In pursuit of the perfect legging print, Zara Tisch has baked and photographed chocolate chip cookies, used a tweezer to set crystals in a skull shape, and spent a year arranging and rearranging cassette tapes to figure out the most leg-lengthening configuration.
Ms. Tisch’s company, Terez, is known for its playful photo-real patterns, including crushed powdered eye shadow and dogs (her own appear), and one that features emoji, which is the company’s best seller. (The leggings have been worn — and Instagrammed — by Lena Dunham.) Other prints include jelly beans, milkshakes and doughnuts — perhaps the only desirable way to carry these foods on the hips.
“Pretty much we love any reason to have sweets in the office while still being able to call it work,” said Ms. Tisch, 31, who has also taken bites out of holiday-themed sugar cookies destined for a pattern (all in the name of “diversifying the layout,” of course).
On a recent day, she showed a visitor around the company’s 4,000-square-foot offices in Manhattan’s garment district, dressed in the cassette-tape leggings (her favorite, also Instagrammed by the actress Olivia Wilde). She was joined by her childhood best friend, Amanda Schabes, 30, Terez’s creative director.
When they are not communicating with knowing glances, they finish each other’s sentences and balance each other out creatively, with Ms. Schabes being “all black and more rock ’n’ roll” (Ms. Schabes’s words) and Ms. Tisch “rainbow glitter and let’s go crazy” (also Ms. Schabes’s words).
With its jumble of sneakers, fun-size candy bars, oversize taco-shaped pillows and matching sweatshirts slung over every chair, Terez’s office feels like a cross between a basement rec room and a girls’ summer camp bunk before the hair braiding is about to commence. A specially commissioned pink neon sign over the sofa reads: “You can sit with us,” Ms. Tisch’s inclusive inversion of the infamous “Mean Girls” quote. She is the type of person who hugs strangers upon meeting them
At Terez — Ms. Tisch’s middle name, an amalgam of her grandmothers’ names — the cotton-candy atmosphere, and the often-whimsical product crafted there, belie a serious mission: Ms. Tisch’s determination to fill her life with as much color and fun as possible (and help others do the same) after her high school boyfriend drowned in 2003, two weeks before she was due to start her freshman year at the University of Michigan. She teared up explaining what she usually refers to more obliquely as “a traumatic event,” apologized, and then quickly regained her composure.
Acting, her childhood dream, no longer seemed appealing. “I just didn’t have the heart to do it anymore,” she said. Eventually, she found inspiration in what wasn’t available in shops. “I wanted something that would make me feel good about myself,” she said. “But there wasn’t something that I could just go to a store, pick out, wear and smile and feel fun about.”
She decided to start with handbags, both because they freed her of the tyranny of clothing sizes and because she was frustrated with the quality of the ones she could afford. She was 22, living in Atlantic Beach, on Long Island, with her parents (both of whom worked in the fashion industry), and using her paycheck from a marketing job to create samples. The shapes and colors were classic — a black clutch with a messenger chain, for example — but they were lined in fun prints she scavenged from ends of rolls at spandex stores in the garment district: comic book strips, skulls and bones, neon leopards.
Sales didn’t take off, but QVC executives came calling, requesting she design a cheaper line for them. Ms. Tisch — who spent her childhood in front of a video camera, performing plays and singing songs for a homemade TV channel she and Ms. Schabes invented — loved appearing on QVC in Italy, England and Germany, the home shopping channel’s three smallest markets. Ms. Tisch was required to sell at least 500 handbags in her hour of airtime or lose her slot, and so she began experimenting with the linings, making scarves and pencil cases out of the material as part of the network’s “if you buy now, get this free” style of sales pitch.
She was sufficiently successful that the network wanted to graduate her to Japan, which is second only to the United States market, but Ms. Tisch and Ms. Schabes (who joined the company the year after Ms. Tisch started it) decided their hearts weren’t in selling to the home-shopping audience.
One day in 2012, the pair spotted a print with candy-colored constellations and planets, and decided to make some leggings, which they loved to wear long before athleisure was a thing.
They wore the galaxy print to a children’s merchandising show (they were showing the pencil cases there), and Lester’s department stores picked them up. The pants nearly sold out in a weekend. Guests at Ms. Tisch’s bridal shower that year — she married the Techstars co-founder David Tisch, whom she met at an atypical-for-her trip to a nightclub in Times Square — received bags with the print.
A few months later, Ms. Tisch and Ms. Schabes decided to design their own prints, and started with jelly beans.
Buyers were wary, this being before the days when prints outnumbered plain black in exercise classes. Ms. Tisch and Ms. Schabes were unfazed. They posted the prints on Instagram, encouraging girls to request them from stores. Emoji, which their young customers loved to use when commenting on Terez’s posts, were Terez’s second print. Business took off. Sarah Jessica Parker ordered some online for her daughters (even today, Ms. Tisch remains thrilled by anybody’s orders, and so still receives push notifications on her phone about them), and Angelina Jolie bought several pairs for her daughter Zahara.
Where the children went, the moms — and then other women — followed. Ms. Tisch, a SoulCycle fan, talked her way into a meeting at the spin chain, and one of the founders stopped in, saying she was excited to meet Ms. Tisch because her daughters were such big fans. Terez now produces new designs monthly for the company (for both children and adults). The brand has also collaborated with the Bagel Store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (of rainbow bagel fame), and, perhaps inevitably, Candy Crush.
In the latest in bat mitzvah one-upmanship, Terez has also done special prints named after the honoree and featuring her favorite things. The company has produced more than 1,000 prints, surpassed seven figures in revenue for the first time in 2013, and it has doubled every year since, according to company figures. The majority of the company’s revenue is now from sales of women’s clothes, whereas before 2014 it was less than 5 percent.
Liz Jones, the vice president for women’s contemporary collections at Bloomingdale’s, first spotted Terez’s leggings (about $75 a pair for women’s) on a shopping trip to check out the competition. She was intrigued but cautious: The emoji print was “cute, but I didn’t think it was going to be as incredible as it was,” she said.
Bloomingdale’s started carrying Terez in just a third of its stores, but as of this fall, the brand is in all of them. “Now we definitely trust them and they direct us — I think they push us outside our comfort zone,” Ms. Jones said.
Terez produces 10 new prints a month — five for girls and five for women. For inspiration, Ms. Tisch and Ms. Schabes spend hours each night texting each other pictures and concocting ways to add color to food: Lucky Charms cereal spilling out of a burrito (their jokey take on a breakfast burrito), s’mores with rainbow marshmallows, chocolate chip cookies with sherbet-colored chips. Sitting in their office, they wonder if they will ever manage to get pizza — which doesn’t come in flattering colors — onto leggings.
Ms. Tisch rummaged in the candy bowl, which of course includes jelly beans. She selected a non-print-friendly York Peppermint Pattie (licensing issues aside, it would just look like a chocolate-colored circle).
“Pizza, we just have not done right,” she said.