Designer and label owner Elie Tahari tells Lauretta Roberts about his journey to the New York catwalks via Israel and Manchester
Tell us a bit about your background. Was it always an ambition of yours to be a fashion designer?
It fell into my lap - it was destiny, I guess. I came to Manchester to visit a girlfriend I had met in Israel and I was looking for work. I got a job driving a van for a clothing showroom in London. We had all the samples in the van and we used to take day trips - one day to Liverpool, another to Blackpool - and we stopped at stores along the way and showed them the clothes. That was my first exposure to fashion.
When did you leave the UK and move to New York?
I left in 1971. I worked for an electrician in the garment industry, where I went from showroom to showroom to fix the lights. I got another job in the evenings in a boutique in Greenwich Village selling clothes. Dressing women was a lot more fun than being an electrician. I never studied fashion design - I just had lots of will and desire.
You have Elie Tahari concessions in Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. Do you come to the UK much now?
Not enough. When I do, I visit Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, Harrods and Bond Street, and there is an area where Marc Jacobs has his store [Mount Street, Mayfair] that I like. Now that we have an agent in England representing the line [M&L Harris], I’ll be visiting more often.
You’re renowned for great quality daywear. Do you find that consumers are turning more towards investment dressing?
The economy is not so great but our business has been very good, and I think consumers have realised they would rather spend their money on investment clothing than on throwaway fashion. You have to build your wardrobe season on season, not discard it.
The perfect fit of your designs is legendary, so what’s your secret?
I fit on ordinary girls, not a fitting model. A few girls in the office try the same garment on. When I started I had terrible fit, and it was because I was fitting on a model who had a perfect body. She was maybe 6ft, and that’s not the real world so I changed and tried to fit on an average girl.
What are your plans for wholesaling in the UK?
We have an agent to sell to the finest speciality stores in the UK. On a global scale, we’ve just opened two shops, in South Korea and Moscow, and we’re looking into flagship stores in South Korea, Kuwait and Istanbul. The empire is building itself: all you have to do is make great product. No matter how bad you are in business, eventually the business will work itself out and the product shines.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I would say it’s the consumer who drives us. We pay attention to what the public wants, and a lot of the people who work in our office wear the clothes, so they inspire us. But the girl in the street is where it all starts. We have a few words that we use to keep us focused: sophisticated, modern, clean, sexy, feminine.
Is there another designer or brand whose approach you admire?
I like Mercedes-Benz. Mercedes changes its car bodies every seven or eight years and just improves them; they don’t change everything. It’s just as we were saying: you add to your wardrobe, you don’t discard it completely
Who is your style icon and why?
Madonna. My wife loves her and goes to every tour two or three times. Madonna is smart and knows how to pull things together. She’s just on the money.
The Material Girl is notorious for her ever-changing, chameleon-like persona, not only in her music but also in her fashion choices. Using clothes to emphasise
her musical message - whether it be ripped denim and fingerless gloves at the start of her career, Jean Paul Gaultier’s conical bras in her Erotica days, her cowgirl look for Music or the leotards and cropped fishnets that have accompanied her 50th birthday celebrations - she never fails to tune in to current fashions.
Madonna’s style has influenced more recent celebrities, from Britney Spears to Rihanna. In addition, she has worked with designers to help create lines, including her work with H&M on the line M by Madonna. While Madonna has changed her style over the years, she took inspiration from herself for her most recent tour, with black eyeliner and Givenchy dresses reminiscent of her gothic Ray of Light phase.