ISAAC MIZRAHI talks with models backstage during New York Fashion Week in 2010..
(photo credit: ERIC THAYER/ REUTERS)
The celebrated fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi has written an astoundingly wondrous and moving memoir. I.M.: A Memoir, reveals Mizrahi to be, above all else, ultimately a nice Jewish boy; a description that will probably rankle him. But I say this with the purest of intentions. He seems thoughtful and kind and tender – and resists clinging to lingering resentments and hurts. There is a sweetness about him. He is simultaneously nostalgic and perceptive and revealing and self-aware, as well as a surprisingly eloquent storyteller.
Mizrahi, born in 1961, endured a torturous yeshiva upbringing in a Syrian enclave of Brooklyn, where he struggled to fit in while finding himself a fish out of water. His teachers were exasperated by him. His parents were ashamed of his flamboyant theatricality and his refusal to toe the line in a world that simply had no place for him.
He was bullied by his classmates, which he endured like a trouper; occasionally winning their attention with his sudden outbursts of song and dance, and dead-on impersonations of Barbara Streisand and Liza Minelli. His father, who died young, never came to terms with Mizrahi’s homosexuality, but his mother seemed able to engage him during their leisurely Saturday morning breakfasts, where they would spend hours discussing clothes and fashion and his mother’s infatuation with Jackie O and the messages a good outfit signals.
Mizrahi’s mother, Sarah, was a terrific and inventive dresser who loved clothes as much as he did, but she, too, stopped short of fully accepting him. Mizrahi was born in 1961 and homosexuality was simply not a subject discussed by middle-class Jews as something even vaguely acceptable. She tried to straddle the world in which she lived and the world he was heading for; sometimes with more success than other times, but the pair remain very close to this day.
Mizrahi knew he was born gay, but he was always infatuated with women and the intricacies of their bodies – and the wide array of choices of wardrobe that were available to them. He managed eventually to convince his mother to buy him a Barbie doll, and the new toy instantly ignited his imaginative powers for fashion design.
“I approached Barbie not like another pretty face,” he writes. “Of course I made her dresses, but I made up stories for her, too. She was the woman I dreamed of befriending. I transformed her with outfits from scraps of fabric and paper I found around the house. One day my mother shortened a dress made of pale-blue crystal-pleated chiffon that she got to wear to an important event associated with my father’s business. The scraps were too wonderful to throw away and she gave them to me. I was thrilled by those scraps and knew immediately what to do. I made Barbie a floor-length boatneck sheath with a fluted hem. I crudely stitched a broad sash that closed with straps in the back.”
By the age of 10, Mizrahi was reading Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. In addition to dressing Barbie, he created elaborate puppets and staged puppet shows for the local children. He utilized art supplies his mother provided for him: oak tag in random colors, chalky tempera paints, colored pencils and tubes of glitter.
HE WRITES about his first sexual experiences with warmth and honesty, but we sense somehow that they left little imprint upon him. He had a few short-lived romantic relationships in his 20s that dwindled after a few months, but he appeared to always be laser-focused on his career and the art of creating things. He spent four years at a performing arts high school flirting with the idea of a career in show business. He attended classes at the Parson’s School of Art and Design, where he learned about textiles and fabric construction and the art of design. He eventually interned with Calvin Klein and then Perry Ellis, then worked with the famous photographer Richard Avedon.
When Mizrahi finally broke out on his own and created his own fashion line, he had a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish. It involved a sophisticated and whimsical pairing of eye-popping bursts of solid colors that seemed contrary, yet somehow weren’t. He was meticulous about every detail and, when he staged his first fashion show, he paid close attention to the runway model’s makeup, shoes and hairstyles. Even the venue where the show was staged was carefully lit and an aesthetically pleasing space.
He always had a keen visual eye and was seduced by a minimalist ethos that insisted that less was usually more. He studied ballet dancer’s costumes for inspiration, since he felt they were usually brilliantly constructed, fluid items of clothing that mirrored his belief that a certain simplicity was essential to the look he was going for. The fashion critics and store buyers at Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman’s and Saks and Bloomingdale’s noticed. But Mizrahi confesses he was always inept at handling the business side of his company, and he faltered many times only to come back in another reincarnation. For a time, he collaborated with Chanel. Eventually, he struck a huge deal with Target making superbly designed clothes for reasonable prices that were accessible to the average consumer.
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