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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.”