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Thursday September 5, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Thursday September 5, 2013 MYT 8:28:47 AM
by judith newman
‘Happy is a very big word to apply to my life, I think,’ says couturier Isaac Mizrahi.
After selling his company, Isaac Mizrahi is busier than ever: writing a TV pilot and giving cabaret shows.
IN less than a week, New York Fashion Week will officially roll into town, turning a wide swath of the city into a carnival of journalists, buyers, bloggers, label-obsessed shoppers and – most notably – anxious designers wondering if their latest collections will be greeted with praise (“he’s a genius”), disdain (“well, that was interesting”) or just a shrug of the shoulders (“um, where are we doing lunch?”).
Isaac Mizrahi will not be among them.
At 51, Mizrahi has moved on, after licensing his name and selling his company to Xcel Brands, evolving from fashion designer to “polymath – businessman, entertainer,” said Joanna Coles, Cosmopolitan’s editor-in-chief, who was a host of Project Runway All Stars: After The Runway, a television show that included Mizrahi as one of its judges.
“He is just this big, big personality with enormous outsize opinions about all things,” she said. “Like – ‘Gooseberries? They’re the most disgusting food!’ And he has a huge appetite for everything, which is one reason he’s constantly on a diet.”
There is a rap against Mizrahi in the fashion industry: that, distracted by his interests in set design, acting and hosting talk and reality shows, he’s been too unfocused to develop a signature style that might once have propelled him into the pantheon of great American designers. “People in the industry look askance at those who don’t live and breathe fashion,” said Robin Givhan, who won a Pulitzer for her fashion criticism for The Washington Post. “It’s like, you must suffer for your art, or you’re not legit.”
And, suffice it to say, Mizrahi has had an uneasy relationship with commerce.
Since leaving his apprenticeship at Calvin Klein and selling his first collection to Bergdorf Goodman in 1986, he has seen any number of booms and busts in his business. In June 1988, Anne-Marie Schiro wrote in The Times: “Remember the name Isaac Mizrahi. He is this year’s hottest new designer,” calling his first show “so professionally executed, so tasteful and imaginative that it catapulted him into the big time.”
Even after the 1995 documentary Unzipped (in which the film’s director, Douglas Keeve, his boyfriend at the time, captured his sweetness along with the hissy fits and nail-biting angst surrounding the creation of his 1994 fall collection), when he became a bona fide star to a wider audience, his couture line reportedly had millions in sales, but it still couldn’t turn a profit.
Instead, he found great success in mass-market lines – at Target, at QVC and, with the sale of his identity, at Xcel Brands, in 2011. (The terms of Mizrahi’s agreement with Xcel prohibit him from talking about details, but try stopping Mizrahi from talking about anything.)
Friends say that he struggles personally with not being the intellectual force in fashion he once saw himself to be. He was reportedly very hurt when New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix page described him as having “twice the bitchiness of Michael Kors with half the wit (and professional success).”
Linda Wells, the editor-in-chief of Allure, calls his design “colourful and frothy, and all that.”
“What he is not is edgy, and he doesn’t want to be,” Wells continued. “It’s not his personal approach to life, and not his approach to design.”
Mizrahi says he is delighted with the Xcel association, and no doubt is, at least on a financial level. Yet at lunch, at Cookshop in Chelsea, when the Xcel public-relations person joined us, I couldn’t escape the sense that she was monitoring her most beloved naughty toddler.
“The people I work with, they’re really smart now,” Mizrahi said. “It’s a different kind of collaboration, you know? I think I have style and confidence, but they know the market. So if I go into a meeting about shoes or handbags and I go: ‘What? No, excuse me?,’ they go: ‘Oh, really? Well, thank you very much, and here’s a clean copy for your records.’” Mizrahi beamed. The PR woman winced a little.
With Xcel in charge of licensing everything from a new girl’s line to watches, he is free to do, well, everything else. He’s writing a television pilot (still very hush-hush) and doing something he’s loved since he first belted out Don’t Rain On My Parade as an eight-year-old: cabaret. He’s been performing intermittently for years.
The night I saw him, at the Westside Theater, he delivered raspy renditions of classics (C’est Si Bon) and not-so-classics (Ode To Xanax) and took audience questions. His singing voice is closer to Harvey Fierstein than Michael Feinstein, but it hardly matters. He knows how to put on a show.
“The thing that’s so great about cabaret is that you really don’t know what to expect,” he told me later. “Like, in theater, even the things that seem improvisational are planned. But very little is planned in cabaret. Which means that sometimes you stink. But even when you do, it’s always fun.”
For someone who wears his neurosis and even prickliness proudly, “fun” still seems a word to live by. Mizrahi grew up the youngest boy in a Conservative Jewish family in Midwood, Brooklyn. There were tipoffs as to what he’d be doing with his life: the designs he sketched in his prayer books in Yeshiva, the outfits he made for puppet shows in his garage.
His father gave him a sewing machine when he was 10. He still talks dreamily of what he wore to his bar mitzvah: “It was powder blue shantung, and I had these white patent-leather Pierre Cardin shoes. It had to have it made specially for me – my father had a suit factory, and I was a very fat kid. So I had to go and stand for fittings.”
Weight has always played a huge role in his emotional life. “It’s like, the No 1 way I gauge things is through how much I weigh and what I look like,” he said. “Yeah. Stupid. But I grew up where fashion was a very important subject in the house. That I was heavy was a big thing for my mum.”
He grimaces at the memory. “Horrible, horrible. She didn’t like that at all.”
As anyone who’s seen Unzipped can attest, his mother, Sarah, 85, was his biggest critic, supporter and, in a subtle way, competitor. “I tell you this,” he said, “about five years into my career as a fashion designer, she said the craziest thing to me after a fashion show: ‘Darling, you left me in the dust.’ And it was like – wait, so you mean, the whole time before you were thinking, ‘Oh, I could have done a much better collection than that’?”
Mizrahi started his first label, IS New York, at age 15 while attending the High School of Performing Arts. The children’s-wear designer Ellie Fishman was the first to take him and his sketches seriously, and suggested he attend Parsons.
From there his talent, coupled with an ability to endear himself to editors, models and celebrities (from Nicole Kidman and Natalie Portman to, more recently, Michelle Obama), was obvious and profound, even if his ability to make his name a prestige label in Europe and beyond was not.
For most of his life, Mizrahi has been an insomniac. (He recalls sending Anna Wintour an e-mail in an Ambien-induced haze, telling her about a new magazine she just had to start, and receiving a four-letter response – “R U O K?”) He keeps a television in every room in his Chelsea apartment – he is unabashedly in love with the Housewives shows, and with NeNe Leakes, in particular – and he watches late into the night, a habit that started when he had spinal meningitis as a child and had to spend months in bed.
“I don’t know which came first, the insomnia or the television in the bedroom,” he said. “But if there’s a problem with the TV in the bedroom, I’m going to a hotel.”
The sleep problem, though, has gotten a modicum better with time: initially, when he got his first dog, a rescue named Harry, 10 years ago, and then better still when he married his boyfriend, Arnold Germer.
He announced that he was married on The Wendy Williams Show, and his mother called to congratulate him. “Darling, I already told you this, don’t you remember?” he recalled saying to her. And she said back, “Well yes, but somehow when Wendy says it, it’s really true.”
He and Germer, whom Mizrahi described in his cabaret show as a fabulous cook, have been renovating their place. Mizrahi has stopped smoking, swims daily and seems happy (or at least far more comfortable than the man portrayed in Unzipped).
“Happy,” he said, “is a very big word to apply to my life, I think.”
I wondered if his happiness is compromised at all by the fact that he relinquished control of his company, and I mentioned that there is a precedent for great designers licensing their names, and then buying most of them back: Calvin Klein, Diane von Furstenberg. Can he see himself being similarly inclined?
“I honestly don’t know the future,” he said. “I can only think of this latest move as permanent.”
He is, he said, still the perfectionist (“though now I’ve become a perfectionist about collaboration”) and still the man seen in Unzipped. He loves the business, loves the deals and he’s not discounting anything.
“Approach me,” he said. “Approach me.” – IHT
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