Byline: Eric Wilson

NEW YORK — Could 510 Fifth Avenue become the Tahari Building?
Elie Tahari, the 48-year-old designer behind the Tahari and Theory sportswear lines, hopes to make a bid soon on the five-story Skidmore Owings & Merrill building that could eventually house the majority of his operations, plus a Tahari retail unit on its ground floor.
The building, a striking glass cube on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street, is owned by Chase Manhattan Bank, which operates a branch office on its first and second floors. Chase wants to sell the site, according to real estate sources, and Tahari, who leases space on its third and fifth floors for design studios, said he is eager to acquire the property to create something of a Tahari dreamhouse that would incorporate design, production and retailing.
“Ever since I first saw that building, I could see it housing the Tahari brand, like Ralph Lauren’s Rhinelander Mansion,” he said, referring to Polo’s Madison Avenue flagship.
Tahari, estimating the Fifth Avenue site could cost at least $12 million, said he is meeting with banks this week to finance a bid. If the designer is successful, the company’s corporate showroom, which currently occupies two floors of the Grace Building on West 42nd Street and has become famous within the industry for some of the most breathtaking views of Manhattan, will likely remain there or be scaled back to one floor.
Tahari’s vision for the Chase building — less than a block from the back entrance of the Grace — is for a “design development” laboratory where pattern makers, CAD operators and fabric designers, sales reps and even retail clerks could interact to fine-tune product design.
That concept led Tahari to move his design and sample production studios into the Fifth Avenue site two years ago, so that they would be in proximity to his showroom. The strategy is contrary to that of many Seventh Avenue firms that have moved their design studios to other parts of New York City, to New Jersey or overseas, as average square-footage rents within the garment district have more than doubled in the past 12 months, and the arrival of Internet businesses has shaken up the real estate scene there.
While many companies are restricting their presence within the fashion center to sales and showrooms, Tahari has centralized his business on the block defined by 42nd and 43rd Streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The light, airy architecture of the Grace and Chase Buildings have been particularly conducive to growing the Tahari business and retaining talented employees, he said, noting that his original relocation from 525 Seventh Avenue in 1996 was partly motivated by a feng shui reading that suggested it was time to make a move in order to change his luck.
“Since we have made the move, our quality of work is so much superior, and so is the quality of people we get to work here,” Tahari said.
Tahari is already in the midst of remodeling its leased spaces at 510 Fifth Avenue, which total about 21,000 square feet. A wraparound terrace that surrounds its 7,000-square-foot, fifth-floor design development studios is being landscaped to accommodate waterfalls and planters so that from the interior showrooms, the floor-to-ceiling windows will make it appear as if the rooms transcend their boundaries into outdoor gardens.
The sample design and production studios on the third floor of that building, which take up 14,000 square feet, were designed so that sewers and patternmakers were afforded the best window views and natural light, facing Fifth Avenue. Fitting rooms are on the same floor so that designers can directly interact with sample makers as a garment is being constructed.
“The moment we got this together was the moment I became in control of this business, cutting my patternmaking, fitting and cutting time in half,” Tahari said. “I think this is the most important thing. It is the kitchen of the business. It is where the mechanics take place.”
Julia Ussery, vice president of design, added that the design studio’s qualities cannot be compared to the those of other designers’ facilities. She previously worked for Calvin Klein until the designer licensed his women’s collection to an Italian manufacturer last year.
“There’s no way to compare this to any other facility,” Ussery said. “You wouldn’t be able to pay so much attention to the product. If a cutter has a question he can literally call me and I can come downstairs in two minutes.”
Having a quality work environment, despite its expense, has had a dramatic effect on Tahari’s business, he said, noting sales have tripled in the past two years. While some of Tahari’s factors have questioned the wisdom of the cost — with rents in 510 Fifth that average around $36 per square foot — the designer said the move has paid off with better sales and quality as well as less difficulty in attracted talented technical workers.
Tahari’s position as a tenant of the building could also pay off in his bid to acquire it, since real estate developers that might be interested in the property would likely make lower bids to make 510 an economically viable rental building. If Tahari were to take the space as its owner, he would no longer pay rent and therefore could consider a higher bid, he said.
Also a potential asset for Tahari is the building’s landmark status.
According to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the building was designated a landmark in 1997. However, Tahari said that when city officials learned the bank had put the building up for sale, they moved to nominate 510 Fifth for additional protections as an example of Fifties industrial architecture. Built for Manufacturers Trust Co., a predecessor to Chase, its “glass-curtain-wall” facade was a trademark of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, which had built the Lever House on Park Avenue and is also responsible for the Sears Tower in Chicago and the Bank of America building in San Francisco.
That status, if granted, might dissuade real estate developers from outbidding the designer, since it would prohibit any structural changes to the building’s design.
If Tahari is successful with the bid, it might mark another fortunate occurrence in his numerical charts. He moved to the Grace Building on the 21st anniversary of starting his business, and 21 happens to be Tahari’s lucky number.
Since that worked out well, the Chase site also has potential. Its sister building, the Lever House, was built in 1952, the same year Tahari was born.