The notes to Elie Tahari’s first fashion show — for the Tahari label on April 24, 1978 — promised a “Fashion Spectacular.”
Held at Studio 54, which had opened just a few weeks prior, the designer had assembled the right models and the right music of the moment (the runway soundtrack included hits of the time, like “More Than a Woman,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Gigolo” and “Walk in Love”). It was a major moment for Tahari, who, in just a few years, had become a hot fashion commodity with his Morning Lady dresses, Midnight Lady tops and the Danièle O collection. But it was the day after the show that had the real impact, for reasons that were much less spectacular.
“The next night, I felt like s–t,” the designer recalled, chuckling. “[Studio 54 co-owner] Ian Schrager told me after my show, ‘Come tomorrow, and we’ll figure out how much you owe me, so you can write me the check.’ I arrive at Studio 54 in an old Rolls-Royce, and Mark [Benecke] at the door sees me and says, ‘Tahari, your party was last night. You’re confused, it’s not tonight.’ I say to him — and I was wearing this beige John Travolta suit — ‘Ian is waiting for me in the office.’ ‘Well, he can wait,’ he says. ‘You’re not on the list. You can wait all night.’”
Talk about a reality check.
“I got so insulted, and I realized at that moment — and this was the biggest thing in my life — that I am not the hot s–t I thought I am. That’s what started breaking down my ego, because I had a strong ego then.”
It should still be noted that it took Schrager six months and daily phone calls to Tahari to finally get his money.
“He made it happen, because I would have never paid him,” Tahari said.
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Sitting in his light-filled office on West 42nd Street that is decorated with a tasteful mix of contemporary art and furniture, some 35 years later, Tahari is full of such colorful anecdotes, each replete with a life lesson of sorts while also demonstrating the designer’s charm and passion. At age 61, Tahari is still as willing to take risks as he was when he came to America from his native Israel when he was just 19 with less than $100 in his pocket.
The Tahari story is the classic American dream: a mix of hard work, keen instinct and fashion savvy that led from an Israeli kibbutz to a short stint in Manchester, England, where he was visiting a friend he had met at the kibbutz, and ultimately to New York, where, more than four decades later, he now heads a $500 million fashion enterprise.
“When I was growing up, I did not know that I was in pain,” said Tahari, reflecting with candor on his early years. His parents had left their native Iran for Israel, and Tahari spent part of his life at an orphanage. “Life was filled with steady crisis. I had seen a lot at a young age. I grew up in Israel, I came to America in 1971. I was completely confused. Everything about America was a dream. Coming here, it was daily growth and inspiration.
“I wasn’t that eloquent or knowledgeable about America,” he added. “My education was through movies. So for me, to escape to a different planet was to sneak into movie houses and see a different world. When I got to America, that energy and culture that I saw in the movies suddenly became a reality.”
He recalled how, arriving in New York in 1971, he made his way from John F. Kennedy International Airport to the YMCA on the Upper West Side (which is, incidentally, right by his current home on Central Park West). America was everything he’d envisioned from watching Hollywood movies as a kid, and then some. New York, a city with a vibrant and visible Jewish community and many Israeli expats, provided a sense of belonging and home that had previously eluded him.
“I was no longer different — suddenly I was treated according to my character and the way I treat others,” he said. “If I treat others nice, they treat you nice here. New York is the least judgmental and most accepting city on planet Earth.”
Like so many New York rags-to-riches stories, though, not all was roses at first, and eventually, the young, penniless Tahari found himself on the streets of Gotham.
“I slept everywhere,” he said, but stressed that in a city like New York, he never felt like he was homeless. “I was at a picnic. New York was alive 24 hours. A kind man found me an emergency shelter. It was sponsored by the St. Marks Church on 69 St. Marks Place. It was for boys who had run away from home with nowhere to go, and they found jobs [for them]. I was under 22, so I could stay.”
Not that Tahari needed much help. Demonstrating his can-do attitude and survival instinct, he was at a diner on First Avenue and struck up a conversation that eventually landed him a job as a helper for two electrical companies in the Garment Center, putting to use electrician skills he had learned while studying electrical engineering in the Israeli Air Force.
His fashion trajectory really kicked into high gear with his other job, working the evening shift at the Fig Leaf clothing boutique in Greenwich Village. The job revolved around two major tasks — “to sell, and to meet women,” he laughed. “I worked with three other Persians. We’re still friends today — three handsome guys and all the girls were coming to the store. I was a nightbird. I would go out at night. That’s how I learned about fashion.”
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He learned enough about fashion and retail to inspire him to open his own store, Elie’s Boutique, on East 53rd Street between Second and Third Avenues, on the same street as Betsy Bunky Nini, and, as he pointed out, on “the corner where the gay prostitutes stood.”
“A week after I opened, somebody broke in the front door and took everything inside,” he said. “I had no insurance, no credit, nothing.”
Not one to give up on his store, he took the challenge as a blessing and turned it into an opportunity.
“They were building the Citicorp tower and knocking the block down, so I went and took a gate from a building about to be torn down. We installed it. Then I went to Broadway to the fabric stores, bought fabrics for 50 cents a yard and decorated the store with them.”
Observing real women on the street, he became acutely aware of their fashion preferences, and in 1973, one of his first hits became the tube top, inspired by the Seventies’ club culture and the proclivity for many young women of that era to go braless. He found bandeaulike, printed Indian gauze fabric tubes — a manufacturing error — in a New York store owned by Murray Kleid, bought up the stock and had elastic sewn into the pieces. In his hands, the look became a disco-ready hit.
“I knew that these bandeaus would be a hit,” he recalled. “It was complete fate. I started the tube-top craze and began my career off of a pure accident.”
He also made a splash in the late Seventies with disco dresses, including the tube dress and the handkerchief dress. Before long, Tahari moved on from nightclubs to boardrooms, designing suits that captured the essence of the time.
“It was the Eighties, and women really began to make their mark in the workplace,” Tahari said. “I wanted to create clothes that made them feel powerful, clothes that they could wear into the boardroom and feel confident in. The power suit and work pants became my most popular designs. The pants had a flat front and were made from soft fabric. Women were spending long hours at the office, and it was important for me to create something comfortable yet stylish for them to wear.
“Ladies loved the power suit — it gave them the ability to wear something other than a dress or skirt to work, and they felt empowered. To this day, women still come up to me and say, ‘I wore a Tahari suit on my first day of work,’ or ‘I wore Tahari on my first interview and got the job.’”
He pioneered the bridge movement and became one of the top names in modern sportswear, which was driven by items rather than ensembles.
It didn’t take long for Bloomingdale’s to notice, as did Charivari, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys New York. His first encounter with Bloomingdale’s then-president Marvin Traub spoke volumes about Tahari’s confidence and conviction.
“I had a lunch date with Marvin Traub, who had heard about me from Barbara Bass, his general merchandise manager,” Tahari reflected. “I went to lunch and there were 12 people there. I didn’t know how to handle myself. He gave me a sip of wine, and I never drank without food. I hadn’t even had breakfast. They wanted to give me a spot in the most central location where they do the most business. Marvin said to me, ‘Elie, I know what’s good for you. That’s the best location because it has the most traffic.’ I said, ‘I don’t like the [resources] I am around. I want to be next to designers.’”
A heated back-and-forth resulted in Tahari throwing down his napkin, getting up midway through the meal and leaving.
“I walked out and said, ‘That’s the end.’ Then Barbara Bass came here with a bag of candy and said, ‘Marvin doesn’t want to have lunch with you anymore. This time he wants to have breakfast.’”
It was an astute gesture, and an even better idea, as talks resulted in Tahari getting his own prime spot in the store. 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,” adding 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.”
Tahari’s business has evolved quite a lot since those early days. He now designs women’s and men’s apparel as well as accessories, including handbags and eyewear, and footwear. He also has a retail network that, domestically, includes boutiques in prime locations, such as on Fifth Avenue and in SoHo in Manhattan, as well as East Hampton, N.Y., Dallas, Las Vegas and Atlanta. Globally, there are freestanding stores in Istanbul, Warsaw and Doha in Qatar. Major stores like Saks and Bloomingdale’s devote significant real estate to the designer.
Going through such significant growth, there were many high points and low moments, plenty of successes (including the founding of Theory in 1997 and several wise retail investments) and some that were less so (i.e., his failed 2004 attempt to buy Barneys New York). Asked to recount some of the highlights and challenges, Tahari, who has been studying the Kabbalah in the past couple of years, deflected.
“The low is where you correct your direction,” he said. “So the lows, the challenges, are where the blessing is. It’s all Kabbalah. I have always been in thirst of spirituality and looking for truths. I study Kabbalah because I find it is endless truth.”
There are still some classic Elie-isms that remain part of his daily philosophy, among them, “Even a kick in the ass is good when it faces the right direction.”
He admits that he is more spiritual than he has ever been, and his Middle Eastern roots continue to play an important role in the Tahari story. In fact, bowls full of roasted almonds are placed throughout his headquarters; his executive assistant arranged for baklava for this meeting.
For his 40th milestone, he created a capsule called Elie Tahari Edition 1974, with updated versions of his most iconic looks, including a new tube top, jumpsuit, power suit, tuxedo and several signature leather pieces for spring 2014.
These looks will be unveiled as part of his spring presentation today.
“Over the years, I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to make an impact on the fashion world,” Tahari said. “I was one of a small group of designers to create a modern sportswear section in department stores. It was important to serve our customers and meet their needs. I wanted to create a shopping area, which eventually became whole floors where ladies could have their blouses, dresses, jackets. This was the birth of modern sportswear, at that time called bridge.
“When I reflect over the past 40 years, I am so grateful to my loyal customers. They are my biggest accomplishment, the ones who made my dreams a reality,” he reflected. “I look forward to the next 40 years filled with light and truth.”
His life mission goes far beyond just making clothes. These days, he loves nothing more than spending time with his children — 12-year-old Jeremy and nine-year-old Zoe — and his girlfriend, Joanne Blessinger.
Tahari takes his future on spiritually.
“I feel my work on planet Earth has only just begun,” he said. “Business is a means to do your real work. I feel I have a reason for me to really go to work, and the reason I am here is not only to do with our industry and business. I am appreciative for this life and owe a lot to it in return.”