Israeli Fashion Designer Elie Tahari Loves New York, But ‘My Heart Belongs to Israel’
Jewish fashion designer Elie Tahari raves about being a proud New York resident, but said on Monday night that he hopes to one day make Israel his permanent home.
“My heart belongs to Israel,” the designer and mogul told The Algemeiner, adding that he hopes to retire in the Jewish state. His comments followed a screening of his documentary, “The United States of Elie Tahari,” at the American Sephardi Federation’s New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival.
The documentary highlights how Tahari built a billion-dollar fashion empire after growing up in a refugee camp in Israel, living in two different orphanages, and ultimately coming to New York with less than $100 in his pocket. It also chronicles the various jobs Tahari took on — which included milking cows in an Israeli kibbutz, washing cars, and then working for an electrical contractor in New York — before launching his fashion career.
Tahari is credited with creating the tube top and pioneering tailored suits for women, and is one of only three designers to build billion-dollar fashion empires that lasted more than four decades, alongside Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani.
The film includes interviews with others in the fashion world who praised Tahari’s accomplishments, including fellow designers Nicole Miller and Dennis Basso, and New York Fashion Week’s Jewish creator Fern Mallis.
“This is a story of a man who started from nothing, who is the definition of courage, who is reminding us what America is, where anyone can knock on the door and the door will be open,” said the film’s producer and director, David Serero.
Following the screening, Tahari talked about his love for New York, its people, its energy, and how the city inspires him during a Q&A with Serero.
He later told The Algemeiner that while New York influences his work, his experiences in Israel “shaped my life.”
“Growing up in an orphanage with hardship [and] with little means makes you stronger,” he explained. “I didn’t know at the time that my life was tough. I just thought it was normal to be like that. But as you grow up, you realize that [during] times that are rough and tough you become stronger.”
He described his drive to keep pushing for more in the fashion industry as “definitely” an Israeli part of him.
“My upbringing was such that nothing came easy. Everything you have to work for and you have to be ambitious and hungry,” he said. “They used to tell me, I have a loaf of bread in each arm and one in my mouth and I’m still hungry. They used to describe me that way. I was always hungry for more.”
Born to Iranian parents, he also talked about being a proud Sephardic Jew, saying that Sephardic families “stick together” and “hold their traditions stronger” than others. He said his own family gets together every Friday night for Shabbat dinner.
Tahari said he visits Israel twice a year and still has family that lives there. His favorite aspect about the country is the people, he said, and admitted that even after all these years in New York, he prefers speaking Hebrew over English.
The documentary explored the centrality of family in the designer’s life. When he first moved to New York he was so poor that he slept at the YMCA, showered in their locker rooms, and eventually had to sleep on a bench in Central Park. Nonetheless, after making $1,100 in his first year in New York, Tahari sent it back to help his family in Israel instead of using it to support himself. He only felt really accomplished in life once he was able to bring his entire family to America, he reflected in the film.
Talking about his sense of family now that he’s a father of two, he said, “I married when I was 50 and I thought I had I had everything, but I had nothing until I had children [and] I learned to appreciate life. So it took me many years.”
The 24th New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival will be held until April 7 at the Moise Safra Center in New York City.