Isaac Mizrahi Found Freedom Through Fashion
By Isaac Mizrahi
“I stuck out like a chubby gay thumb,” reads an early line from this memoir by Isaac Mizrahi, one of America’s most acclaimed designers of the 1990s. In his heyday, he was a master of color who could effortlessly intuit what women wanted, making clothes that felt both youthful and elevated, never fussy or overdone. “An American woman in crocodile flats and a tweed skirt looks so much better to me,” he told this newspaper in 1988, in an article that named him that year’s “hottest new designer.” His looks included a white cotton T-shirt over a voluminous taffeta ballroom skirt, and a sweatshirt-like poplin tunic layered over a pair of satin shorts. He was an early champion of diversity on the runway and a pioneer in taking the camera behind the scenes with the 1995 cult documentary “Unzipped.” Later, Mizrahi would be one of the first designers to collaborate with mass retailers, mixing high fashion with low prices and more inclusive sizing. His critics often accused him of a kind of creative freneticism, but throughout “I.M.,” this designer’s innovation and confidence are evident, contrasting with an industry that, despite its superficial fickleness, can be deeply resistant to change.
The more compelling part of Mizrahi’s life, however, begins earlier. Born in 1961 in Brooklyn, he was the black sheep of his family, preferring Barbie to G.I. Joe. By the time he was 12, he could perform a perfect imitation of Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.” As the misfit alongside two perfect sisters, he became a confidant and companion to his complicated and vibrant mother, who, though she embraced the traditions of their conservative Syrian Jewish community, also suffered under the limitations on women at the time. “She trained me,” her son recalls, “to be her best friend.”
Mizrahi’s childhood was dominated by overeating and insomnia, both amplified by his aversion to his education at the local yeshiva, where he was teased and bullied by rabbis and classmates. Yet his descriptions of this period of his life are unexpectedly tender. Heartfelt and honest, he is generous in assessing, for example, the emotional gap he could never bridge with his father. There are also poignant scenes like this one, detailing his first sexual experience with another boy one idyllic summer day in Deal, N.J., just before his bar mitzvah: “We couldn’t be heard, and the cabana door was locked with a hook-and-eye latch. Narrow stripes of bright sunlight slipped through the slatted doors, but otherwise the cabana was dark and cool, and the scents of salt and chlorine were edged out by the stronger scent of Bain de Soleil.”
Both parents would eventually help Mizrahi discover his gifts as a designer. His father, who worked in the garment trade, gave the boy his first two sets of professional scissors (one for fabric, the other for paper) and later helped him pick out a sewing machine with the money he had saved from babysitting. Mizrahi’s mother — who had a knack for discovering designer outfits in the basement of Loehmann’s or, better yet, inventing clever ways to affordably recreate the latest styles from Paris — would be his earliest critic and champion. The young Mizrahi turned to the piano and became obsessed with film and theater. At home, he constructed puppets outfitted in elaborate costumes, staging performances for the neighborhood in the family’s garage. As with many of the best artists, his talents were irrepressible from an early age, even if he felt his life was “hopeless.”
Escape finally came in the form of the stage, after Mizrahi secured a coveted spot in the drama department of Manhattan’s Fiorello LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, where he found like-minded souls. This period also offered him his first taste of independence: He spent days roaming the city, visiting the Guggenheim or the Metropolitan Museum of Art; at night, he went dancing at Studio 54 and the Mudd Club. Yet fashion still managed to creep into his life. A request to make a gown for a family friend in Brooklyn kicked off a bootleg career as a designer, and eventually a teacher suggested that he might want to apply to Parsons School of Design. During his time as a student and afterward, he did stints working for some of the great American masters of the 1980s, including Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein, until at last he stepped out with his own eponymous line in 1987.
The rest of Mizrahi’s life is well known and plenty documented. Chanel took a stake in his company in 1992. His SoHo offices and design studio became a destination for Naomi Campbell, Sandra Bernhard and Liza Minnelli. Mizrahi was a frequent dinner guest at the home of the Vogue editor Anna Wintour. He befriended big names like Stephen Sondheim, Mark Morris and Maira Kalman (in an especially endearing chapter, he writes about his friendship with Kalman and her family). But it was too much of a challenge for Mizrahi to grow the line without any production or retail infrastructure, and when Chanel pulled its financing in 1998 he decided to shut his doors.
Fashion loves to judge by appearances. It can be challenging to categorize a talent like Mizrahi, who is, at his core, an artist above all else. He’s not the first designer to tire of the rigmarole of running a company — the relentless socializing, the press appointments and frequent travel, the fittings and castings and photo shoots and small production catastrophes. Mizrahi knew he had earned his place in an exclusive and magical world, filled with beautiful people and extraordinary opportunities (among his fondest memories are meeting Richard Avedon and working on a photo shoot with Audrey Hepburn), and more than once he contemplated change. In 2002 he briefly relaunched his couture studio at the same time that he opened a label with Target; he now has a new line with QVC. From the outside, the end of his high-end fashion line may have seemed like a failure. But, he declares, for the first time he finally felt “amazingly free.”
Thessaly La Force is the features director at T Magazine.
By Isaac Mizrahi
372 pp. Flatiron Books. $28.99.