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.
MIZRAHI’S MEMOIR recalls some exhilarating highlights, including getting to dress Audrey Hepburn for an Avedon shoot and being thunderstruck by her stillresilient beauty at age 60. He recounts designing an outfit for and fitting an incredibly young and beautiful Diane Lane. He describes having his childhood dream girl, Liza Minelli, come to his showroom to buy his clothes and befriend him. There are anecdotes about dinners and parties with Anna Wintour of Vogue, actress Sara Jessica Parker and other luminaries, but when all is said and done, we can hear that his finest hours have been spent alone.
He writes briefly about friends who suddenly dropped him for reasons he does not know, but admits that it is entirely possible he did or said something that offended them. He has always suffered from bouts of insomnia and restlessness and depression and a constant disgust with his weight that have driven him to therapists and tarot card readers and psychics; but one gets the feeling that his participation at these events was merely another sort of performance art. Mizrahi seems to have always known that only he could save himself.
Mizrahi was one of three children and his parents’ only son. His sisters eventually grew even more Orthodox and estranged from him. He remains in touch with them but is unable to close relationship or get to know their children. They shun his lifestyle as transgressive and as he has aged, he has grown more reticent to pretend he is anyone other than who he is. But he speaks of them kindly, remembering how beautiful his sisters were when they were growing up together and the pleasure he took in creating dresses for them before they married.
His paternal grandfather was a tailor in Syria and his father was in the garment business; an enterprise he found oppressive. His father had harbored fantasies of being a drummer and Mizrahi remembers how often he would drum on their kitchen table seeming to hear music that wasn’t playing. He remembers the special time his father presented him with a gift; a pair of fashion scissors; which Mizrahi took as a subtle sign of his father’s acceptance of him. Out of his large extended Syrian Jewish family, he can only remember one uncle who seemed to accept him as he was and who embraced him wholeheartedly. Everyone else’s love seemed conditional and somewhat tainted.
Still, some of the most wistful passages in the book are about his childhood, a time before iPhones and Twitter and computers dominated the landscape. A time that seemed to have more free time. Mizrahi remembers how he created a personal private space for himself in his childhood home, equipped with sketch pads and paints and a sturdy sewing machine and boxes of buttons and pieces of fabric that he would transform into increasingly exotic and magical realms while music or a television hummed in the background.
Much later on in his life, he would write a one-man show that interspersed personal dialogues about his life with poignant song and dance numbers that mirrored the struggles of a lonely, fat, gay boy lost in an Orthodox Jewish Syrian world in Brooklyn that never accepted him and still wouldn’t. About a boy who somehow found his way to the freedom and enchanted diversity that defines Manhattan.
It is impossible not to fall a little bit in love with Mizrahi – not just for all he has created and shared, but for this latest work, a poetic expression of fragility, endurance and good will laid bare for us on the page.
I.M.: A MEMOIR
By Isaac Mizrahi
384 pages; $28.99