“The United States of Elie Tahari” is a fascinating new documentary about the fabled fashion designer that shows, if nothing else, how chutzpah can enable you to live the American Dream.
Mr. Tahari’s Millburn-based company is one of only three billion-dollar designer labels that lasted more than four decades and are still run by their founders. (The others are Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren, neither of whom had as difficult an upbringing as Elie.)
Mr. Tahari was born in Jerusalem in 1952. He is of Persian descent; his parents divorced when he was young, and he spent most of the rest of his childhood in an orphanage. He has memories of kids making fun of him because “my clothes were dirty and wrinkled.”
All of which served as motivation.
“It’s not being poor that hurts you,” he says in the film. “It’s thinking poor.”
He saw the future was in the United States — but how to get there? His brother Avraham worked for El Al and was entitled to travel. As a family member, Elie could have bought a reduced-rate ticket, but even that was beyond him. Fortunately for him, however, in those pre-computerized days tickets often were just carbon copies. It was, he explained, smiling, easy to change a ticket for A. Tahari to a ticket for E. Tahari.
Mr. Tahari landed in New York with less than $100 and checked into a YMCA. When his cash ran out, he stored his belongings in a Y gym locker and slept on a park bench. His first job was washing cars for 50 cents an hour.
Eventually he landed a job as an electrician’s assistant (a skill he learned while in the IDF) in the garment business. Standing on a ladder, “changing light bulbs, looking down at the models, I said I’m in the wrong business,” he said in an interview.
He got a job at an Israeli-owned boutique in Greenwich Village, where he “learned what women wear and to give them what they want at the right price.”
But the true turning point came on an exploratory trip to the Lower East Side, where he saw a bunch of two-piece bathing suits on sale. “It was the hippie days,” he said. “People weren’t wearing bras. Let it all hang out was the slogan.”
He bought a dozen or so from the Orchard Street vendor and brought the tops back to the boutique. Supposedly, women bought them as he was explaining the idea to his boss. And thus one of Mr. Tahari’s major (and most profitable) contributions to fashion, the tube top.
Using a few thousand dollars he’d saved and with manufacturing assistance from his Israeli boss, Mr. Tahari formed his own company. His first stop was a boutique show. When he got there, however, he discovered all the booths had been sold out. So he set up shop in the hallway. When a security guard came, he’d tell him it was all okay, he’d just been in the office. Which was sort of true. He technically had just been in the office.
If the guard insisted, Mr. Tahari moved — to a different floor. “I had nothing to lose, so I tried everything.” At show’s end, he left with orders for 250,000 pieces, and was on his way.
The rest is fashion history.
Elie went on to great successes, first designing dance dresses for the disco era and then smart, tailored suits for women entering the work force.
All this is brought to full-blown life by first-time filmmaker David Serero, a French-Moroccan and fellow Sephardic Jew. They met when Mr. Serero, who produces the New York Sephardic Film Festival, invited Elie to be honored at the February 2020 event. Covid followed shortly, and Mr. Serero succumbed. “I almost died,” he said.
He was already a multi-hyphenate, singer-actor-producer-stage director, but he’d always wanted to add film director to his already impressive resume. “I wasn’t going to wait to do something I always wanted to do,” he said. He was fascinated by Mr. Tahari when they met and asked if he’d be interested. Elie’s response: “It’s covid. I have nothing but time.”
The result is a unique look at the making of an American fashion icon. In addition to lengthy interviews with Mr. Tahari, designer Nicole Miller and others sing his praises. The film has already won several festival awards. It was a success at the recent Garden State Film Festival and the Sephardic Festival on April 4. The film has its gala New York theatrical premiere at Lincoln Center Monday, April 18, followed by a Q&A with Elie Tahari and David Serero.