The Upper East Side Terez store is reminiscent of Dorothy’s exit from her home and into the Land of Oz. All of a sudden, everything appears to be in color.
That’s the idea behind the brand, which founder Zara Terez Tisch describes as, “celebrating all the good parts of life.” The Lexington Avenue store certainly feels like a celebration. Interviewing Terez in the store, Terez was greeted by people who stopped at the front to talk with Terez Tisch. They commented on how bright and colorful the storefront was with its pink-painted walls, balloon chandelier and back wall full of candy-colored accessories and actual candy.
One might wonder why a highly successful online retailer, whose revenue is roughly 50% wholesale, would open up a retail store in a time when the economy is on the verge of collapse. Terez Tisch has always wanted to create a space for gathering – in fact, what she loves most about the brand she created is creating those experiences, connecting people and finding creative, colorful new ways to celebrate life.
Terez began as a leather handbag manufacturer. Terez Tisch returned home to Long Island with her parents shortly after graduating college. Every day she commuted to her job at MGX Lab.
She was asked by her boss to run an operation at Joseph Hanna, a leather shop in West Village. Inside the store, a sign read, “Customize your own leather handbag.” Terez Tisch asked if she could design something for them to make into 100, or even 1,000 handbags. They laughed at her in the moment, but that’s how Terez Tisch got her start. The leather handbags she made were lined with colorful prints, which was what inspired her famed leggings.
Terez Tisch is quick and open to acknowledging her privilege. Not only in financial terms, but also in the sense of how fortunate she was to have the support of her family as she built Terez. Her parents were both artists and garment workers. Her best friend also helped her to build Terez for the first ten years. She credits her husband, venture capitalist David Tisch, as the company’s biggest supporter.
But Terez Tisch’s life has not always been so charmed. In fact, she credits her mission to bring joyful experiences and “celebrate the good parts of life” to some of the devastating losses she experienced early in life. When Terez Tisch was 17 years old, her high school boyfriend died suddenly. Her mom also died from lung cancer while Terez was pregnant with her son.
Grief is as much a part of Terez’s story as joy. But it’s undoubtedly the joyfulness that takes prominence as people walk through the front doors of the Lexington Avenue store.
Amy Shoenthal Why, in 2022, did you decide to open Terez’s first retail location?
Zara Terez Tisch: I’ve always wanted to open a physical store. This is where I find the greatest joy: making memories. The stories we tell are unique and ours is told through the experiences we create. Our mission is represented by our products. We celebrate the good things in life, despite the loss and grief.
Leap Retail was our partner and the only reason that we were able do this. Leap Retail helps to reduce the cost of opening physical stores for small brands.
To choose the location, I used the ecommerce data. This is a residential area. Because you can find yourself in a different neighborhood every two blocks, the Upper East Side is unique.
Many people believe that if you build it, they will follow. That’s not true. You may find them supportive at the beginning but you have to give them reasons to keep coming back day after day. This should be a destination.
Shoenthal: Please tell me the Terez story from the beginning.
Terez Tisch: My boyfriend, my first love, died suddenly when I was 17 years old. He was at summer camp, trying to save his best friend drowning. That moment changed my entire outlook and my life.
I almost didn’t go to college, but I had an incredible support system, my parents and friends, who convinced me to go. In my freshman dorm, I began taking art classes. I found myself creating art all night, making both dark and happy things. I understood life through art.
After graduation, I moved back to my parents’ house and commuted by rail five days a weeks. I was assigned to run an errand on their behalf, and ended up in a leather store in West Village. There was a sign inside that said, ‘customize your own leather handbag.’
I asked them if they could make 100 handbags from my drawing. I asked if they would make 1000. They laughed, but that’s how it all started.
The train home was my last day. I knew I had to make things. My mother was very talented. Henri Bendel commissioned her to make small accessories and hair clips. My dad was an old school “garmento.” He worked at, then ran, and then owned one of the largest private dress manufacturing companies in Manhattan in the ‘70s, ‘80s and into the 90s (It was called Budget Dress, which then became Victoria Ashley.) Retailers purchased from domestic manufacturers until they started to take domestic manufacturers ‘hot products’ and made them in China and other places abroad because it was less expensive.
It was a low point in my family’s life. I’ve seen both ends of the wealth spectrum.
I went home that day and proclaimed, ‘Dad, I’m going to take back the garment industry for you!’ To which he responded, ‘absolutely not. Do not go into that industry.’ And my mother said, ‘You’re 22, now is the time, absolutely, go for it.’ So I took whatever savings I had from living at home, I quit my job and I started Zara Terez, LLC from my parents’ basement, making leather handbags.
Over the next four-years, I was selling merchandise, jumping into the production line, and learning how to do it. I set out to make the interior linings of the handbags with fun patterned spandex. My whole motto was, ‘it’s on the inside that counts.’ Turns out you’re not supposed to put spandex inside leather handbags. It stretches in the machinery, so it’s very tricky. It can be done, but it’s tricky.
Shoenthal: What was the cost of all this production and materials at 22?
Terez Tisch: How do I finance it I had horrible credit. My parents were always there to help me when I needed it. My husband is now my boyfriend, and he was and still is a tremendous supporter. He was the one who kept saying, ‘you need to keep going.’ There’s nobody who cares about this business more than me, but besides me, it’s him.
Amanda Zeligman was my best friend and joined me. I couldn’t pay her but I gave her a commission whenever she sold anything. She was a key figure in Terez’s first ten year build.
Shoenthal: Ever considered quitting?
Terez Tisch: No. About a year in, a family friend introduced me to Andrew Rosen who started Theory and Alice & Olivia. He said, my advice is to stop what you’re doing right now, go work for a big company and learn on their dime until you’re 40. You can then decide to open your company. For years, I was furious about it. But now, as I’m approaching 40, I realized, that was excellent advice. I didn’t take it, but it was excellent advice.
The Accessorie Circuit tradeshow in 2011 was a pivotal moment for us. I had begun to use some extra material from our handbag liner linings. We sold them at children’s stores so we could have some cash flow. A pile of pencil cases was placed in the middle of our handbag display at this tradeshow.
A very elegant gentleman entered the booth and immediately felt attracted to them. Although I tried to show him the handbags, he was just as interested in the pencil cases. He was actually the chief buyer at Neiman Marcus. The buyer from Urban Outfitters then came over to me and asked if 500 could be made. I didn’t know if I could, but I obviously said yes.
I came to realize that I was concealing my true self behind my handbags.
Shoenthal: I can see where this is going.
Terez TischThis fabric is best for making leggings and not bags. I didn’t really want to get into clothing with sizing and everything, but we started playing around with making just leggings. Amanda and me wore crazy patterned leggings every single day for the next one year. A buyer from a children’s clothing store called Lester’s came to one of our trade shows and loved them. She asked if there was a way to make a few hundred in time for Thanksgiving weekend. It was October. We gave up on everything and found a Queens manufacturer. We managed to drop the leggings before the holiday weekend and made it in time for the deadline. The store was sold out of all the pieces by Monday morning. They must have sold 200 pieces in one weekend.
The buyer stated, You have something very unique here. That was the start of Terez as we know it.
We wanted to make our own fabric, so we began to print photographs. Our first photo print was made from jelly beans. People loved our galaxy print. Amanda and I then came up with the idea of putting emojis onto clothing. We introduced it because there weren’t any emojis available for apparel. We created every emoji we could on our phones, texted/repeated them and sent them to the printer.
I didn’t think there was an active legging market. I wasn’t an athletic workout person. I never considered making these fun prints for adults, other than for myself and Amanda, who were walking around wearing size 16 kids leggings from what we printed for the children’s lines. I was afraid that this would become a fad. The question always was, what happens when people don’t want to wear fun printed leggings anymore?
Shoenthal: I’m not sure we’ve gotten to that point yet. You can fast-forward a few decades and you’d have no idea how the pandemic would accelerate the growth of the athleisure sector.
Terez Tisch: Covid allowed active to go wild. When retailers closed and wholesale accounts didn’t take our inventory, I just sold that inventory online so I didn’t get as hurt as I otherwise would have. But now, department stores are getting rid of active departments completely, because they’ve been stuck with inventory for so long. This is bad for all brands, and it’s even worse for us.
ShoenthalYour brand is built on giving back. Tell me about Terez’s commitment to philanthropy.
Terez Tisch: What’s important in life? Family, health, kindness to one another. It’s easier to be reserved, judgmental, and to wear a darker color than a splash of colour. It’s much easier to conform. Because of what I went through at a young age, I’ve always wanted to do whatever I could to help those in the community around me. As I’ve grown up and started to understand my privilege more, I wanted to use that privilege for good. Terez is a wonderful vehicle to achieve that.
Starting this year, for every item purchased at Terez, we are donating one piece to WIN, the largest provider of shelter and housing for NYC’s homeless women and children.
This brand is what I created. This was something I did with my blood, sweat, and tears. I want it as meaningful as it has been to me.