Elie Tahari: Fashioning success

Fashion designer Elie Tahari at his Manhattan studio.

One of the featured designers at the recent New York Fashion Week was Elie Tahari, who has come a very long way in his career ... in more ways than one, as Tracy Smith now shows us:

NEW YORK - In the white-hot glare of the fashion world, the clothes take center stage. But the names on the labels can, of course, become famous in their own right: witness Diane von Furstenberg . . . Donna Karan . . . Elie Tahari.

The Tahari name is famous: the face behind it, not so much.

Of the millions who have Elie Tahari hanging in their closets, few probably know that Elie . . . is a HE.

"I was coming down the elevator with somebody that I noticed she bought of Elie Tahari clothes, and I said, 'I see you bought some Elie Tahari.' She said, 'Oh, I love her designs,'" Elie Tahari recalled. "Her design! 'I'm her,' I should have said, yes!"

Gallery: Elie Tahari Fall 2011 Collection

HIS designs are sold in more than 600 stores in the U.S., and worn by people with slightly more famous faces, like Beyonce, Elizabeth Hurley and Angelina Jolie.

It's all designed in a starkly beautiful - and bright - studio in Manhattan.

"Yeah, it's bright," Elie said. "And we make sure that everybody will see a daylight from everywhere. It's bright because you're dealing with product and the need to see the detail. And it's very important to see it clearly."

"You can't hide anything in here!" Smith laughed.

The samples are sewn together a few feet from the design tables. Beyond pure style, the thing that matters most around here is fit.

Sure, the initial samples are made to fit tall skinny runway models, but the clothes that will eventually be shipped out to a store near you are fit on members of Tahari's office staff: actual people, with actual hips.

"You have a fun job," Smith said to one woman sporting a pink dress.

"Yes, I do!"

Tahari's formula seems to be working. Sales of Tahari merchandise are put at around $100 million a year - and that's even more impressive when you know how little Elie Tahari started out with.

Born in Jerusalem in 1952, Elie Tahari spent much of his childhood in an orphanage after his parents divorced, and - when he came of age - served in the Israeli air force as a mechanic.

After his discharge, Tahari went to New York City, full of ambition . . . and little else.

Right across the street from the luxury high rise where Eli Tahari now lives is Central Park, which holds significance: Back in the summer of 1971, with almost no money to his name, he would spend the night on the park's benches.

Did he sleep well? "I remember sleeping well," he said. "I didn't think I didn't have a place to sleep and I was homeless. I thought I was camping. I was camping in New York. That's a good way to look at it - it's an adventure."

Tahari eventually found work changing light bulbs in New York's Garment District by day, and selling women's clothing at night.

"I worked in a boutique after work, my second job, selling women's clothes," Tahari said. "And that was a way of not just making money but meeting women. That was very exciting job. I loved that job."

"It was all about getting the girl?"

"All about meeting the girls, right!" he laughed.

It was also about learning what women in the disco era wanted to wear. Tahari's first big hit in the fashion business was a sleeveless shirt ... called the tube top.

They were, he said, "very popular. I remember we were selling them for four dollars, and I remember women come in and buying [them] by the dozen."

Before long, Tahari had his own store, and eventually graduated to a collection of women's business clothing - big padded shoulders and all.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Elie Tahari never had any formal fashion training, but he always seemed to know just what women wanted to wear, and they beat a path to his door.

"Frankly, I had no choice," he said. "I had to succeed. Failure means I would have to be homeless again."

After two decades of explosive growth, Tahari was a major player. By September of 2001, the man who once slept on a bench in Central Park now had a big office in Midtown Manhattan, in a landmarked building that he owned.

In the days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when New York was awash with red, white and blue, Eli Tahari wanted to make a statement of his own about his adopted country.

"I was just so mad at what happened," he said. "We owned a building on Fifth Avenue, and I decided that I would just put a flag on it," he said. "And it grew to a bigger one, and the whole building became a flag."

In the decade since, Tahari has had his challenges. His 10-year marriage to former journalist Rory Green dissolved last year.

"How are you holding up? How do you get through that?" he was asked.

"I like to say I'm not gonna let anything screw with my day," he laughed.

"Just power through?"

"It's tough, but every day's getting better."

The business, however, has flourished: Tahari puts the value of his company at around $500 million.

In the decade since, Tahari has flourished. He puts the value of his business at around $500 million.

"You literally went from rags to riches," said Smith.

"I don't walk around feeling like I'm successful," Tahari said. "I feel like I did well. Financially I'm comfortable. But life has a lot more in store for me."

He may never be the most famous designer in the world. He says he'd rather let his clothes do the talking.

But Elie Tahari's life story says it all.

"Do you have any advice for people out there who look at your story and ask, 'How did he do it'?" Smith asked.

"I would say: Everything you do, make sure you love it. Do it with love," he said. "It's all about love."

For more info:

•  elietahari.com