Isaac Mizrahi is the ultimate multi-hyphenate. The personable fashion designer currently hosts and designs for QVC. He guest stars on Project Runway. He writes television scripts (after all, he’s written for Broadway, cabaret, and his own one-man show). And on his off days? He sits down to work on his memoir. “It’s not easy, but I’m doing it,” he tells me over the phone.
Mizrahi has actively sought out uncharted territory in his career. He became a sensation with his high-concept–yet incredibly wearable–clothes in 1986. Almost 10 years later, he did something unheard of in fashion at the time, starring in a documentary titled Unzipped that warmed up the television spotlight for a parade of celebrity designers to come. In 2002, he moved to mass-market clothing with a first-of-its kind partnership with Target–a decision that has transformed how fashion designers work today.
Accessibility and inclusivity are not values typically extolled in the fashion world. For Mizrahi, it was not always smooth sailing. Yet his first museum retrospective, Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History at the Jewish Museum in N.Y.C., has affirmed enough of his impact on the industry. With his trademark thick Brooklyn accent and warm sense of humor, he took us through the most memorable moments of his lively career thus far.
Co.Design: What was it like to comb through 30 years of your archives for the show?
Isaac Mizrahi: “Well, it started as a bore. I was overwhelmed by how much I needed to go through. I’m kind of a completist. I like to know that no stone went unturned. And by the way, I remember every single piece of clothing I ever made. I remember every piece of jewelry and every show and every bag–I remember it all. So knowing that in advance made it that much heavier of a task. But then it turned into this fascinating kind of self-exploration and it was a good growth exercise for me to go through.”
What did you learn about yourself?
“I learned that I was right all those years. That so many people tried to convince me that I was wrong. I had the exact right career for me personally. My aim was not to create a signature look, because I think a lot of designers can do that. I was aiming to create a kind of political balance where you would kind of look at it and know–because it had so much color and so much humor and so much this and that–that it was mine. That it could only be mine. That’s what I set out to do and that’s what I did. That was the lesson I learned and I was very pleased.”
Was there anything that you revisited that made you particularly excited or emotional?
“There were two very fortunate things that I found because I couldn’t have done the exhibit without them. I was preparing myself to remake them from photographs, but in fact I found them. They were with Anh Duong. Do you know Anh Duong? She’s a beautiful model. I started emailing everyone I thought might have this one dress and everyone I knew who might have this one coat. And she wrote back and said, “Oh darling, I have both–the coat and the dress.” They’re from entirely different seasons, and they’re entirely different clothes, but she had them both and they were in pristine condition. So if you ever want to improve the quality of clothes, send them to Anh. Because something about the way that she wears clothes improves the quality.”
Which dress and coat was this?
“It’s this one that I call Rabbit Ears and another that’s an exploded, black-sequined parka. Those two things I felt like I needed to have them at the show. Because they were such important pieces to me. And low and behold, she had both. She had them in a storage spot in her house in East Hampton. I’m not really good at directions. I got lost six times, and for some reason I couldn’t really get the air conditioning in my car to work. I got there and they were in such perfect, pristine condition.”
When you launched your line in 1986, you produced both evening wear and sportswear, which was unique at the time. Now you’re designing for QVC and you’ve designed for Target. Can you talk about the importance of inclusivity and accessibility for your work?
“To be perfectly honest with you, over the years my whole love of clothing has evolved. I’m not that crazy anymore about designer clothes. I don’t like them that much. I like good-looking clothes; I don’t like pretentious, arty looking clothes.
“I made these three new coats for the show. It was really tricky because at once I wanted them to be obviously special and interesting, but at the same time I wanted them to be really wearable and almost like comfort clothes. I don’t really believe in terribly fancy clothes anymore. I don’t wear them anymore, so I don’t really believe in them. But I do love the three coats I made for the exhibit. It was this whole process I had forgotten about. Trying to make something interesting without being pretentious, but somehow expressing your own desires and aesthetics.”
The first time you made that switch from high fashion to more accessible fashion was when you worked with Target. How do you feel the landscape of the fashion industry has changed from when you started your career?
“Well I’m very proud that I was in the forefront of all that. I’m very proud that my work sought to prove and then proved that quality is not something that can really be measured by the amount of money you pay for it.
“I think of it like how when you go to a fancy restaurant and you spend $600 or $700 on dinner, and you’re not really that satisfied and it’s not really that good all the time. The older I got, the less good fancy food became. It’s really easy to find like tons of pretentious food out there, but it’s hard to find really creative, innovative food that’s also extremely delicious and really satisfies what I consider to be a private appetite. If you never really eat, it would be fine to eat what these restaurants have, which is like foam and dirt. But if you actually have an appetite for delicious food and interesting food, there are very few places that do that well. And there are so many hamburger and pizza places that really sort of do the trick, you know?
“I’m trying to make this kind of metaphor for clothes. Just because a woman is extremely skinny and extremely rich, I don’t think that’s at all a solution to the problem of being chic.”
You starred in the documentary UnZipped in 1995, before social media and TV created the celebrity designer phenomenon. What was it like to be one of the only designers open to exposure like that during that time?
“Oh, it was very hard. It was very, very hard. It was a completely different world. I mean, now you can’t go anywhere without a film crew. You’re nothing unless you have a film crew. But in those days was it very gauche, very, very gauche. Especially in Paris, let me tell you–it was not a thing to have in Paris. I did it because I thought, this is going to be good. I thought, the pain of making this is going to be worth it.”
You mentioned not really having a signature look. Did that ever concern you?
“No, because I don’t believe in having a legacy. I believe in having fun and doing something that isn’t boring. I mean, I don’t believe in the meaning of anything, so why would I believe in anything after I die? With that said, I swear to you, when I was putting together the show, if you look back on my work there is a definitely signature. It’s not a Chanel suit–it’s not that. It’s not a Bouclé suit with a gardenia in a million different variations with a spectator shoe and pearls. It’s just not. And I think that’s where she ended up getting her career, Chanel. I mean I shouldn’t be so dismissive; she was the greatest genius who ever lived, but I never did that and I never wanted to do that. But when you look back at my clothes you can tell who made them. Just from the hand–you can see the hand in every single look I think.”
Your elaborate, glamorous runway shows were an industry favorite. Do you ever miss that part of the fashion world?
“No, I really don’t because it was something that took so much of my energy. I gladly and lovingly spent that energy. But now I’m more interested in other kinds of entertainment. Because at a fashion show you can go just so far. It’s a visual thing and it usually has to have a happy ending. There are no tragic runway shows. I know people try to go very dark and spooky but I find that terrible and pretentious. Whereas if you’re doing Broadway or a movie, you can go very sad or dark and really say something in that way. For fashion, it’s very surface-oriented and if there is darkness or pain in it, you shouldn’t be able to see it.”
All Photos: courtesy the Jewish Museum