Celebrating London Fashion Week: Isaac Mizrahi, an interview

‘I have been praised but also punished. And it’s because I didn’t necessarily see this as a labour of commerce; I saw it as a labour of love’ – Isaac Mizrahi

To celebrate London Fashion Week, we are turning the spotlight on the pioneering American fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi.

In 1989, esteemed fashion editor for The Washington Post Nina Hyde wrote of Isaac Mizrahi’s autumn collection for the year: ‘Everyone is rooting for Mizrahi. Why else would they travel to TriBeCa in lower Manhattan, a $20-plus, half-hour cab ride in traffic, and in the rain, to see the Mizrahi collection? And wait more than an hour for it to begin?’

Hyde was speaking of ‘Extreme Kilt,’ which was Mizrahi’s riff on the ubiquitous tartan collection present in the oeuvres of Perry Ellis, Ralph Lauren and Vivienne Westwood. In his exploration of tartan, Mizrahi played with both material (ranging from fine wool to chiffon) and form (a silk plaid parka, for example). In one instance, Mizrahi transformed the traditional Scottish kilt into a strapless, floor-length gown with buckles that trailed up one side of the bust.

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The creativity, exuberance and playfulness of Mizrahi’s fashion designs are beautifully reproduced and brought to life in Chee Pearlman’s book Isaac Mizrahi (in association with The Jewish Museum and it’s current exhibition Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History).

In the following interview extracted from the book, independent curator, journalist and editor Chee Pearlman talks to Mizrahi about other contemporary designers, his influences and how he has experienced the fashion world.


Extract from Isaac Mizrahi

Chee Pearlman: What do you think sets you apart from your contemporaries, designers like Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors?

Isaac Mizrahi: I think humour sets me apart. I thrive on self-mockery. A lot of designers out there have to take it all really seriously. It’s one thing, I think, that stands in the way of my own immediate progress. Most times, when I see people on the worst-dressed list I think they look great–and vice versa. It’s a tough line to hold, a delicate line to walk. I remember when Sarah Jessica Parker would show up in crazy-looking things and look amazing and get voted worst dressed. And now it’s de rigueur.

CP: Yes! There are fabulous examples of your sense of humour in these pages. From the Tee Pee collection to the Beast Coats, the Tote Hats—you weren’t holding back.

IM: I had the best time doing those collections. Those were the most exciting days of my life as a designer. I think that the ability to laugh at myself still sets me apart. I don’t understand people without humour, and I just don’t like certain things because they have no humour. Like when you walk into some boutiques and they feel like mausoleums, with rows of rigid black handbags. I talk a lot about being funny, being whimsical. But it’s also about elegance, which is just as important to me. My idea of elegance comes more from nature than from other clothes. Women I looked up to. When I was sixteen my sister gave me the catalogue from the Metropolitan Museum’s Richard Avedon show, which was going on then, and my eyes were opened. Those women were elegant because of a kind of composure. And no matter how artificial, they always referred to something natural. A natural asset. Long throat. Slim arms. Beautiful legs that were set off by wonderful shoes. And a wink. That’s the humour. I think humour was in short supply in the American fashion arena. There was nobody who could be smart and funny.

CP: Earlier, you mentioned scavenging as a form of style. Part of your wit, your whimsy has to do with the way you absorb and reinvent cultural or historical ideas.

IM: I start with a gesture and run with it. And as I’ve said before, sometimes I have no idea where the gestures come from. Sometimes it’s a show I’ve seen, or a painting. That’s the most exciting part of the process: the beginning. The first glance at something new coming out of your pencil onto the paper. I can’t say more ’cause it happens on a case-by-case basis. No two collections are alike. The building, the fleshing out of ideas.

CP: Were your designs influenced by what was happening in the arts at the time?

IM: To some extent, yes. But mostly I thought of them as things to wear while you were looking at art. Or while you were at a party surrounded by art. I never thought of my clothes as ‘art’.

CP: You’ve said that you learned a lot from the graphic-design provocateur Tibor Kalman. What resonated with you in his work, his approach?

IM: He was always one of my best critics, but also a cheerleader at the same time. He was hypercritical, weirdly smart—smarter than anybody, and a great, funny guy. He was a counter-thinker, which is something we shared. If you said black, he’d say white. It’s like my dog, Harry. If you tell him to come, he goes. Tibor was full of humour too. And was fearless in that way. He demanded a high level of honesty and could see through any lie. I felt comfortable with him because I too was sensitive to bullshit.

CP: After you shut down your designer label in 1998, you chose to follow so many different paths of creativity—you’re a performer, writer, musician, director. You’re working in dance, theatre, opera. And of course you’ve been a celebrated designer for Target, and now you have the Isaac Mizrahi Live! show on QVC. Do you miss the world of high fashion?

IM: Occasionally I wish I were doing that again because I’ll have an idea for the most major, amazing coat or ball gown or handbag in the world. Or the craziest shoe you’ve ever seen. (It always starts with a shoe!) And I’ll wish I were back. But you can’t do that; it doesn’t work that way. This industry expects you to stay on the treadmill, doing it every single day. I can’t do that—to me it feels redundant. I have been praised but also punished. And it’s because I didn’t necessarily see this as a labour of commerce; I saw it as a labour of love. I am a true amateur, a person who works from a position of love, which is the meaning of that word. I approach everything, all my projects, from that perspective, from the perspective of an amateur.

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Isaac Mizrahi

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