Elie Tahari is best known as the creator who popularized the hit. But he is also proof that imagination, dynamism and a lot of nerve can take you far.
It is one of three fashion industry giants with over $1 billion in sales, in business for over four decades and still led by its founder. So says “The United States of Elie Tahari”, a documentary about the legendary designer. The others are Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani.
But the success of the Jerusalem-born designer was far from assured. Due to family issues, he was raised largely in an orphanage. He still remembers children laughing at him because “my clothes were dirty and wrinkled”. All this serves as motivation.
“It’s not being poor that hurts you,” he said in an interview with Investor’s Business Daily. “That’s thinking poor.”
Go to success like Elie Tahari
After his military service in the Israel Defense Forces, where he learned the trade of electrician, Tahari saw a better future in the United States. But how to get there?
Fortunately, his brother, Abraham, worked for El Al, the national airline. As a parent, he was entitled to a reduced fare ticket. But even that was beyond his means. However, as it happened in 1971, long before computers and tickets were carbon copies, it was easy to change a ticket for A. Tahari into one for E. Tahari.
He landed in New York with less than $100 in his pocket and checked into a YMCA. But even in the early 1970s, $100 could only get you so far. When his money ran out, he stored his clothes in a YMCA gym locker and slept on park benches.
Plug into the opportunity
Eventually, Tahari ended up in a homeless shelter. Luckily it was located next to an electrical contractor.
“I would go (to the contractor) every day and ask for work,” Tahari said. “They would make a joke of it and say I live in a shelter, what could I possibly know.” But in the end, the entrepreneur gave in.
“One day the company got a big job in New Jersey and said ‘we need some help. Would you be a help? “, Tahari said. “I said ‘of course’ and went to New Jersey and helped with the wiring.
Other odd jobs came along and eventually he landed a union card and a job with an electrical contractor who worked in Manhattan’s garment center. “Standing on a ladder, fixing light fixtures, looking at the models, I (thought to myself) I was in the wrong job,” he said.
Tahari: find a path to your wishes
To earn extra money, Tahari also got a part-time job working nights and selling clothes at a boutique in Greenwich Village.
“On MacDougal Street, the stores were open until 2 a.m. and there were people everywhere. The store was owned by Harold Levy, an Israeli, and he gave me a job,” Tahari said. “It was here that I studied and learned what women want to wear. Also, I learned that if you give them what they want at the right price, you can sell a lot.”
His breakthrough was near. The 1970s were “the age of the hippies”, he recalls. “Women didn’t wear bras. ‘Let it all hang out’ was the slogan.”
Find the biggest idea
On an exploratory trip to the Lower East Side long before it became fashionable, Tahari noted that there were weekend markets there.
“It was open. Bustling and bustling. I saw a stand that was selling older swimsuits with a (tube-shaped) top. So I bought some,” he said. “It was like $2 apiece and I took them to the store.”
Tahari put the clothes on a counter to show them to his boss. And as he explained the potential significance of his discovery, curious customers started picking up and buying his samples. Thus was born Tahari’s first great contribution to the world of fashion: the tube top.
But the tube top almost never saw the light of day. Tahari had saved a few thousand dollars to make more samples and print purchase orders for potential customers. And his shop owner donated money to earn more. But Tahari naively went to a boutique trade show the day it opened with the intention of renting a booth. Of course, by then all the stalls were sold out.
So, he took his gear and settled down in a hallway outside the exhibition space. When the security guard came to interrogate him, Tahari told him, “But I just came back from the office. It was technically true. Also, if told to move out, Tahari would simply move his goods to another floor. “I had nothing to lose, so I tried everything. And it worked,” he said.
He left the shop floor that day with orders for 250,000 pieces. So he went to Levy and said “I can’t do it. I can’t produce that much. (Levy) said he would produce it for me and let me ship my orders through him.”
Focus on your brand like Elie Tahari
Tahari’s idea first took shape as a company called Modern Lady. However, it didn’t take long for him to receive his first lesson in branding – from an unlikely source.
“A model maker told me to change (the company name) to my name,” Tahari said. “If they (customers) think it’s a designer, it’s more prestigious.” He therefore first renamed the company Tahari and then Elie Tahari.
“I never thought of myself as a designer. The market thinks so,” he said. “I learned design from the designers who worked for me.”
Tahari takes pride in not just picking colors. “I choose the fabrics. I choose the silhouettes and tell my people how to put them together,” he said.
He is also good at picking up trends. After the tube top put him on the map and in business, he recognized the potential impact of disco culture and jumped on it. He sponsored his first major fashion show, a splashy release party, at a new nightclub, Studio 54, shortly after it opened. There he introduced a line of dance dresses and blouses.
He followed that, in the 80s, as women increased their presence in the workforce, with a line of smartly tailored suits.
Know your customer well
When asked who his clients are, he replied, “She’s smart. She knows quality.” But Tahari’s clients also know fashion. “She knows the fabric,” he said. “That’s why I don’t take shortcuts. I give them clothes loaded with quality. My clients have been following me for years.”
Fashion designer Nicole Miller agrees. “His tailoring was always perfect. His clothes always stood out in department stores. He always had a talent for colors and for choosing the best materials and textiles. For me, he was a master tailor. He always worked very hard to make his dreams come true.”
Fern Mallis, former executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, said, “Elie has always known his clients. He was surrounded by opinionated and strong women, and this has a strong influence on him. You can’t be successful without knowing who your customer is.”
Be ready to change your business
Tahari doesn’t just know his client. He knows where to find them. During the pandemic, he found that some of his retail customers were slowly paying their bills, stopping paying or canceling orders. It has therefore largely shifted from wholesale to primarily online, where sales, he says, are “exploding”.
In short, as Mallis notes, Elie is a personification of the “American dream. Plus, he’s a good, kind person.”
The keys of Elie Tahari
- Built and runs a billion dollar fashion empire that initially popularized the hit.
- Overcome: Lack of experience running a business and growing up poor.
- Lesson: “My biggest challenge was learning how to hire the right people. At first, I had a hard time knowing who to hire. I didn’t speak the language well and people took advantage of me.”
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