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