Directed and produced by the award-winning opera singer, actor, director, and producer David Serero, 'The United States of Elie Tahari' is the first documentary film ever produced about the internationally acclaimed designer.
New York City –The second half of the twentieth century saw the birth of some of America’s top fashion designers. Designers who revolutionized the world of fashion and whose names became synonymous with creativity and fashion innovation, building fashion empires that had nothing to envy from the always-acclaimed European designers and brands. One of those designers was Israeli-native Elie Tahari, who immigrated to the United States in 1971 with $100 in his pocket and went on to build a billion-dollar company through dedication and determination. Elie Tahari’s life story and distinguished career is now the subject of a new documentary, ‘The United States of Elie Tahari.’
Directed and produced by the award-winning opera singer, actor, director, and producer David Serero, ‘The United States of Elie Tahari’ is the first documentary film ever produced about the internationally acclaimed designer. It offers an intimate glimpse into the life and story of Elie Tahari, as told to Serero by the designer himself. The documentary also features guest appearances by various fashion personalities and friends such as the founder of New York Fashion Week, Fern Mallis, and fellow designers Nicole Miller and Dennis Basso.
‘The United States of Elie Tahari’ opens with Tahari standing in the middle of Times Square, as if in contemplation of the limitless world offered by New York City. This opening scene is followed by Fern Mallis discussing the swift rise and impacting influence of the Tahari Brand from its beginnings. David Serero introduces us to Elie Tahari by asking him, “Who are you?” To this, Tahari responds, “I am Elie Tahari. A simple man.” But, he is not just a simple man! After almost five decades, Elie Tahari is one of the two remaining American fashion designers still at the head of their global businesses, with the other being Ralph Lauren. Internationally speaking, Georgio Armani makes the third.
During the documentary, Tahari talks about his humble beginnings, discussing the migration of his parents who fled from Iran to Israel while he was still an infant and the hardships he faced in the first decades of his life. We further learn of his arrival in New York City (a city he never left after setting foot here) and the struggles he faced when he ran out of money, having to sleep on a bench in Central Park.
'The United States of Elie Tahari' allows Tahari to shine, not only as the fashion icon that he is but also as the simple man he sees himself as.
One of the main themes touched upon in ‘The United States of Elie Tahari’ is the desire to persevere in the face of adversity. Interposed with videos of Tahari’s work and fashion events and commentary offered by guests, the documentary continues to narrate the rise of Elie Tahari, from working as an electrician in the Garment District to his breakthrough moment when he popularized the Tube Top from one day to the next. The garment quickly became synonymous with self-expression during a decade when women continued to make strides in the fight for equality and female empowerment. This quick rise to fashion fame, together with a zealous determination to perfect his art and craft, enabled Tahari to shape the Disco wear, forever changing the nightlife landscape. In the 80s, as women started to enter the business world in large numbers, the visionary artist morphed his brand into the tailored style he is known for to this day, manufacturing suits that made him the designer of choice for every businesswoman. Additionally, today, he also remains the go-to designer for various celebrities of renown throughout the world.
‘The United States of Elie Tahari’ is the first film directed by David Serero. It tells the story of Tahari using basic cinematography and interviewing techniques. Those watching this documentary will enjoy this simplicity as it allows for the story to feel more personal and for the viewer to feel as if they were part of the conversation with Tahari and guests. This simplicity in filming also allowed Tahari to shine, not only as the fashion icon that he is but also as the simple man he sees himself as. The documentary is a far cry from many of the dramatically-filmed fashion/celebrities documentaries of today, which still tend to portray their subjects as these larger-than-life-complicated-beings far from our reach. An image that does not necessarily resonate with today’s generation, which prefers their idols to be more personable and approachable.
Lasting approximately 67 minutes, ‘The United States of Elie Tahari’ does suffer from a few editing setbacks that might be noticeable to a discerning viewer. We can conclude that this is in part due to the extensive source material as Elie Tahari’s fashion trajectory expands over four decades. The trials of telling and editing such a story over a one-hour period will be faced not only by beginner filmmakers like Serero but also by those with expertise in the field. Serero does deserve praise for not shying away from a task of such magnitude on what is his first project as a film director. This also speaks to the need for the Tahari history to be told as it truly deserves: through a motion picture or a limited television series (Tahari shared exclusively with Guild Magazine that these are projects in the talk, together with a book).
‘The United States of Elie Tahari’ has received various awards, including “Best Documentary” from Cinema of the World, “Best Director on a Documentary” by the Berlin Indie Film Festival, “Best Producer Award” by the Eastern Europe International Movie Awards, and also received Honorable Mention at the London International Film Festival.
‘The United States of Elie Tahari’ is now available on Video-on-Demand on Vimeo.
A Conversation with Fashion Designer Elie Tahari
1 – Thinking of your trajectory in the fashion industry and your continued path ahead, what made you decide that this was the right time for this documentary film?
David Serero approached me, offering to tell my story after he became familiar with it. He offered to do a documentary, and I said, “why not?” But I really felt this was the right time. We first discussed doing the documentary, and then we’ll do a book and possibly a movie. We are discussing various plans. He’s very excited, and I am very happy. We are holding back on saying too much about a possible Netflix series. But, it is the right time!
2 – You are an immigrant who has achieved success and what is known as the “American Dream.” What is your advice for immigrants arriving here today after much progress has been made in recognizing what we bring to the table, but while the country is also going through quite tumultuous political times?
I would say to them: do not be shy. Don’t feel that you are less good than anybody else. You have the power and the opportunity like everybody else. You can start from wherever and finish as high as you dream. Don’t give up on your dreams and goals.
3 – The American Dream is a central theme of this documentary. Thinking back to when you came to New York City and had to sleep on benches in Central Park and then went on to launch a fashion empire, when did you realize you had achieved the American Dream?
I never thought that way. I still don’t know what the American Dream is. It is considered starting from nothing and ending up at the top. I never thought or felt I was at the top. But, if we speak from a financial perspective, I guess it would be when I first had the means to support my family and do whatever I wanted. That’s when I first felt I had all the freedom in the world and could do anything I wanted for myself and my family. It was also a time when for the first time, I had to think hard to decide whether I was going to do my laundry or if I was going to pay to get it done (he laughs)!
4 – In this documentary, you candidly spoke about your childhood struggles and humble beginnings and discussed the importance of family. What are some of the lessons you learned then that you wish to pass on to your children who grew up in different circumstances than yours?
Growing up, I didn’t have the opportunity to learn much from my parents. I mainly was in orphanages, boarding or military schools, or the kibbutz. My mother was sick with epilepsy, and she needed a lot of help. My father had no job, and he had to support my stepbrothers and sister. But everybody was still very warm. The lessons I learned from those experiences and would like to pass on to my children are always to be humble, not have an ego, live from love, work from love, and be compassionate to everybody they come across in life.
5 – As someone who revolutionized fashion and empowered women through their choice of clothing, you have been an active component of the many changes in the industry in the past four decades. What do you foresee in the evolution of fashion during this decade and that of the Tahari woman?
The Tahari woman is still a dressed-up woman. Her style is not the grunge that we see today or a dressed-down style. We are still doing the dresses and suits we are known for. But besides always trying to remain innovative and to improve our product, we also adapt to the times. Everything has become dressed down, casual and comfortable. It will remain so for some time. So we’re introducing a casual side to our clothes by including more relaxed attire and even some hoodies and sweatpants.
"To be generous, nice, and kind, and to understand people, is more important than being successful in business."
- Elie Tahari
6 – Your love for fabrics and tailoring began with your family. Once your business launched in America and started to grow, how did you keep your knowledge of fashion evolving?
First of all, I have always looked at what people are wearing and what’s happening around me, seeking inspiration everywhere I go. But, most importantly, I surrounded myself with very knowledgeable people. More knowledgeable than me. That helps! I tried to do as best I could to learn from others and to educate myself. My ambition was always to be better and better until we got to make the best clothes for the price in the industry. We also created this amazing facility at 510 Fifth Avenue, where we were able to sketch the design, make the patterns, fit the sample on the model, make changes, then have it go down for tailoring and be fitted on another model. We had a store downstairs where we sold the finished product to the consumer. All of this happened in the same building. This was the fruit of not only ambition but also of surrounding myself with knowledgeable people.
7 – As artists, our vision, passion, and desires tend to be larger than life. We tend to think bigger than those around us. In this documentary, you discussed the importance of passion and love for what you do beyond the financial rewards. As someone with a set vision from the beginning, how did you manage those who thought you would not achieve what you had set out to achieve?
I can tell you that when I first came here in the 70s, it was tough to work with people who worked on a per-hour basis. They seemed to have no passion, and I found myself having to push them. So I got in trouble often with those people because I had a firecracker under my ass (he laughs)! Somebody told me one day to stop eating hot peppers because I was always on the move, jumping around doing all kinds of things. It was really tough to work next to people who saw their days just like a blah, so their lives became blah. All they would think was: “let me get my paycheck, and go home and watch my television and eat my burger and pizza.” They seemed to have no dreams, no desire, no love for the arts, none of that! So that I would not let that influence me -and I repeat this-, I surrounded myself with people smarter than me so that I could learn from them and help me flourish.
8 – As we saw in the documentary, you fell in love with New York City at first sight. How does this city continue to inspire and captivate you?
I walk around New York City all the time, looking for inspiration from its streets and its people. I have learned that New York City is the greatest city in the world. Everything here feels acceptable, you know? For example, when I travel to Europe, there are some circles where titles and hierarchy levels are designed to keep you in a box. A very conservative, very traditional box. Your whole world happens in that box. If you are not as conservative thinking as they are, you don’t fit in the box. Here, there is no box. Everything is about being open. And that’s what New York City is about: the freedom to be who you want to be. New York City offers you everything!
9 – “The United States of Elie Tahari” touches on various themes, from perseverance and hard work to family. After watching the documentary, is there something you still wish people knew about you as a designer or human being that may not be discussed extensively in the film?
I will definitely say as a human being! There is so much more about me as a human being. Design is only a hobby. It’s only a small piece of my life. Business is a small piece of life, you know? You still have life to live. And I have learned that living life is more important than anything else. And love is more important; relationships are important. People are important, and compassion is important. And to be generous, nice, and kind, and to understand people is more important than being successful in business. Being successful in business should not be the only thing you should strive for in life. – GM
GUILD MAGAZINE - THE FASHION ISSUE