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an Evening with Isaac Mizrahi

fashion designer, Isaac Mizrahi

image source: InStyle magazine

One might describe Isaac Mizrahi as the quintessential American designer: a native New Yorker who has always had the city's diversity and glamour as his driving force. Mizrahi presented his first collection in 1987 at a trunk show held by New York department store Bergdorf Goodman. His elegant designs targeted a refined and exclusive clientele. Among Mizrahi's fans and clients were stars Nicole Kidman, Eartha Kitt, Selma Blair, Julia Roberts, Sarah Jessica Parker, Debra Messing and Natalie Portman. In the course of his career, he has had his highs and lows but always remained true to his vision of dressing women elegantly.

I had the immense pleasure of attending a discussion with him at the MFA in Boston last week. During the course of the evening he shared some insights into his early years and design sensibility as well as some amusing stories from his illustrious career.

his earliest forays into creativity

He described growing up in a very Jewish household in a very Jewish part of Brooklyn, and as a very creative individual. He did lots of things for a creative outlet from a young age – puppet shows, female impersonations, costuming his performances. His dad who made children’s clothes helped him get his first sewing machine when he was about 12. He told how he had saved himself for this machine, but when they got to the store, his dad advised him not to get the one that was in his budget, but a better quality one, and then gave him the extra money to purchase it. He learned on that machine, and when he was ready, his dad showed him how to use a merrow machine. He mentioned that he got to Parsons already knowing how to merrow and lots of his classmates asked him to help them with learning it.

His exploration of different ways to express himself in his early childhood continued through his school years; he attended the High School of Performing Arts and was in the acting department. He commented that he is to this day a strong supporter of public arts education. Attending Parsons rounded off his formal education and it was there that he met Perry Ellis, who would have a strong influence on his design aesthetic. He credits Perry Ellis as an early mentor and for helping him develop an eye for luxury and taste level of fabric.


icons and influencers

He was very much influenced by the upper middle class sense of style cultivated in the neighborhood that he was raised in, and by the ladies in the shul. His mom was very stylish and he recalled shopping trips to Loehman’s. Although his family was very comfortable, his mom was also aware that she could not always compete with the more affluent neighbors, so she invested in beautiful quality pieces. Instead of several furs, she had one wonderful mink. She chose quality over flashiness, and had a true sense of style. A lasting piece of advice she gave him: “You can’t cheat with shoes”.

He had a certain criticism for contemporary style influencers, stating that anybody can be stylish when they have stylists, right? The red carpet is full of celebrities in borrowed dresses (sometimes even being paid to wear those dresses), which are picked out by a stylist. "How is his stylish or influential?", he said. He pointed out his decades-long pursuit of “something that is beautiful, something that is REAL” - a genuine style.

Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell on the runway of Mizrahi's 1994 show

an image from the 1994 "Nanook" show. (source: Miss Cavendish)

He named some of his style icons: Carol Lombard, Jackie Kennedy, Elsa Schiaparelli, Mary Tyler Moore, and mentioned that he has been avoiding listening to what is going on politically by watching old movies on Turner Classic TV. Movies, TV and pop culture seem to very much influence his designs. He made a point to say that he likes to be very honest about what he is referencing in his designs and that in this day and age of social media, it is more important than ever to be open and honest.

“If you make up a formula, you are giving up”

- Isaac Mizrahi

When questioned about his opinion on how fashion shows have changed in the past 20 years or so, he said quite a bit, and not necessarily for the better. He mentioned that he thinks the shows have gotten over the top and there are just too many shows as well. While social media has made it easier for anyone to watch/ consume the shows, at the same time, there are just so many – it is too much information to consume and evaluate. He stated that with so many shows, it becomes less about the clothes and more about the show itself. Maybe he is hinting at each trying to upstage the other in showmanship, but not always with the clothes themselves. He also brought up the fact that the CFDA is trying to address the issue in part by centralizing the shows so it is easier for editors to get to them.


a clip on his design process from the film "Unzipped"

his design sensibility

At one point in the interview, the hostess pointed out that he is considered a very American designer and he seemed to agree with this assessment. It reminded me of a couple of points he had made in his film Unzipped", that made me realize that he is not only an American designer, designing clothes for the American consumer, but very much tells things from an American perspective. In one scene he talks about how much he loves Paris, and how glorious it is, but how at the same time, he cannot wait to go home. That if he could just stay home in New York, he would be happy to do so. In another scene he is talking about the cultural references that he bases collections on and how he doesn’t necessarily need to go there and experience that culture first hand, but is happy to experience it refracted through an American lense. “I don’t need to go to all these places (like Australia, etc.) to do a collection about them; I can watch and episode of the Flintstones about Australia.” The movie, which I watched again after seeing the lecture, really hit upon some of the highs and lows of being a designer in the fashion industry. The immense amount of enthusiasm and passion you must have for what you are doing and for the creative process, but also the astounding insecurities and stress that come along with it.

During the MFA talk, he mentioned that he is happiest when he is working, and making work that is impactful not because of some formula (what’s obvious), but something less tangible.


other projects and collaborations

Besides his work for his own line, he has also designed costumes for the ballet and the theater, and of course the cabaret, and continues to do so to this day. He has worked with performers Twyla Tharp and Eartha Kitt - in fact in the "Unzipped" documentary, there is a wonderful scene where he is meeting with Eartha and seems just enthralled by her energy and so excited to be designing for her.

He was one of the fist designers to collaborate with mass retailers, with his immensely successful line for Target. At the time he was also selling his very high end line at Bergdorf's and he mentioned at the MFA talk that he was just so pleased when Betty Halbreich, a legendary personal shopper at Bergdorffs, would tell her customers to buy the dresses at Barneys, and then to go look for the tights and other pieces at Target. He is a big fan of democratic style and seems very happy to be able to dress all women fashionably, not only those with deep pockets. He currently has a thriving QVC business and also one with Dillards. During the Q&A part of the presentation, one of the audience members stood up and spoke about how the things he made for QVC really made a difference in her life. When she was recovering from cancer and needed to find some new affordable clothes, but not really able to go out shopping, she relied on this resource and it brought her some happiness at a tough time. He was so obviously touched by this, and the audience responded with applause.

Last year the Jewish Museum in New York had a retrospective of his life's work, “Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History”. He confessed to Vogue that it was a very emotional event for him to revisit all these works from the span of his career. Other projects he is currently working on are a memoir, and now considering several options in TV, movies, and entertainment. He has been a judge on Project Runway for many seasons now. He mentioned that Boston fans must not miss his cabaret, “Does This Song Make Me Look Fat?”, at City Winery in Boston on January 11th.

some images from his 2016 retrospective exhibit last year at the Jewish Museum

At the end of an insightful and entertaining evening, Mizrahi left us with this parting thought, which could effectively sum up his entire career: “If you want to do things, you should do them, and don’t let anybody stop you” ... words to live by.


Other Sources: Famous Fashion Designers | InStyle | Success | Wmagazine | Racked | NewYorkTimes | Miss Cavendish | Vogue

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