Elie Tahari is now the heir apparent to a fashion empire. But his first job was in New York City as a car washer for just 50 cents per hour.
He accepted the job. In the early ’70s, the Israeli had flown to the Big Apple with less than $100 in his pocket. The YMCA was his first place to sleep. He paid $2 per night. He slept on a Central Park bench when he ran out money.
“I didn’t feel it was dangerous — nobody attacks a little homeless kid,”Tahari states in “The United States of Elie Tahari,”Premiere at Brklyn Film Festival, this weekend
This documentary follows his rise from a poor child to a self-made fashion mogul, who started out with a simple tube top. Interviews with New York fashion stalwarts Fern Mallis, Melissa Rivers and Dennis Basso are included in the film.
“No one gave him anything. He did this on his own,”Basso speaks highly of his friend.
Tahari, the man who dressed Hillary Clinton, and Joan Rivers in his clothes, was born into a difficult childhood in Israel. His parents fled Iran after he was killed. The refugee child was brought up in a house made of metal sheets and had no access to electricity, water or indoor bathrooms.
“The other kids used to make jokes out of me because my clothes were dirty and wrinkled,”Tahari, aged 70, speaks in the film.
Clothing was in his blood. His father, a fabric dealer, was his father. And his mom sewed him his clothes. Tahari joined the Israeli Air Force as a teenager and became a mechanic.
His father said to him that he had returned from the war in uniform. “We don’t have room for you — we are too many,”Tahari can still be remembered. He went into his 1-bedroom apartment. “cried for two days.”
His brother worked for El Al Air and flew free, so Tahari fudged the first initial on a ticket — from his brother’s first initial of “A”You can also visit “E” — and set off for the Big Apple.
After cleaning cars, Tahari landed a job at the Garment District where he changed light bulbs in fashion houses. Tahari, seeing below the action from the ladder noted: “I’m in the wrong job.”
The boutique was owned by an Israeli-born man, who made clothing. Tahari was inspired to create a strapless, elastic top for women that could be worn outside by the pool and beach.
“With the tube top, it was a natural thing,”Tahari speaks of his now-ubiquitous invention. “Women in the ’70s, when the hippie movement started, they let it all hang out. They didn’t want to wear bra.”
His boss was presented with about 12 tube tops. “I put [them] on the counter and a couple of customers came and started fighting over them.”He was soon a successful designer. “It just took off.”
Self-described “Self-proclaimed” “night owl”He is an avid skater and held his first fashion show at Studio 54. The show featured flowing disco-inspired clothing. In the 1980s, as women entered the work force in droves, Tahari pivoted to the power suit, pioneering tailored, feminine versions of the men’s office staple. In 1989, he opened a shop in Bloomingdale’s on the designer floor; more followed.
Miller mentions that Tahari was a “simple” character in the movie. “master tailor.”
“His jackets were exquisite,””I remember the one I bought in 1980,” she said. “It was plaid with puff shoulders . . . I always got tons of compliments on it. I wore it forever.”
Tahari was later a key figure in the launch of Theory. His suit line, which sold at a lower price point than his other clothing, made it more affordable for a larger audience. In 2014, he designed a capsule collection for Kohl’s.
The married father of two still shows at New York Fashion Week — in 2019, Christie Brinkley and her daughter Sailor Brinkley-Cook walked his runway — and he credits the United States for allowing him to fulfill his dreams.
“[The American flag] is a symbol of the free world. It’s a symbol of freedom. It’s a symbol that we can express ourself,”He said. “I’m very grateful to this country.”
Tahari’s greatest achievement in fashion is his decision to bring his family here from Israel.
“I only thought about my family and how I could support them and help them. In the end, I brought everybody here,”He said. “So that was my biggest trophy. My biggest success.”
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