Isaac Mizrahi: I.M., A Memoir

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Mizrahi at home when at work.

That late ‘80s Isaac Mizrahi show was crazy. At the end, we were all on our feet, screaming.

Backstage, more of the same. “Gale force!” Andre Leon Talley bellowed. “Gale force!”

Click to order I.M., A Memoir

There is plenty to cheer in Mizrahi’s memoir, “I.M.” If you like the story of a gay kid who has his mother’s support and encouragement, here you go. (Backstage at that show, as Mizrahi’s mother beamed, I stood with Marc Jacobs, who said, tellingly, “My mother never comes to my shows.”). If you like a fashion success story, there’s plenty for you here. And if you like a story of a midlife coming to terms, “IM” has that too.

I find almost every memoir is too long, and “I.M.” is no exception. You may not notice. Isaac Mizrahi is compelling — his wit is both sharp and self-deprecating, he’s read everything and seen everything, he can

share a cultural reference that makes his point, and he has energy to burn. And because his big personality covers a well of self-doubt, he is very, very eager to please. Decades ago, when I had occasion to profile designers, it was always a good day when Isaac was on the schedule — in his videos, he practically leaps through the screen. No surprise that friends who bought the audiobook have come to love long commutes and traffic jams. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the audiobook, click here.]

Start with the childhood. Mizrahi dedicates “I.M.” to his mother. The reason why is abundantly clear in the first half of the book, as the chubby gay kid comes to understand he must navigate his escape from the community of Orthodox Syrian Jews in Brooklyn. At 5, in a foreshadowing of the diva he will grow up to be, he waves to his parents from a carnival ride “like a homecoming queen I’d seen on TV.” His father turns away. His mother, who once told her son “Your father married me because I had my shoes dyed to match my cashmere sweaters,” is more accepting. As a small boy, Isaac builds a puppet theater — “My commitment to it was obsessional” — but as soon as he acquires a sewing machine, he abandons performing. In his world, dressing up matters; he describes the High Holy Days as “a fashion sporting event.”

Things change again, and “I.M.” becomes an update to Moss Hart’s Act One. Mizrahi, at 11, goes alone to a Broadway show, and is hooked. Now he’s desperate to escape the Yeshiva — one morning, when the school bus stops to pick him up, he stabs one of the tires, hoping that will make it impossible to get to school. He successfully auditions for the High School of Performing Arts, wins a small part in “Fame,” and, most important of all, finds friends, some of them gay.

But Mizrahi is practical: “If I was going to live my adult life honestly, fashion seemed like the easiest way to make the money I’d need to escape.” Still in high school, he and a friend develop a line of clothes. He interns for Perry Ellis. Calvin Klein will soon hire him. Finally, fueled by a small trust fund, he opens his own studio.

The magical Mizrahi hands.

There is nothing more interesting — for me, anyway — than watching a creator create, and those chapters thrill. It’s less thrilling when the mountain is summited. I felt this strongly when I read Keith Richards’ memoir, Life — once the Rolling Stone became “the world’s greatest rock band,” drama drained out of the book. Here success brings a predictable cast of characters: Liza Minneli, Barbra Streisand, Audrey Hepburn, Diane Sawyer, Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Nora Ephron, Joan Didion, Oscar de la Renta, Jay McInerney, Sarah Jessica Parker, Valentino, Salman Rushdie, Charlie Rose, George Clooney, and Elizabeth Taylor. We get a smart take on Minnelli — “She was always surrounded by people who didn’t seem to have her best interest at heart” — but the others are mostly name-drops.

Two moments leap out. Mizrahi and Anna Wintour are close for 30 years. They give each other nicknames, she introduces him to possible lovers. “Her opinion began to matter in my life as much as in my work. She was the most important presence at my shows. . . . When Anna sat, the show started.”

Isaac’s bookshelves of merchandise in his Greenwich Village Studio.

And then comes a time when the show is delayed — Anna hasn’t arrived. “After about twenty minutes it was obvious she wasn’t coming and we filled the seat. It was a blow. I took it as a sign that my years as a couturier were waning.” He says no more.

The same thing happens with Sondheim. Here he is, meeting and befriending and getting close to his idol. And then, suddenly, his calls aren’t returned.

These are deep cuts. And they reveal, I think, the truth about so many A-list “friendships” in New York — they’re transactional. When you’re on top, everyone loves you. When you tumble, you’re dead. I would have liked Mizrahi to have shared that realization — if, indeed, that’s what he figured out — in his book. Maybe the pain of rejection is just too deep.

Mizrahi on QVC.

Isaac Mizrahi has rebuilt his life. He designs for Target, is a fixture on QVC. He’s let himself love and be loved, and he’s now married. He still is a demon reader — his New York Times “By the Book” questionnaire is really impressive — and his house tour is a hoot. He performs.

It’s hard to tell about memoirs that end with domestic happiness and more measured applause — does the author miss the big opening nights, the command performances, the calls from the White House? Mizrahi, I think, would have a practical answer: That was then, this is now.

For this reader, the book ends with a surprise. Those years of agony and struggle — the years of a fat gay boy learning how to make his escape, and succeeding — are, surprisingly, more memorable than an evening stroll with Madonna, the Cannes premiere of his film, and the dinners with celebrities who are delighted to be the first to recognize a new star. Those chapters I rushed through at the beginning? I went back to page one and read them again. I didn’t stand up and scream. But count this as applause.

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