Elie Tahari is the embodiment of the American dream
They say if you can do it there you can do it anywhere. No one knows this better than Elie Tahari, who arrived in New York City in 1971 with less than $ 100 in his pocket and slept on a bench in Central Park. Born in Jerusalem, the Israeli designer spent his formative years in a refugee camp without electricity or running water. “I remember the other kids making jokes about me because my clothes were dirty and wrinkled,” he says.
If only they knew who they were dealing with. In a new documentary, Elie Tahari’s United States, now airing on Vimeo, Tahari chronicles her journey from fleeing Iran with her family to building a billion dollar fashion empire. Obviously, he’s the living, breathing definition of the American Dream and he quickly professes his love for the city that made him flourish. “I love everything about New York City,” says Tahari, who currently resides in Midtown West. “The mentality, the fact that there are no differences, whether you are black or white, Jewish, Christian, Muslim … we all live in peace and harmony.”
As the story goes, in 1973, while working as an electrician in a clothing store in the Garment District, Tahari popularized the tube top, a new design based on a swimsuit top he stumbled upon. in an Orchard Street market. The following year, he launched his eponymous brand at the height of the disco era, with universally flattering pieces that signaled the wearer’s confidence, attitude and style, across generations – and the rest is up to the story.
Here, more from Tahari about his upbringing, hazy memories of mistier nights at Studio 54, and the triumphant return of the hit top.
How did you decide the time was right for a documentary?
The truth is, I always go with the flow. When the opportunity arose, I said “yes” – I did not say “no”. When [director and producer] David Serero heard my story, he approached me and said: “I make films. He had no support or funding or anything; he did everything himself. He filmed, he directed, he put the music in it. He is versatile and I am very proud of it.
If you ever met those children in the refugee camp who made fun of your “dirty and wrinkled” clothes, what would you say to them?
I would say, “The more wrinkled clothes you have, the more opportunities you have, and it will get better and better from there.” The fact that you have wrinkled clothes only makes your muscles stronger. I was born in Israel, you know, and things are tough there. People are getting strong. The children are much more advanced – at 18 they are already in the military. This is proof that the more pressure you are, the stronger you are.
I was surprised to learn that you did a bar mitzvah at 42. Why so late?
Well, I grew up going to different residential schools. When I was 12 I was a bad boy, and at a school I broke into the laundry room and picked out clothes for all my friends. They asked me to leave, so I went to another boarding school. They had already done the bar mitzvahs [there], so they forgot mine, and I never had one. Then one day I got up very early to pray [at the synagogue], and the rabbi asked me if I had a bar mitzvah, and I said “no”. He said to me: “This Saturday, you are bar mitzvah.” And that’s what happened. No party.
No party? Even for a regular at Studio 54?
I can only tell you the business part of Studio 54 [laughs]. The first few months of its opening, we had a fashion show there and launched, at the time, it was called “Tahari”. I remember Iman was in one of our fashion shows. Linda [Evangelista] too much. And Cindy Crawford. If there were [other] stories I wouldn’t remember [laughs].
Is it true that you were a roller skating champion?
I went to all the hip clubs when I was in my twenties, and I went to a club in Brooklyn – I forgot the name – and there was roller skating there, and the music was hot. I started dancing and this guy came over; he loved my mind, he danced with me, but he was on skates. Then he helped me put on my skates, and he took me around the rink until I was a free bird and I started roller skating myself. I ended up quitting because I tore a ligament. I do a lot of yoga now.
What do you think of the re-emergence of the tube top trend?
When I first discovered the tube top in the 70s, women used to leave it all lying around. It was fashionable not to wear a bra. The elastic keeps everything together like a bra.
I would say a lot of women ditched bras during the lockdown.
I think it’s better to wear a bra! [Laughs.] You can wear a bustier, I guess. I consider the tube top to be a fast fashion; I don’t consider it a fad. It’s something that women wear like a throw-away piece.
How would you describe the New York woman?
Many of them dress like they’re going to the gym. But the most beautiful women are in New York, it is known the world over. Of all ethnicities.
Looking back, what do you think has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your career?
When we had to close the business 30 years ago. Ten years after starting, we lost everything because I was a bad operator. We created a brand new company, Tahari Ltd., and got back to business. It only grew and grew and grew.
How has your Sephardic past shaped who you are today?
My father had a fabric store in Tehran, and because he had a mezuzah on the door, someone set the store on fire and he lost everything. So we came back to Israel. My mother also suffered from epilepsy, and she couldn’t take care of us, there was no medication at the time for that. At 40, she had joy and nahas, which means “satisfaction of your children”. In Persia, you should see blessings at the end of your life, no matter where you start, how you start, or what you’ve been through. I always try to teach my children humility, appreciation and [to] always give. This is a good example from my past.
This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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