called the gold range, although Tahari prefers not to categorize it. He is also introducing a new collection of belts and handbags, designed and produced in-house for fall retailing.
Along with an increase in price, the distribution of the collection will narrow in an effort to create exclusivity for the brand.
Company executives are also in final negotiations with Italian manufacturer Gruppo Tessile Riunito, which produced Helmut Lang jeanswear and accessories until earlier this year, to produce and distribute the new Elie Tahari line in Europe and to produce a new jeanswear collection, which could retail for spring 2002, Tahari said.
In addition, the firm has approached an English company, which Tahari declined to identify, to make swimwear and lingerie, and is seeking a licensee for shoes. These potential agreements are all in an effort for Elie Tahari to become a vertically integrated concern that designs, produces, distributes and, eventually, sells its own products directly to consumers.
Tahari has his sights on opening a multi-floor flagship boutique in the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed building on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street he recently purchased from Chase Manhattan Bank, his former landlord, as reported. He said that store concept is probably a good two years away from becoming a reality.
The impetus for the new collection can be traced to the introduction of Theory in 1997. He launched the stretch-based line with partner Andrew Grossman to provide an avenue for him to address the “young and hip” customer he felt was left out of the Tahari line. He targeted the new line at the specialty stores where those consumers shopped.
As Theory became more successful and started breaking into larger retailers like Barneys New York, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, he said, more fashionable products and details were introduced into the Tahari line.
But the success of the bridge-priced Tahari line became a drag on the company because it required monthly groups to be shipped to stores, which drained creativity and profitability. Tahari said the time frame of first-price selling has become so small in bridge that whatever time isn’t spent on designing updated lines is spent agonizing over markdown money with stores on merchandise that was never given enough of a chance to sell without a price break.
“It became what deals you can make with the department stores,” he said. “I never wanted to be in a business where you have to negotiate markdown money.”
Meanwhile, the Israeli-born Tahari, who turns 50 this year, said this new direction has been a mid-life renaissance of sorts both for the man and his company, the beginnings of which started with his marriage a little more than a year ago to Rory Green, a former film producer who now works on Internet projects at the company. Green is expecting their first child this summer.
“When I got married my whole life changed,” he said. “Once my life changed, my desire changed and my vision changed. She has always lit a fire under me to start focusing on doing good work.”
That focus has been lost over the years, he lamented, as the company moved from designing disco clothing for East Village hipsters in the Seventies to volumes of suits, dresses and career separates in the Nineties.
“This business was supposed to be about fashion and it was supposed to be about newness,” he said. “But it became so business oriented that it became boring and standardized.”
His antidote to the ennui is the new collection, which he sees as a return to his roots and a way to enter the lucrative realm of accessories and expand beyond American shores.
Despite the company’s already significant volume, Tahari is adamant his business has much more room for growth. He cited Gucci as a model, noting that the Italian company derives the vast majority of its revenue from leather goods and from European customers, two arenas where his business is lacking.
But instead of presenting them in stark showplaces that could be intimidating to some people, and at prices that are out of the reach of most consumers, Tahari offers his new collection as “accessible luxury” and says it will have a sportswear mentality.
“Every item has to stand by itself,” he said. “I hardly have any jackets on the line. In 2001, it’s a different world. What’s different with this line is that you can buy an item on the line and you can wear it with whatever is in your wardrobe.”
The line includes shearling jackets and reversible leather coats with rabbit lining, as well as luxury knit tops and denim skirts in novelty fabrics.
But even with the changes, Tahari said he will not move too far away from the basics of his business. He said there will always be suits and dresses in the collection and the change will take years to complete so as to not upset his die-hard customer — or his bottom line.
“That woman who has been following Tahari, we’re going to give it to her in a better way,” he said. “If you don’t take your product and baby it, you’re not going to be successful.” Come this summer, he’ll have plenty of experience.