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From Penniless to Millions: The Elie Tahari Story

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Photo by Jerry Speier.
Photo by Jerry Speier.

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Elie Tahari's label is one of the most recognizable in the US today, but for the uninitiated, his story isn't a huge part of the brand narrative. Born in Israel and raised in an orphanage, the designer was penniless when he moved to New York in 1971 after finishing his service in the Israeli army. He made a living changing light bulbs in New York's Garment District and by selling women's clothes at night in the East Village. Eventually, Tahari found success with a luxury retail line of clothing which now brings in some $500 million in revenue a year.

The inspirational designer spoke at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology last night, providing motivational advice for students with similar career goals and answering questions about how he made his way in the fashion industry.

Below are ten tips Tahari shared with his audience about how he launched his fashion empire, endured start-up life and braved the difficult choices that go along with his career.

1. Find inspiration in the needs of everyday people
Tahari said he was searching for his first idea on the streets of the East Village and in New York City clubs. "Suddenly, I noticed the hippies, women walking around, letting it all hang out, with no bra. All these women wore long, polyester, printed dresses," he said.

Tahari began making tube tops, which became a major hit in New York and eventually made him famous. After the disco scene faded, he recalled shopping at a vintage store and seeing a woman trying on pants with a zipper on the side. It occurred to him there were no suits for women on the market that had "pleated pants at the front, the way men wear them." Tahari turned his efforts towards creating sexy, feminine suiting. After his suits made their way to Saks, Bloomingdale's, and his own Madison Avenue boutique, Tahari earned his nickname, "king of the suit."

2. It's not about you
Tahari said his fame and popularity got to his head at times, but told audiences to "be humble." He noted that the will to make it in the fashion industry must come from wanting to contribute something.

"The right intention will work for the consumer. It's about bringing pleasure to others for business," he said. "If you make a decision for yourself, it will be short-sighted. When you come from a decision from truth, that is good to share, that will bring longer satisfaction and contentment. [Success] can take you to Hollywood, and help your ego or you can do it out of love."

3. Have passion
"Have passion, not just for fashion, but for life, so hard work doesn't feel difficult, it feels like learning," he said. "Our business is not easy, it's complicated but it's simple. All the challenges that come along will make you stronger."

4. Just start
Tahari said sometimes the best move for business decisions is to just jump in.

"You just take the first step, one foot forward, and light will show you the rest. You got to be in the game to win it. Even if you just do one good thing!" he said. "If you really want to do it, do it now. I always lived on the edge, although I don't recommend it. I was always a rebel, I always thought there might be a better way."

5. Not every move is going to be right
Tahari told audiences that much of starting a business consists of "being a merchant" and dealing with lots of hassles. "You just need to have the instinct of survival. Understanding that some decisions you won't like," he said. "You will figure it all out. Work with the right energy and right spirit. You have to get lost. In life, if you don't lose yourself, how would you know where to find yourself?."

He also told audiences not every business idea has to be outrageous. He mentioned a friend who lives in Italy and started a company selling printed t-shirts and now has a business with $10 million in profits.

"He's making more money, probably, than Abercrombie & Fitch. He's more practical. He has no expenses, [works with] a couple of people, and he's all over the world. So there is opportunity in every direction."

6. Expect change
"Our whole industry is always changing. It's always in change and evolution." he said. "Don't approach it with confusion, you just need to be truthful. That's what my hunger always was."

7. Know your strengths
When asked if he found it difficult to run the creative side of his company as well as maintain a business, Tahari said he works with an amazing team and being part of strong company means knowing what you are capable of.

"Recognize how you can give a contribution. Everyone has talents, and it's always different. Maybe someone will want to open a business with you that likes the numbers part. Or maybe you'll be a merchant, work in a store and see what consumers want from there. You have to know what you are capable of. Maybe it's working for someone and learning the trade. It's not the harvest you will harvest today, it's the seed you plant today."

8. Make what's out there better
Being a complete original in the fashion industry can be tough. When it comes to design, "look for what's missing and do it—make it better," he said.

"A good artist copies, a great artist steals," Tahari responded when an audience member asked how he dealt with competition using his ideas or designs. "I went to Bloomingdale's once, and they had all the same stuff, and then I went across the street, and they had the same stuff, but were selling it for $5. The people who do clothes well succeed the most."

9. Know you can't always be right
Tahari, who had no formal fashion training, encouraged the audience to explore new ideas and learn on the go.

"You don't always have to know everything because [then] you learn and realize you know nothing," he laughed. "It's a [fear] I'm guilty of it all my life but it's self-afflicting It's all in your mind, that fear and concern."

10. Believe in your opportunities
Tahari laughed off how little he had when he first came to America from Israel, but did admit he slept on benches in Central Park and only had $100 in his pocket. He told the audience that everyone has a fair shot at success.

"I didn't know so much. I didn't have a suitcase: I had a backpack with a couple pairs of pants and shirts. I came from working in the Sinai desert and working in the heat. But I was a fresh sponge. When I first started, I wanted to buy a fabric. It was low price, but I didn't ask how it's going to work, is it going to dry clean. But now it's easy to make those decisions. Know that you have equal opportunity as everyone else. Just jump in the game."