No Holds Barred: Meeting Mizrahi

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Isaac and me.

It seems like everyone I know actually knows and loves Isaac Mizrahi. I mean EVERYONE! I never met him. But I have bought his sheets, towels, pajamas, at least 15 cardigans, 8 pair of moccasins 11 handbags, not to mention his Kleenex boxes and 1-800-Flowers. I think I “own” so much Isaac that I must have helped pay for his Bridgehampton house, his popular dog Harry’s medical and grooming bills, and his New York City apartment!

I even DVR his weekly appearance on QVC because I think they are actually master classes in style and living … beside fashion. He tells Middle America (of which I am one since I live in Arizona) where he eats and what he feels and he makes you feel like he is your new best friend – the kind of best friend who can REALLY help you.

Isaac giving a master class on QVC.

So maybe I have met Isaac. But I haven’t.

And that seems odd because when he was hot (after his brilliant documentary “Unzipped” in 1995) I was writing about fashion for The Village Voice and I knew he stood for “the next big thing.” He was the “new real deal.” But then I moved on and stopped writing or living the fashion scene. But Isaac continued to rise working with Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis and then doing his own couture. At that point he lost me.

But then he landed at Target and I started to pay attention. How genius to not only be one of the first designers to go mass market but to turn his back on high fashion, and make us (the over-60 Middle-American “slobs” who are “out of the loop” and chose not to spend so much on clothes) his fan base.

Isaac Mizrahi Spring/Summer 2004 for Target.

At that point, Isaac became ISAAC!!

He was the first designer to make me aware of big time “branding” – all the glasses, handbags, shoes, perfume and the complications of licensing. For a while he was doing couture AND Target.

By the time he got to QVC (2010) he had dumped out of the high-end scene (no more Bergdorf trunk shows). I like to think he became America’s most “democratic” designer. And he’s made a fortune doing it – he deserves it. He honestly wants all those so-called “fat women living in Kansas trailers” to feel and look great (not all of his market are “fat women living in RV’s in Kansas” – many live in LA and Chicago and are a size 2). For them Isaac has become their leader. He has keyed into his market and he gave them life in color, Chanel quilted jackets, Capri pants – even decent slim fitting jeans. He gave them just enough style to make them look current, but not desperate, and above all – comfortable!!

Remember Isaac himself wears Henri Bendel loafers, slides, and Nike’s (he has feet problems like all of us) and he loves comfort for himself so he is always in elastic top pants and a great chef/lab coat with pockets. He walks and wears his own talk!

Personally – Isaac changed my life. Four years ago I stopped shopping for clothes and was going through two years of family loss and round the clock homecare. So I would tune him in at 2 a.m. on QVC and I would do a version of “drunk dial” ordering his scarves, jackets and shoes. I started to wear color. I will never forget when he advised, “Ladies, when you wear color, you are performing a Public Service.” Now I never wear black, taupe, or grey. I live in perpetual” Mizrahi Technicolor”; emerald, orange, deep lime and yellow. Isaac gave me the courage.

A small sampling of my Isaac, scarves and sweaters.
My Mizrahi mandala of shoes.
Part of my personal Isaac bag collection.

I’ve met a lot of fashion designers in my day. I loved Rudi Gernriech and Jacques Tiffeau. They were honest innovators. Pauline Trigére was a pure lady. Karl Lagerfeld was rude and full of himself and viciously sarcastic. Ralph Lauren was polite but vaguely distant. Halston was monosyllabic and dismissed me from his studio in ten minutes (maybe I should have brought a gram of cocaine). But Isaac seemed to be “one of us.” After all, he has admitted to having a weight problem, hair challenges, and of course his feet. He has struggled with his own career “ups and downs.”

Most of all – he truly truly loves women. None of the other designers seemed to have that core passion (except maybe Oscar de la Renta). They all acted “above” us – they were not “of” us. And personally, after I met a lot of them – they disappointed me as true-life souls.

So when I heard that the Jewish Museum was doing a retrospective of “Isaac Mizrahi; An Unruly History” I knew I had to book a flight to NYC just to see it (It stays up through August).

First of all – what a great match. The Jewish Museum is a fabulously intimate place. Not like the Metropolitan Museum, which easily intimidates and overwhelms with overproduced “shows.” The Jewish Museum and Isaac are BOTH hämisch and smart.

The show itself is extensive and fabulously colorful. Remember Isaac is only 55 and he’s done more than you think. But my favorites were his costumes for choreographer Mark Morris’ ballet and The Magic Flute.

Mizrahi Owl and Ostrich from “The Magic Flute” at the Saint Louis Opera Theatre.

The finale video of his life (in the last room) says it all. There you see him “performing” his life away; in Woody Allen films, Celebrity Jeopardy, on his own Lifetime talk show, on Project Runway All Stars, on Ted TV and his one one-man stand up show, “Les Miz,” and of course at his own fashion shows. A viewer who stood next to me at the video exclaimed, “God, he has done it all – maybe too much and he is so young.” Her partner replied, “He jumps from lily pad to lily pad – it feels like a whirlwind and makes you wonder – how much has he truly excelled in.” Hmmm!

Showstopper Video at the at the Retrospective.

In front of Isaac’s great swatch wall, I met Thijs Adriaans – a young fashion designer from Holland. I asked him what he thought of Isaac.

“Well, I worship Karl Lagerfeld – he is a God. But Isaac … he is an explosion – he is a true personality – he does, and is everything. And he has a beating heart.”

Dutch Fashion Designer Thijs Adriaans in front of Swatch Wall.
Mizrahi Tulip Dress and more.
Mizrahi Coats.
L. to r.: Mizrahi Kitchen Sink Pink; Mizrahi Pants.
Isaac Swatch wall.
L. to r.: Mizrahi Baby Bjorn Satin Ball Gown; Elevator Pad Dress.

L. to r.: Bottle Cap Dress; Mizrahi in full bloom!
One of the many tour groups at the Mizrahi Show.
More Mizrahi.
L. to r.: Pat Davidson, docent of the Jewish Museum’s Mizrahi Show; Me with a Mizrahi Ball Gown.

By the way, the Jewish Museum gift shop is the best store. Not only does it have all of Isaac’s great books, Band-Aids (his latest product), card deck (he is a huge bridge player) and Madame Alexander dolls, but the menorahs and Pesach plates were truly unique and the t-shirts with giant “OY” and “YO” on them (with matching earrings) were hilarious.

The Jewish Museum’s great boutique.
Mizrahi Museum Boutique — t-shirts, mugs, and Madame Alexander Doll.
From the OY YO Collection at the Jewish Museum store.
Mizrahi Band-Aids …
… and Bridge Sets.

The basement cafeteria is now Russ & Daughters and there was standing room only for their lox and bagel lunches. Maira Kalman (a dear friend of Isaac’s) did the hilarious sketches and messages all over the walls. Apparently the Jewish Museum has now become a very popular eating venue. So you can get a great shopping experience and “Isaac on Rye” – a true “two-fer” or “one stop shopping” thrill.

L. to r.:Lead Server Isabelle at Russ & Daughters in The Jewish Museum; Russ & Daughters lox cutter.
Russ & Daughters dining room at The Jewish Museum.
Maira Kalman’s In This Life wall (made up of 120 pen and ink drawings) in Russ & Daughters.

After 2 months of trying to nail Isaac down for an interview, I finally got a face-to-face meeting. He is hard to find because he is SERIOUSLY busy. At one point, his assistant Shanleigh (who I accidentally called Sham-Wow) could only give me an 18-minute phone interview. I don’t do phone interviews – I told her I would rather do a selfie in the QVC lobby. He couldn’t do that. Then a miracle happened – there was an opening on a Monday afternoon in his Greenwich Village Studio.

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

Jeff Hirsch (my sensational art director/editor) came with me to get the right “photo op” and to make the meeting official. Personally I am lousy at interviews, and worse at taking pictures. Jeff at least could do half. I decided in honor of Pesach (which it was) I would only ask Isaac four questions. I wasn’t interested in how he “made it” (you can Google that) or what he thought of fashion today (who cares about that). I was more interested in letting him talk.

We arrived early and played with his notorious 16-year-old rescue Border Collie mix – Harry. I remember Isaac saying “I don’t sleep that much. I am always thinking and obsessing. But I obsess the most about my dog Harry, he is all I think about.”

16-year-old Harry was there to greet us.

Isaac arrived looking like Isaac in his black lab coat – charming and accessible – quickly seating us at his worktable. I immediately fell off his wired chair, but he instantly apologized and insisted that that happens a lot, and he needs new chairs (no doubt he will design the right one himself).

Immediately I forgot my questions – instead we got into a genuine to and fro “conversation.” I told him I had just read an essay in the New York Times questioning, “was Fashion Art?” Isaac answered, “Of course it’s not – it’s merchandising, it’s all just stuff. Sure, there are designers who think and maybe they are artists, but in the end it’s product and all about selling.”

The magical hands of Mizrahi!

And before I knew it (we were both talking so fast and leaving topics quickly) out came his line of a lifetime to me: “Fashion is all shit sometimes! It takes itself so seriously – it’s embarrassing to me. It makes everyone feel badly about how they look. They feel their hair is wrong. Their ass is too big. I feel it also. It shouldn’t be this way. Honestly.”

You don’t stand next to Isaac, you HOG Isaac.

And that is why his hardcore fans love him. “My Mother Sarah was my greatest teacher – she loved clothes – she knew about Norman Norell’s buttons and how they were spaced and shaped. She cared about details and I got my eye from her. She was a master at high/low dressing. She could make her P.J.s look expensive. She taught me to re-invent styles and not to spend so much and she made me aware that exceptional women may or may not be beautiful, but they are always REAL.”

We breezed over his “philosophies.” He ended up saying it straight with “It’s never about looking like everybody else. It’s all about knowing yourself and above all, feeling comfortable in all that.”

He reminded me that he had gone to Parsons “and frankly I had to actually learn how to drape and sketch. I lived at museums and we had classes on clothing

structure there. Today, the students learn everything digitally and I am not sure that is so great. Are they getting their hands in the knowledge? I don’t know.”

Speaking of hands – Isaac has such great hands we had to photograph them – very expressive and his wedding ring (he designed) was exceptional. Also – nobody says and punctuates sentences with “darling” better than Isaac. He also uses the French word “d’accord” perfectly when he wants to tell you “absolutely “or emphatically agree with you.

I eventually asked him about the “lily pad jumping” criticism. Doing too may things and nothing.

“I know people accuse me of that – well it’s the way I keep moving forward and not getting stuck.”

“I love the theatre and that was my training — at New York School of Performing Arts. I grew up in a religious

family, but my religion was music and dance – that got to me. My friends were and still are dancers and performers, and I always go back to that. Maybe that is where I get my love for fabric and color. Onstage things have to “pop” and stand out. I never want women to be so afraid of color – even if it is just a scarf … Something … my God!”

No question color has been Isaac’s focus – so much more than any other brand – not J.Crew’s orange cardigans or Uniqlo’s neon purple corduroy skinny pants. Isaac has a particular green and pink that Kate Spade couldn’t come close to.

I asked him to explain his famous line: “We love style because it keeps us from the subject of dying.”

He clarified: “Well, I look at styling as a diversion and an aspiration. We always want to look alive and feel better and style gives us that inspiration.” Later I thought he was talking about “shopping therapy” but maybe more than that.

Punim to punim.

We ended up gossiping about a few mutual friends and he told me he is writing his memoir and would like to do another stand-up show.

We took pictures hugging each other. You HAVE to hug Isaac. You don’t just stand next to him. He appreciated my head-to-toe Isaac attire and gave me a green/blue plaid stretch watch to polish off my Isaac “look.” We never got past my first question and yet he answered everything in his stream of consciousness rap. Including his macaroni and cheese recipe and his love of Bravos’ The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Book signing …
More kibitzing.
And then immediately back to work.

Before I left he insisted on gifting me from his product wall – books, Band-Aids – but I had already BOUGHT it all! As he signed his book to me I complained about my concern for women in spandex and camel toe – “oh, camel toe … do I KNOW camel toe!” he laughed. And I am sure he does. Suddenly our time was up. Thank God he didn’t disappoint or narcissistically throw us out.

A green/blue plaid stretch watch to polish off my Isaac “look.”

As we were leaving I questioned his name “Isaac” or “Yitzhak” in Jewish meaning “Joy.” Isaac corrected me – “No, not Joy. It means Laughter.” His Mother Sarah named him perfectly (and remember his Mom knows ALL).

Isaac is just that. And a whole lot more.

In head-to-toe (minus the skinny jeans) Isaac!

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