I was once broke and homeless
Elie Tahari now rules a fashion empire, but his first job in New York was washing cars for 50 cents an hour.
He accepted the concert with joy. In the early 1970s, the Israeli flew to the Big Apple with less than $100 in his pocket. He first slept at the YMCA for $2 a night. When he ran out of money, he slept on a bench in Central Park.
“I didn’t think it was dangerous – no one attacks a little homeless child,” Tahari says in “The United States of Elie Tahari”, premiering at the Brlyn Film Festival This weekend.
The new doc traces his journey from a poor kid to a self-made fashion mogul who built a business from a humble hit. The film features interviews with stalwarts of New York style such as Fern Mallis and Melissa Rivers as well as designers Nicole Miller and Denis Basso.
“Nobody gave him anything. He did it all by himself,” Basso says of his friend.
Tahari, who dressed Hillary Clinton and Joan Rivers, had a turbulent childhood in Israel, where her parents settled after fleeing Iran. He was born in a refugee camp and lived in a sheet metal house with no electricity, running water or indoor bathroom.
“The other kids laughed at me because my clothes were dirty and wrinkled,” Tahari, 70, recounts in the film.
But clothes were in his blood. Her father was a fabric seller and her mother sewed her outfits. As a teenager, Tahari entered the Israeli Air Force, where he became a mechanic.
When he returned home in uniform, his father told him: “We don’t have room for you, there are too many of us,” recalls Tahari. He went to his one-bedroom apartment and “cried for two days”.
His brother worked for El Al Air and flew free, so Tahari forged the first initial on a ticket – from his brother’s first initial “A” to an “E” – and left for the Big Apple.
After scrubbing cars, he landed a gig in the Garment District changing light bulbs in fashion houses. Tahari, watching from the ladder at the swirling action below, noted, “I don’t have the right job.”
He started working in a shop owned by an Israeli who also made clothes. One day, Tahari had a sartorial epiphany: an elastic, one-size-fits-all strapless top that a woman could wear outdoors, at the pool, or at the beach.
“With the high tube, it was a natural thing,” Tahari says of his now ubiquitous invention. “The women of the 70s, when the hippie movement started, they let it all hang out. They didn’t want to wear a bra.
He brought a dozen hits to his boss. “I put [them] on the counter and a few customers came and started fighting for them. Soon the budding designer had his own business. “It just took off.”
A self-proclaimed “night owl” and avid skater, he held his first fashion show at Studio 54. Naturally, it featured flowing, disco-inspired attire. In the 1980s, as women entered the workforce in droves, Tahari turned to the power suit, pioneering feminine, tailored versions of the office staple for men. In 1989, he opened a boutique at Bloomingdale’s on the designer floor; more followed.
In the film, Miller notes that Tahari is a “master tailor”.
“His jackets were exquisite,” she says, recalling one she bought in the 1980s. “It was a plaid with puffy shoulders. . . I always got tons of compliments on it. I carried it forever.
Later, Tahari helped launch Theory and created a line of low-cost costumes that made his clothing available to a wider audience. In 2014, he designed a capsule collection for Kohl’s.
The married father of two shows at New York Fashion Week – in 2019, Christie Brinkley and daughter Sailor Brinkley-Cook walked on his catwalk – and he thanks the United States for allowing him to achieve his dreams.
“[The American flag] is a symbol of the free world. It is a symbol of freedom. It is a symbol that we can express ourselves,” he says. “I am very grateful to this country.”
Despite all of his fashion accomplishments, Tahari remains most proud of having brought his family to America from Israel.
“I only thought of my family and how I could support and help them. In the end, I brought everyone here,” he says. “So that was my biggest trophy. My biggest achievement.