Take in the wall of color, be dazzled by the dresses, and then head to see Isaac Mizrahi’s sketches at The Jewish Museum to best understand the fashion designer’s process. Mizrahi draws by hand, never by computer, in graceful, sure strokes of color, attaching fabric swatches, as though he is telling the stories of the lives these dresses will adorn.
“A sketch is a wish,” he tells The Jewish Week. “You wish it will look like that.” It’s a guess until the garment is sewn.
“Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History” is all about creativity. Mizrahi shines in so many artistic pursuits — in addition to his work as a fashion designer, he’s an artist, writer, director, set and costume designer, and actor and director involved with film, television and theater.
From the mural-sized palette of color swatches lined up chromatically to his whimsically titled dresses (like his “Lumberjack” ball gown, a lavender silk taffeta skirt with a hooded silk plaid down jacket, and “Totem Pole” gown), this first-ever exhibition of his work showcases his embrace of color, his inventive mixing and matching of fabrics and styles, his vision and sense of humor.
“I think the ability to laugh at myself sets me apart.”
After seeing the exhibition, I met Mizrahi at his Greenwich Village studio. He’s dressed casually in all black, but there’s color throughout the studio, with swatches and sketches tacked up and a rack of clothing nearby. Mizrahi is exceedingly likeable — he’s warm, energetic, open and funny.
I’ve admired his designs and élan for decades and have also been curious about a certain namesake, featured in his 1997 graphic novel, “Isaac Mizrahi Presents the Adventures of Sandee the Supermodel.” He came up with the character, who appears in a three-issue set of oversized comic books illustrated by William Frawley, at a time when he was best friends with Sandra Bernhard, and he says he just liked the ring of the title — and figured a supermodel would spell her name like that.
For Mizrahi, “Color is everything. The whole exhibit is about color, even the black and browns.”
“I look at it as a form of synesthesia,” he says, as his sense of color and perception of sound feel connected. “I like to keep warm tones together and cool tones together,” he says, adding that he also likes to keep it mysterious sometimes. “I have to do colors a certain way or I’ll start screaming,” he says. “It’s like when you’re a kid and you can’t have the broccoli next to the meat.”
I ask who he’s designing for, and he mentions women with a sense of humor, and then reframes his response: “When you go to the exhibit you know who she is. She’s New York funny, smarter than average, someone who will not pander, who’s not that into fashion.”
Mizrahi, 54, has been sewing by hand since he was seven. At 13, he made his mother a skirt and shawl out of double-faced wool, and she wore it for the High Holidays. As a young impresario in Brooklyn, he staged puppet shows for neighbors, writing, directing and designing glittering costumes. At the Yeshivah of Flatbush, he never fit in and was terribly bullied for being effeminate. He describes his parents as products of their times, who looked the other way. “They didn’t say, ‘Darling you’re fine.’ They never said it was OK. Then, it wasn’t OK.”
He’s now writing about those days in a memoir, tentatively titled “IM,” slated for a 2017 publication. “I did my best to adapt, and also to maintain a kind of integrity about who I was, even with the rabbis screaming at me and breathing down my neck,” he says.
“It’s hard to get over all of it. I’m trying to get it into words.” While he describes himself as having the attention span of a gnat, he’s managing to sit still for hours and write. “It’s a great gift when you are enraptured in the thing you are doing.”
Growing up, he didn’t notice much beauty around him, but saw his mother as having style and glamour. Sometimes he would accompany her to Loehmann’s, appreciating her instincts for putting things together. He remains close to her; she saw the exhibit earlier that day.
A kind teacher suggested that he apply to New York City’s High School for the Performing Arts, and helped convince his parents to send him there. He was expected to go into his father’s children’s wear business, and remembers being 15 and driving back to Brooklyn with his father, when he asked if he wanted to do that. “I said no, he just respected that.”
Afterwards, he studied fashion at Parsons, and then went to work for Perry Ellis, who became an early mentor. Mizrahi launched his own design label in 1987, with much success and acclaim, and ran it until 1998, when his financial backers pressured him to close it. He then designed semi-couture collections for Bergdorf Goodman, from 2003 to 2011, and at the same time, from 2002 to 2008, created a line of affordable clothing for Target, enjoying the contrast of price points and mixing them up. While doing all of that, he also created costumes for the Mark Morris Dance Group, Twyla Tharp and the American Ballet Theatre. His ostrich (in high heels), designed for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of “The Magic Flute,” which he also directed, is on display with other costumes, alongside videos of the productions.
Now he’s also involved with some potential entertainment projects, appearing on “Project Runway All-Stars” and “Isaac Mizrahi Live,” a call-in home shopping show on the QVC network, and he also runs a small design atelier for private clients.
“For the most part it’s not my game anymore,” he says about the world of fashion. “I’m not that interested in these tiny, incremental movements of fashion. But I love clothes. I love clothes.”
Visitors to the exhibit might find themselves tuning into QVC and ordering one of the affordable dresses.
The accompanying book, “Isaac Mizrahi” (The Jewish Museum/Yale University Press), illustrated in full color, features a forest green coat he calls “Colorfield” wrapped around the cover, with the title in bright orange letters, and a satin ribbon placeholder, also in a shade of orange seen in his collections. On the runway, he showed this hand-painted linen canvas coat with custom-made Baccarat crystal buttons, paired with his Target Capri jeans.
Also in the show are three gorgeous coats designed for the exhibition, a three-screen video installation with archival footage of his runway shows, scenes from “Unzipped” and his autobiographical cabaret “LES MIZrahi,” along with cultural moments that have influenced him, including scenes from “I Love Lucy” and Fred Astaire dancing.
Before I leave, talk turns to God, and he says, “I mean, I don’t believe in God. I love the idea of God so much, just the idea comforts me, but I don’t believe. That part is off the table.”
“The DNA is in me. Like a Jew. A border collie will chase sheep, and does that every day. And so, those principles of Judaism are in me, deeply in me. Mostly to do with the curse of skepticism or the blessing of criticism,” he continues.
“But you’re so positive,” I say, noting his super-sized enthusiasm.
“I am,” he says. All I think about is gloom and doom, and I have this optimism. I know somehow that people are good.”
“Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History” is on view at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. at 92nd Street, Manhattan, through Aug. 7.