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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.”