Isaac Mizrahi on His Past, Present, and Future

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“I’ve got to be perfectly honest. I started to write it because I wanted to be a better writer,” Isaac Mizrahi tells CR. He’s talking about I.M., the designer’s first-ever memoir, which just released late last month. “I did it for a very mercenary kind of reason, you know?”

Initially, Mizrahi relates, what ultimately became a 372-page book—sans images—was supposed to function as a scrapbook of sorts, filled with pictures, recollections, and bons mots from the past 20 years. (Since shuttering his namesake clothing label in 1998, Mizrahi has worked as a costume designer, talk show host, and Project Runway All Stars judge, among a myriad of other roles.) A dinner with friend and literary agent David Kuhn convinced him to think bigger and dig further back.

I.M. thusly begins with a seminal trip to Brooklyn’s Avenue U Variety Store in the mid 1960s. Mizrahi, then aged five, longed for a Barbie deluxe set, of which his conservative Syrian-Jewish mother didn’t approve. Later that year, Mizrahi recalls receiving a G.I. Joe for Hanukkah and lamenting the tiny soldier’s dreary camouflage garb. By his sixth birthday, however, things began looking up: Mizrahi’s mother acquiesced to a simpler doll with a single outfit, a “starter Barbie” in his re-telling.

A boundlessly artistic child who put on puppet shows and sewed clothing for his dolls, Mizrahi would later impersonate Barbra Streisand and Liza Minelli for the neighborhood kids and advise his mother and sisters on their clothing choices. Without formally acknowledging his homosexuality, Mizrahi’s immediate family (save for his father), tacitly accepted his flair for the dramatic, eye for color, and passion for textiles.

The opportunity to ditch the neighborhood yeshiva and attend High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan arguably saved Mizrahi, who finally felt comfortable if not in his own skin, then among more progressive-minded young people who loved cabaret as much as he did. A born showman, Mizrahi nevertheless chose fashion over film and TV, matriculating at Parsons after graduation.

“I don’t know what made me chicken out—it felt like fashion was an easier route to escape the very repressed circumstances,” Mizrahi explains in reference to his conservative upbringing. “I thought I could probably easier get a job in the fashion business than get a job in the cast of one of these plays. I’m not getting cast, I’m 270 pounds. I was always fat. That’s how I thought of myself,” he adds.

Mizrahi would eventually slim down considerably, though the self-doubt lingered. (The book, while rife with gossipy anecdotes, also delves into issues of anxiety, insomnia, and disordered eating.) Mizrahi would get an ego boost, however, when his Parsons classmates learned that he had to be pulled out of class to personally help designer Perry Ellis, with whom he was interning.

Work with Ellis followed, as did a stint at Calvin Klein, where the minimalist’s predilection for beige seemed forever at odds with Mizrahi’s love of color and bold sartorial styling. When Mizrahi finally struck out on his own in the late 1980s, he was one of the few designers to venture south of the garment district to SoHo, then a no-man’s land where fashion editors and buyers feared to tread.

While Mizrahi now concedes the importance of having a head for business, he also recognizes the need to be driven by creativity, no matter what. “It’s important for young designers to not give a shit and to just plow forward on their agenda,” he says. “You don’t create new things based on what’s selling. That’s the damn truth. So I think it’s kind of healthy for young’uns to not give a shit.”

Mizrahi’s business ultimately thrived, if not always commercially then artistically, and especially among the cognoscenti. He garnered coveted orders from the likes of Bergdorf Goodman and full-page magazine spreads, buoyed by his burgeoning friendships with fashion’s ever-discerning fairy godmothers. He would find ready fans in women like Sarah Jessica Parker, Nicole Kidman, and even his idol Liza Minelli. He would make a must-see documentary, Unzipped, which paved the way for future fashion documentaries as the first of its kind and precipitated the yen for behind-the-scenes footage. But fashion can be fickle, and even ascendant stars can lose their luster.

When his label closed, Mizrahi took a four-year hiatus from fashion, reemerging to collaborate with Target on what became a blockbuster collection for the retailer. He would also simultaneously design a high-end collection exclusive to one of his first boosters, Bergdorf’s. Today, Mizrahi designs IsaacMizrahiLIVE! for QVC, a job he’s had since 2011. There’s talk of additional projects in theater and on television. He’s definitely taking his new cabaret show on the road.

“I think I’m really good at fashion, so I’m never going to stop doing it,” Mizrahi says. “But in the future, I have my sights set on performing and making movies and television. And that’s been like, my side gig for the past 20 years, and I wanna make it my main gig. I’m really excited and challenged by that idea.”

I.M. is out now from Flatiron Books.

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