Isaac Mizrahi: Following His Heart and His Vision

Isaac Mizrahi wants to do it all. Fashion, film, cabaret—even opera. It’s just the way he’s built.

“It started when I was a tiny kid. My
piano teacher said, ‘You have to choose
what you want to do. You can’t continue to
study the piano for eight hours a day and
be an actor and design clothes.’ I listened
to what he said, and he made sense, but
I couldn’t relate to that model. I am not a
specialist.”

Indeed, Mizrahi, 48, has been called
everything from Renaissance man to renegade,
from inconsistent to a creative genius.
And, most recently, “a complete icon,” by
Liz Claiborne offi cials as they courted him
to revamp their struggling label.

Mizrahi accepted the Claiborne creative
director position in 2008, following a
successful five-year run with Target. In
helping the giant retailer become a hip style
destination, he had taken a big professional
risk by moving from high-end design to
cheap chic for the mass consumer. In so
doing, he paved the way for other designers
to take the leap into the mainstream.

Seeds of Inspiration

“I never made the decision to be a fashion designer. It kind of picked me,” he tells
SUCCESS. “I remember I had an epiphany about it in July of 1976. I was looking at the
issue of Vogue that month—it was about the fall collection. It was the most fabulous thing;
there was this portfolio of Avedon photography, Patti Hansen and Janice Dickinson in
these unbelievable clothes. I have been an insomniac since I was about 12 years old, and I
remember spending the whole night poring over that magazine and making the decision
that I was going to do that.”

Much of Mizrahi’s inspiration for fashion and other undertakings comes from these
moments. In fact, he claims his 2009 fall collection appeared to him in a dream. “And in my
waking hours I just made them,” he says. “I hardly felt responsible. Of course, I’m responsible,
but in the end, it’s so obvious to see that you are really a conduit for these things.”

Part of Mizrahi’s need to explore other genres, like entertaining or writing, arises from
a restlessness and short attention span most people would fi nd troublesome. But Mizrahi
shrugs it off. “I am easily bored,” he says. “I think it’s a way of being in the world. Some
people just like to do a lot of things.”

Mizrahi approaches his drive to do new things with a frank and unorthodox belief that it
is, indeed, all about the vision—and a versatility that started when he was very young.

I had already been designing for so long. It was one of the many things that I did. I was
an actor. I went to the performing arts high school and I was in the acting department, I
played the piano, I did sketches, I made clothes. I had a puppet theater. That’s how I started
to sew—by making puppets.”

Big Breaks

Mizrahi’s early perspective on fashion was very much from an outsider’s point of view,
however. “When I was a kid, I was really fat, so I was always on the outside of fashion,
looking at it and trying to master it somehow. In that way, I became an authority. I could
never wear it. I remember it was the 1970s and
platform shoes were very important, and I wanted
them, but my mother wouldn’t let me have them,
because, in those days, heavy people weren’t
supposed to wear platform shoes. My way of grabbing
back at that was to design platform shoes.”

Mizrahi underwent a transformation shortly
thereafter when he entered New York’s High School
of Performing Arts, where the Fame TV show and
movie were based. He called it a “culture shock”
and lost 75 pounds. And that was the beginning
of a high-energy career that would cross disciplines,
from design to acting to writing a comic
book series.

After high school, Mizrahi attended the prestigious Parsons The New School for Design
and met a man who would become his mentor—the legendary designer Perry Ellis.

He was so incredibly fun to work with,” Mizrahi says. “He was such a shining example—
he had amazing taste. I feel that everything I learned about textile came from Perry Ellis.
[At Parsons] we had extensive classes about textiles and fabric and fi bers and burn tests.
But the beauty, the luxury, the taste level of fabric, I got from Perry.”

Mizrahi’s first big break came in 1987 with his debut collection at a Bergdorf Goodman
trunk show. The fashion editors loved him, and a career was launched. The trajectory,
however, was not fi xed; there were ups and downs, triumphs and failures. He was criticized
at times for inconsistency, for not having a singular look. But Mizrahi sees that as his own
unique signature, or design strength.

Ahead of His Time

“I have a very hard time editing,” he says. “I don’t understand why an artist should edit
his own work. That’s why I’m not as good at fashion as I am with design. Because I know
when something is beautifully designed… but I don’t like to follow other people when it
comes to fashion. And I notice that everybody sort of does the same thing at the same time,
and that’s what makes the fashion.”

Instead, Mizrahi follows his own instincts, his own sense of what works. “I always try
to think of something fresh, something innovative, and it almost comes from this weird
psychic place. It often happens that two or three seasons later, people get into something that
I was into two or three seasons earlier. That isn’t a feather in my cap. It doesn’t make me a
good fashion designer. I have been making
clothes for so long, it is about design for me
more than it is about fashion.”

Mizrahi is, of course, a brilliant fashion
designer, and has become a talent to be
reckoned with outside the industry as
well, with appearances in numerous television
shows as well as a groundbreaking
fashion documentary dedicated to his fall
1994 collection called Unzipped. He called
the film his career highlight because “it
synthesizes who I am in terms of a person
who is into many multiple disciplines.”
He also has made guest appearances on
Sex and the City and Ugly Betty and was
in Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks and
Hollywood Ending.

Designing the Isaac Mizrahi line for
Target was one of his boldest career moves,
and an unorthodox business decision for a
high-end New York designer. “At the time,
it did not occur to me that it was a risk
because I was resolved with the idea of
really reaching out that way. But, of course,
when we launched and told people about
it, they all said, ‘Oh my God, what have
you done—you really better not do that
because it’s a risk.’ ”

The Target idea, a collaboration with his
business partner Marisa Gardini, was a
resounding success. Isaac Mizrahi became
a household name.

‘If You See It’

“I would say, if you feel something in
your heart, then you have nothing to worry
about,” Mizrahi says. “If you see it, if you
have a vision for it, then it’s no longer
a risk.”

The biggest risk for Mizrahi, again, is
boredom, the tedium and predictability of
doing one thing and one thing only. “My
strength is that I bore very easily,” he says.

I really don’t like doing one thing—I
like doing lots of things. I can’t just design
a collection. I have TV shows I love to do,
a cabaret act I do in New York at a place
called Joe’s Pub. Some people see that as a
detriment. Some people say ‘Can’t you focus?’ And I understand that comment, but I think
about focused people, ‘How bored are you? Can you un-focus? Can you do more than one
thing?’ It cuts both ways, that.”

These days, in addition to his work with Liz Claiborne, Mizrahi is co-hosting a new
Bravo series, The Fashion Show, still does his cabaret at Joe’s Pub, and will star in QVC’s
Isaac Mizrahi Live! reality TV/shopping channel show. He is also directing an opera in St.
Louis next spring.

What I have inside me is a confi dence in these endeavors. Before it became my job to be
a television personality or design clothes or be a cabaret performer, I was doing it already.
I felt kind of strong about it. Just because it was reality didn’t make it scarier. In my head,
it’s scary or not scary—the real world doesn’t make it scary for me. The hard part is having
the vision,” he says, “not realizing it.”

Follow Your
Instincts

Another lesson
he lives by is
following his own
desires. From his
piano teacher to
a lifetime of other
people advising him
to stay “focused,”
Mizrahi believes his
success comes from
his decisions to do
exactly what he
wants to do—not
what others tell him
he should do.

The great lesson
I’ve learned over the
last few years is to
take the ego away
and have patience.
Do what you want—don’t let anyone tell you to do a version of what
you want. Do exactly what you want, then wait it out,” he says. “Even
if it takes for-e-ver. Even if you don’t blow up in two seconds as the
biggest world-dominating company, stick to it, and you will grow and
grow incrementally. Eventually, critical mass will matter.”

Mizrahi knows what’s next for him. “Immersion in the entertainment
business,” he says. “I’m going to write a movie someday. I’m
going to direct a movie someday, well, more than one. That’s what I
really want to do. And I’m headed there.”

And, as with all new endeavors, he says he doesn’t know if he’ll
succeed, but the execution may just be enough. “I don’t know if I’ll be
good at it, but I know I’ll like doing it. If someone thinks I’m good,
then I’m really happy about it.”

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