Isaac Mizrahi: full of surprises

April 16, 2014

Did you know that Isaac Mizrahi had a cameo in Fame and Men In Black? Or that he worked as the costume designer for two Broadway plays and co-wrote the historical documentary Kingdom of David: The Saga of the Israelites for PBS?

Undoubtedly one of the most accomplished fashion designers to-date, Mizrahi has never stopped at one endeavour. Fashion, theatre, writing, hosting shows—he’s done it all. Never afraid to say what he really thinks, or to wear what he really wants; not to mention that his shoe choices never leave the spotlight.

This month, he tells all in The Trendsetter Issue.

Isaac Mizrahi on the cover of our April issue. Graphic design by Kalynn Friesen.

Mizrahi on the cover of our April issue.
Graphic design: Kalynn Friesen. 

HANNAH YAKOBI: I was reading somewhere recently that you got your first sewing machine at the age of 12 from your father. How did that happen?

ISAAC MIZRAHI: I actually sought it out—it was in the house and I wanted to use it. It was my father’s big industrial machine. He had two machines in the basement, one was a big old, what you would call ‘the iron horse.’ It was a 1920s Singer that was like a factory machine that was very powerful and sewed very fast. And then he also had a serger, also known as the Merrow machine. It was extremely dangerous because it had a blade attached, and it serged the end of the fabric off, but he taught me how to use it, and I was very careful. I never cut a finger off, touch wood. I had a natural aptitude for it.

But I was a little too young [at first], so I saved up, and my father went out with me and we bought a smaller version. It was a very big, important step in my life.

Someone said to me once, ‘Oh, what would have happened if you didn’t have the sewing machine your father kind of enabled for you and taught you how to use?’ And I said, ‘Well, I probably would just sew by hand because when you want to get something done you get it done.’ I did learn to sew, first by hand, and then by machine, but the ultimate act of sewing is really engrained in my body. It’s like I grew up in the house with a sewing machine: I was always there, my Dad sewed, my aunt was a great sewer, and so it was in the blood.

I was always very opinionated about hemlines, colours and patterns, and how to reinvent a classic dress. I mean that’s all: I just happened to be very good at it.

Mizrahi in his studio.

Mizrahi in his studio.

And then just over a decade later, Bergdorf Goodman purchased your line of clothing in 1986. Fast forward to last year, and you are in the company’s documentary, called Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s. You had a lot of punchy lines in it, how did you feel when you were approached to participate?

It was great. I mean, it’s really just speaking to a camera and saying what you think. And they got the right pieces. I love the association with Bergdorf Goodman and I always have.

Even before I had a fashion show, they carried my collection and not only did they carry it, not only did they feature me as part of their design for the family, but they really sold the clothes very well. And it was always such a pleasure that that store had such a chic presence.

[Often] for department stores, even the chicest clothes are nothing but window dressings. They have to sell in this sort of boring thing you don’t care about. But Bergdorf’s really sells the most edgy things, it always has. The edgier, the more fabulous, the more over-the-top—the better. Do you know what I mean? And for a designer, that is a very, very big and wonderful gift.

What about your current projects—could you tell me a little bit about that?

Well, I’m working on a wonderful project with Kleenex, where I have designed some boxes for their tissues. They’re kind of doing this thing about how even something as simple as a tissue box can help a woman express and find her personal style. This is a great opportunity for me because my brand is about exactly that. You know, trying to reach every woman out there, in a way that kind of elevates her standard of quality.

And it’s something as elemental as a tissue box that can sit in a woman’s bedroom, boudoir or bathroom, and actually bring a little bit of wit and style. So that is something that I’m very, very pleased to speak about.

I’ve done a few different designs for the boxes: I did one that’s kind of a giraffe, animal print, which is nothing more than a soft, sort of geometric style, that looks great in black and white. And then I did a floral, which I did in two colours and it’s sort of my favourite. There are two colour waves, it’s like a Xerox flower that’s been colourized—it’s a take on a real print, which came from my collection, and it’s tweaked. I think it looks wonderful on the box. And then the fourth design looks like a Mediterranean tile. It’s in yellow and green, which I also think is versatile, and something that a woman might love because it might brighten up the environment a bit. To me, that’s the essence of design—simple ways to get right to the issue at hand, to make someone’s life better.

You’ve collaborated with a lot of other brands in your career. What was specifically different for this partnership?

It’s Kleenex’s 90th anniversary and they are trying to reach out to people to express their personal style. So it’s a good collaboration. There isn’t a more classic American brand I don’t think in the world. And it’s as simple as a tissue, which a woman uses for a lot of different things, not just blowing her nose.

And somehow, even in that area, there’s some way to bring a stylish little wink to it. That’s a great opportunity for me and I think it’s a pretty good opportunity for them too because my brand is almost 30 years old and it stands for something. What I tried to bring to [this partnership] is a sense of fashion that a lot of people can relate to.

Kleenex brand production day with Mizrahi.

What about your perfume, Fabulous; what was it like to design the scent but also incorporate design elements into the bottle itself?

You know, again, it’s a very emotional thing. A fragrance, like style in general, is emotional. The way someone smells is extremely emotional—at least for me, because I have a very hyper, hyper, hyper-zealous sense of smell. What somebody smells like really does make me feel a certain way about them, or not.

And so what I tried to create was something that would grab senses, smell not just fresh and classic, clean and beautiful, but also somewhat snappy and young. The way I did that was focused on the idea of it starting with a very orange-y, bergamot-y, kind of citrus-y smell. To me, that implies sophistication, it implies a certain kind of wit. And then you get a floral midway, which I think is also classic and feminine. The finish is kind of dry, like sandal wood and a little bit of cedar.

So it takes you through this wonderful journey and the person in the end that you are smelling is this person who is kind of witty and feminine at the same time. I love feminine things, but ‘smart’ is the most important word to me. And I find Fabulous is a very smart fragrance.

Now the bottle, on the other hand, is something that I want to make me smile. It’s an object in the room. It refers to glamorous things from the ’50s, which is that atomizer, and it’s in this bright pink colour that I associate with my own brand. It’s this kind of round, wonderful, classic bottle, but it’s kind of askew—the whole mechanism is off-centred. I always like to set something off a little bit. And I like this idea that style and the way you feel inside is expressed in not just the fragrance, but also the packaging.

Speaking of interesting objects, you are really engaged on social media and often post fragments of the things you like on Instagram, as well as of people you meet or work with. How do you personally think Instagram and other social media channels affect the communication between the designer and the client, or the media?

You know, I have to say I like social media, but I’m not exactly the social media generation. One generation after me really made that up and really benefits or doesn’t from social media. They are actually really deeply involved, so I just have fun with it. But I think to post every single thing you do on Instagram is not so interesting. And people that do that I cannot follow. After a while, it just becomes one more image. I think that every single thing that you tweet or Instagram should be interesting enough, or promotional which is basically what it’s about.

The other thing is: I see a lot of designers Instagram dresses even before they show the dress on the runway, and I think, ‘Well, how exciting could seeing that collection be when you finally see it, if you’ve seen all the dresses in preview on some lousy Instagram account?’

I think you need to hide it, you need to hide, hide, hide! Are you really going to present something original that you hope will be influential, that you hope will set the world on its end for a minute? You do want to hide it until it’s perfected, till the last moment and until the right people are watching it.

Mizrahi's sketches for The Magic Flute at The Opera House of St. Louis, which debuts May 24, 2014.

Mizrahi’s sketches for The Magic Flute at The Opera House of St. Louis, which debuts May 24, 2014.

By Hannah Yakobi
Photography by Mike Coppola for Getty Images & courtesy of Isaac Mizrahi

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