October 14, 1961 • Brooklyn, New York
Isaac Mizrahi holds the distinction of being one of today's best-known American fashion designers. His fame comes from far more than his runway creations, however: Mizrahi is a bona fide celebrity who has applied his abundant energy to a number of diverse projects. In 1995, early in his career as a designer, he was the subject of a widely praised film documentary titled Unzipped. During 1997 he published a collection of three comic books under the title Isaac Mizrahi Presents the Adventures of Sandee the Supermodel. Two years after the 1998 closing of his high-priced clothing design business, Mizrahi explored his love of theater by crafting and starring in a one-man Off-Broadway cabaret show called Les Mizrahi. The following year he began hosting his own offbeat talk show, fittingly called The Isaac Mizrahi Show, on the cable network Oxygen. During 2004 Mizrahi returned to his fashion-design origins with the launch of two new ventures appealing to very different members of the buying public: an affordable yet fashionable line of clothing for discount retailer Target, and Isaac Mizrahi to Order, a company creating high-end custommade clothing for consumers willing to spend $20,000 on a single dress. Through all of his various projects, Mizrahi has displayed a fun-loving, humorous, and adventurous style, proving that even high fashion need not take itself too seriously.
"There is one common philosophy, one thing that you can do no matter who you are or what you look like: You can actually get passionate instead of remaining cool or instead of trying to look like everybody else. You can—you must—immerse yourself passionately in who you are if you want to have style."
Mizrahi was born in Brooklyn and raised in Ocean Parkway, New Jersey, in a fairly religious Jewish household. He recalled being obsessed with fashion from a very young age, an interest he came by naturally. His father, Zeke, manufactured children's clothes, and his well-dressed mother, Sarah, often took her youngest child shopping with her in New York's finer shops, including Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. In Unzipped, Sarah Mizrahi recalled a four-year-old Isaac becoming transfixed by the artificial daisies decorating a pair of her shoes. At the age of eight Mizrahi moved with his family back to Brooklyn. Two years later, after his father bought him a sewing machine, Mizrahi began making clothes for puppets worn during neighborhood birthday parties. By age thirteen he had graduated to making clothes for humans, including himself, his mother, and his mother's friend, Sarah Haddad.
Mizrahi's parents wanted him to get a religious education, and they enrolled him at a nearby yeshiva, a private Jewish school. The somewhat rebellious and flamboyant Mizrahi did not exactly fit in at the conservative school, and he was repeatedly suspended or expelled for impersonating the rabbis and drawing fashion sketches in Bibles. The teachers "thought I was sacrilegious," he told Bridget Foley of WWD. "They told my parents I was very abnormal." His parents supported his interest in fashion, but they were determined that he give the yeshiva a chance. Foley explained that "after each of his expulsions, his mother would unzip the high-style creation she had on that day, remove the red nail polish and jewelry, dig up some dowdy dress, and go to the Yeshiva, where she would shake her head and, putting on a pathetic look, make a plea for sympathy." Each time, Mizrahi would be accepted back. Eventually, however, he left the yeshiva to pursue an opportunity much closer to his heart, enrolling at New York's High School for the Performing Arts. There he studied drama, music, and dance, and, after losing seventy-five pounds during his first semester, he developed the confidence to express himself.
Mizrahi soon realized that while he loved the performing arts, his true passion was for fashion design. He began taking evening classes at the highly respected Parsons School of Design. He later studied full-time at Parsons, immediately attracting notice for his sophisticated design skills. After his junior year, Mizrahi landed a part-time job with the esteemed designer Perry Ellis, and worked full-time for Ellis after graduating. Mizrahi worked long hours for Ellis, learning all he could about every aspect of the fashion industry. Though at the time he thought that Ellis asked too much of him, Mizrahi later realized that he owed his mentor, who died in 1986, a great deal. "He was a poet, a real artist," he told Foley. "In retrospect I know I took so much and he gave everything—from exposing me to the fabric market, to teaching me not to be too concerned with what the press expects from you." After leaving Perry Ellis, Mizrahi worked for designers Jeffrey Banks and Calvin Klein.
In 1987 he started his own business with the financial support of Sarah Haddad Cheney, formerly Sarah Haddad, the family friend who had been a beneficiary of the teenaged Mizrahi's earliest design efforts. He started slowly, crafting his clothes in a rented loft in SoHo, a neighborhood in New York, and delivering his designs from the backseat of Cheney's car. These early designs attracted the notice of many in the industry, and Mizrahi gained the backing of additional investors. He gave his first major show in the spring of 1988, an event attended by only a few members of the press who had taken a chance that something interesting might come from this relatively unknown designer. Those in attendance soon realized that this chance had paid off, as they witnessed the unveiling of a major new talent. His line was widely praised for its fresh approach, combining glamour and elegance with unassuming simplicity. He mixed unusual colors and made use of patterns, including tartan plaid, not generally associated with high fashion. Mizrahi became an overnight sensation, winning the best newcomer award in 1988 and the 1989 award for best women's designer from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). He went on to win CFDA's prized Designer of the Year award three times.
Throughout the early 1990s Mizrahi continued to earn praise for his clever, creative designs, while also exploring his love for the performing arts by designing costumes for ballets and other productions. His preparations for the fall line in 1994 were filmed for the documentary movie Unzipped, which was released in 1995. Directed by Douglas Keeve, who at the time was romantically involved with Mizrahi, Unzipped combined photos and home movies from Mizrahi's childhood with footage of the world-famous designer busily preparing for his upcoming show. In an article written for Entertainment Weekly, actress and former model Lauren Hutton declared that Unzipped "is the definitive movie about the fashion industry." She went on to report that "it's impossible to resist getting caught up in Isaac's talent and enthusiasm." While some reviewers complained that Mizrahi comes off as annoying and that he and the supermodels who wear his clothes appear whiny and spoiled, others praised the film for its honest look at both the glamour and the competitiveness of the fashion business. The film certainly raised Mizrahi's profile among the general public, transforming him from a successful young designer into a celebrity.
Mizrahi explored other facets of his creativity with the 1997 publication of his book, Isaac Mizrahi Presents the Adventures of Sandee the Supermodel. Consisting of three separate comic books packaged together, Sandee the Supermodel tells the tale of a beautiful girl from Bountiful, Utah, who is discovered by fashion designer Yvesaac Mizrahi, a character quite similar to the book's author. On her way to becoming a world-famous supermodel, Sandee encounters petty and competitive behavior from her fellow models and struggles with drug problems and an eating disorder. Not long after the book's publication, Mizrahi began working on a film based on the Sandee stories. As his fame spread and fashion editors continued to praise his designs, Mizrahi seemed to have it all. But in 1998 Mizrahi shut down his design business after Chanel, his financial backer, pulled out due to concerns about low sales figures. Upon learning of Chanel's decision to withdraw funding, Mizrahi realized that he had three choices, as he explained to People magazine: "One was operating on a shoestring. Another was finding other backers. The third was closing. I thought, 'Move on, darling. Move on.'" And move on he did, choosing as his next adventure a completely new form of self expression.
In the fall of 2000 Mizrahi drew on his theatrical education to create a one-man cabaret act, an intimate performance that might be seen in a small nightclub or restaurant. Mizrahi's show, performed in an Off-Broadway theater, combined personal stories with gossip about the fashion industry and classic songs—with lyrics altered to fit Mizrahi's life—from Broadway musicals. Mizrahi also displayed his design skills during the show, drawing quick sketches and using an old-fashioned sewing machine to create articles of clothing. While critics acknowledged that Mizrahi's singing was not his strong suit, many were charmed by his open, engaging, and energetic manner. Such skills came in handy when, the following year, Mizrahi became host of his own television talk show on cable's Oxygen Network. With a steady stream of celebrity guests from the fashion and entertainment worlds, Mizrahi offered audiences an amusing and sometimes odd array of activities. A typical sampling of the shows during the third season featured Mizrahi taking late-night talk show host Conan O'Brien shopping for ties, and teaching Six Feet Under star Lauren Ambrose how to knit a hat.
While his television and theater work provided creative satisfaction and, in some respects, offered a welcome relief from the intensity of owning a design business, Mizrahi eventually returned to fashion in 2004 with two very different projects. Bringing high fashion to the average, cost-conscious consumer, Mizrahi launched a line of affordable clothing with a stylish twist, in partnership with Target, the discount retailer. With prices beginning at around $10 and topping out at around $70, Mizrahi's Target line signalled a clear departure from his earlier high-priced designs. For those who wish to spend outrageous sums on clothing, however, Mizrahi began a new service called Isaac Mizrahi to Order. Operating through the upscale department store Bergdorf Goodman, Mizrahi's business offers custom-designed pieces, with prices starting at about $5,000. With a June 2004 show highlighting the Target line as well as newer, high-end items, Mizrahi once again enchanted fashion editors and journalists, reminding observers of what had been lacking during the time when he was absent from the scene. Philip D. Johnson of Lucire stated that Mizrahi's return "brought back the keen sense of fun that has been sorely missing in fashion in recent years." Both the Target line and the made-to-order service have allowed Mizrahi the freedom to design clothes without having to worry about managing every aspect of a full-fledged design business. The arrangement has freed him up to continually explore new avenues of expression. In the midst of his return to the design industry, for example, Mizrahi prepared to direct his first film, The Extra Man, based on a novel by Jonathan Ames.
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