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|Isaac Mizrahi is smart, funny, kind, generous and makes me want to start smoking again. He designs some of my favorite clothes and always notices when I'm wearing one of his suits. He once raced across a crowded lawn at a mutual friend's wedding to tell me he loved a rather questionable brown Gaultier creation I was wearing, which helped me to have a much better evening.
I was introduced to Isaac in 1988 by my friend Nina Santisi, his all-around creative advisor. Nina also served as Executive Producer of the film Unzipped, a documentary about Isaac that became an unexpected runaway critical success. Unzipped opened the doors for a wide range of new projects for Isaac, including the publication of a comic book, and tons of offers for television and movie roles. Through all this, Isaac has won four Council of Fashion Designer Awards - the fashion industry's equivalent of the Academy Award.
I talked to Isaac in his SoHo office which was cluttered with art and notes from friends and beautiful orange and blue sketches for his Spring Collection.
LAURIE: There really aren't any other designer personalities like you - people who've crossed over into the entertainment and publishing industries. There's Bob Mackie, who dresses Cher and has his own line of Barbie Dolls. And then there was Oleg Cassini who used to date Grace Kelly among others. But who are your role models?
ISAAC: You know who a role model for me is? But not because he did so many things - George Ballanchine. The work is just so unbelievably exquisite.
LAURIE: It is incredible.
ISAAC: And it got better and better as he got older. Not the reverse, which is sometimes what happens. You think about the '30s and the '40s and the '50s - okay, that was mind-boggling. But then the '60s - Oh, my God. And even the '70s, even when he was almost dead, he was making these beautiful things. He's the one I think about more than any other artist or any other designer.
Ballanchine had a passion for pleasing people. His passion for offering something up like a meal. It's like he needed to develop an audience because in his day he needed to get people there or he couldn't continue. It was a lot about ticket sales, I think.
LAURIE: Oh, I see what you're saying.
ISAAC: He was also a showman. It was like Flo Ziegfield and George Ballanchine all at the same time. He had to bring the audiences in and then he had to do something unbelievably advanced. He did both.
LAURIE: I've heard that you're about to do a Woody Allen movie.
ISAAC: Yeah, it's one tiny, tiny little paragraph. But guess what? I was having dinner with Mark Morris the other night, and he said, "Oh, I read this article about you in The Washington Post" - which I was sort of thrilled by. But two years ago, that would have put me in bed for two weeks. Because basically it was saying, "He's so fabulous, he's a personality, he's this, he's that, but his clothes don't sell enough. What is this? Why can't he get a business going?" Which is true.
The thing is, everyone has that same exact stigma. Donna, Calvin, Ralph - nobody really has a clothing business per se, but they all have incomes from fragrance or from underwear.
LAURIE: From licensing.
ISAAC: Exactly. And everyone asks, "Will he make it, will she make it?" The thing is, you never make it, right? But I was very excited that it was an honest story about this whole dilemma. It was saying that the business needs to go somewhere. But everyone's business does. And when I think about that, I don't really have the answer. But I do have this determination to not run scared. I can't do that. I can't just say, "Okay, so how can I sell millions of things?"
LAURIE: Well, I'm a huge fan of yours and I wear your clothes all the time. But the part I'm impressed with is that you can be the personality - you can be in a Woody Allen movie, you can publish a comic book - and it doesn't seem to trivialize you as a fashion designer. Your quality is up, and your clothes are beautiful.
ISAAC: Wow, thanks.
LAURIE: It doesn't take away from people's impressions of you as a designer. Which is what you would think would happen to Isaac, the personality. But I go to see the shows, I read the reviews, I buy the clothes, and it's still pretty great stuff.
ISAAC: Thank you.
LAURIE: And it's not wearing you down.
ISAAC: When someone says you can't do what you know you can do, then you can't do anything. If someone told me I couldn't write this book, which I was obsessively writing for like, two years ...
LAURIE: The comic book? Sandee the Supermodel?
ISAAC: Yeah. You might hate it, which is fine. But if I couldn't do that, then I couldn't do anything. You know what I mean?
LAURIE: I've heard people refer to you as "the king of the soundbite."
ISAAC: Which is so weird.
LAURIE: Well, you're great at it. In fact, I heard that you've been asked to do commentary at the upcoming political conventions.
ISAAC: They always do. Every time there's a convention. Even though I don't know anything about politics. I never know who I would vote for. You know, I'm a dope, I'll vote for that one.
LAURIE: But that kind of crossover - to doing political commentary ...
ISAAC: I did that once or twice and what did I say? I said something like, "The White House looks like a Beefsteak Charlie's."
ISAAC: Because it does. They redid it and it looks like a Beefsteak Charlie's.
LAURIE: Did that get published?
ISAAC: In a million places, yeah. So that was offensive. I don't want to offend people.
LAURIE: Do you think all this Isaac-the-personality stuff is actually feeding your work?
ISAAC: It always has. But you know what's funny? When I was a little kid I was like a female impersonator. I used to do Judy Garland impersonations, and Marlene Dietrich impersonations, Streisand impersonations. It was crazy. And I used to have this following in the community where I grew up, in Brooklyn. And I was this little freak. People used to stop me on the street, the same way they do now - "Oh, I love you, I think it's so funny that you can actually sound exactly like Dionne Warwick." This was before my voice changed, right? And it was always, "Oh, you're fabulous," but then, "Ha-ha, what a freak." That's what it was. And it feels the same now. Whenever anyone on the street says, "Oh, you're so great, I love your work," it always feels like they're with a gang of kids down the block, calling me a freak. It's this weird dynamic that has always existed in my life. So when people say, "Oh, you're this personality," that's what I've always been and always will be.
LAURIE: Since you were a little kid?
ISAAC: Yeah. And even if I don't do anything, I feel like I will have that in my life somehow.
LAURIE: Well, it's interesting to me that you want to make clothes through all this.
ISAAC: You know, to me too. That's what shocks me.
LAURIE: I mean, you could be an actor.
LAURIE: You could very easily get a sitcom.
LAURIE: Do the commentary.
ISAAC: I could.
LAURIE: Have Unzipped turned into a musical.
LAURIE: All of these things.
ISAAC: You know, when people ask, "Do you like children?" I always say, "I like some children, yes. Some children I don't like."
LAURIE: You like my children.
ISAAC: I love your child. I know Lena. I don't know your other one.
LAURIE: You'll meet her. She's into black leather.
ISAAC: Oh, is she? Oh, we like her already. But you know what I mean? I like some children and I like the idea of some projects. So I wouldn't do a sitcom immediately, but it would be a dream.
LAURIE: Do you think you'll ever bail out on fashion?
ISAAC: No, because first of all, I have a lot of obligations. I have fantastic partners. And they've invested so much money, and it has to be resolved before any other facet goes forward. And just when I think I hate fashion, I hate clothes - I'm seized by this crazy thing that I have to do. I have this little studio now where I just draw. I can be in the room for three days and not even look up because I'm so involved in this collection. It's happened twice since the summer, where I have just been seized.
LAURIE: Okay, you do four shows a year. You do shoes, eyeglasses. You're doing a coat line and accessories. By art world production standards, that's back-breaking or impossible. How do you do it?
ISAAC: First of all, let's see, how many assistants do I have? One who works with me on collection, one who works on Isaac, there's a person there who works with her, and I have a design director. And I have Laura now, who works with me on shoes.
LAURIE: Laura Santisi?
ISAAC: Yeah, isn't that exciting? Wait until you see my Spring shoes.
LAURIE: I'd like to see them now.
ISAAC: I know, exactly. The point is that there are people there, but still it's my responsibility. It's like I'm leading an orchestra. Sometimes it's very specific. I come in and say, "Okay, this is what we're going to do." But a lot of times it's like, "Oh, here's what I'm thinking, blah, blah, blah." And they go back and sort of work with that, and either it works or it doesn't. Sometimes it's more complicated because I think, if I just do it, it will take less time than telling someone what I'm thinking, and have them free associate, and then come back to me and I'll hate it and I'll have to redo it. You know what I mean? So how do I do it? I don't know how I wouldn't do it - that's the thing.
LAURIE: That's a good answer.
ISAAC: I don't know how I wouldn't do it. And I want to do more. I want to make men's clothes again. I want to make accessories. It's very frustrating when you don't make accessories. Until I started making my own shoes, it was horrible. I was really fortunate to be working with Manolo Blahnik, but he was such a specific visionary kind of a guy. You would fall in love with his shoes immediately upon seeing them. But all of a sudden, your vision is different. It's your clothes and his shoes. Now it's much easier because it's my clothes, it's my shoes, it's everything.
LAURIE: Someone like Ralph Lauren has fifty design assistants, right?
ISAAC: Well, his business is like, fifty times bigger than mine.
LAURIE: But is he fifty times less involved with the final product?
ISAAC: Honestly, I don't think so. Because, especially Ralph, it's so consistent all the time. You listen to Handel operas, right? And there are a thousand of them, right? And they all sound alike and they're all ravishing, right? You think to yourself, "Oh, it all sounds alike." But when Handel was writing them, he was having a baby every time. And he thought, "Oh, my God, am I really going to depart from my normal style and write this?" And then it sounds like everything else - but he doesn't know that. You know what I mean? If I look back on my work, maybe it's the same thing, the same thing, the same thing. But I think I'm always having a revelation.
LAURIE: I see.
ISAAC: So in the end, objectively, it's more like an evolution. What you do, you don't think of as a product.
LAURIE: Oh, you'd be surprised.
LAURIE: Well, at a certain point, it's all product.
ISAAC: Look at Brice Marden. I look at his work and I never cease to be amazed by it. It's like Giorgio Armani. It goes in a tiny little orb, and it goes forward in increments. You know how the man feels about color. You know which colors he likes. You look at his work and it's scrawled ... it's like a suicide note or whatever the hell it is. It just evolves in this way, and I'm sure, when he does it, he just thinks, "Oh, this is not out of my system yet."
LAURIE: It's interesting to hear you talk about Brice Marden because whenever you talk about your inspirations, it's usually dance or music or TV. I figured you weren't that turned on by visual art because we've rarely talked about it.
ISAAC: I don't know why I have a much more kinetic response to theater and dance. Kinetic meaning - I'm sitting there doing it while they're doing it. And when I walk into a gallery, I'm never breathtaken, never.
LAURIE: Well, you know what? I sort of agree with you, but I think it's a different kind of response. It's a quieter response. You know, very few times have I walked into a gallery and gotten teary.
ISAAC: I know. Me too. But you know what makes me teary? Goya. Goya makes me cry. There's one picture that I'm obsessed with, that is just the most unbelievable capturing of crazy emotions. It's this picture of a little tiny dog head. It's very abstract. It's like a field of sun, with this gold light coming from the center. And there's a curved horizon line, and sand on the bottom. It's really golden.
And then you notice this little tiny blot, and it's a dog's head. The dog was sort of being buried by the sand. And that makes me choke up. What Goya manages to capture on the face of this dog, with these little tiny brush marks, is so astounding - its terror, its resignation. That makes me teary.
LAURIE: I've never heard you talk about painting before.
ISAAC: You know, Sister Wendy did a segment on that picture and I was like, "Oh, my God, it's that picture." I was obsessed. And then I couldn't sleep the whole night because I couldn't get over the melancholy feeling that that picture has.
LAURIE: My favorite emotion, besides regret.
ISAAC: I'm so involved in melancholy.
LAURIE: It drives me a lot.
ISAAC: Of course it does. Me too. But that's one thing about fashion that you really shouldn't be. You can't be melancholy in fashion.
ISAAC: People don't respond to it. Fashion is supposed to be coming at you, coming at you. So if you try to have a fashion show with Bach fugues and John Coltrane ... It doesn't really work.
LAURIE: Well, I have a fashion question for you now. Last week I brought home a brown suit from the new collection. I put it on to wear it to an opening, looked in the mirror and said - "What are those shoulders?"
LAURIE: I didn't even notice the shoulders when I bought it. So I was trying to figure out - has the silhouette changed so much that you could sneak in the shoulders and I didn't realize it? Or did you deliver those shoulders because that's what everyone is delivering this fall?
ISAAC: You know, I don't know, I'll tell you what happened. We are doing shoulder-ier jackets now. Is that a word? Shoulder-ier?
LAURIE: I think it better be.
ISAAC: Exactly. Now let me tell you something, and this is so weird, but I'm happy it happens now. You know, it never used to. It would torture me, like I'd keep thinking, "Can't I be the one to just do this first?" Anyway, what happened was, I was flipping channels one night, and there was a program about Harry Partch - you know, he made up all this insane music in the '50s, on these instruments of his own making. And on this program there was this beautiful orchestra playing these crazy instruments, playing "U.S. Highball," this amazing oratorio by Harry Partch. And they were all dressed like bums. It was just beautiful to look at, and to listen to.
So I thought, "Oh, my God, look at these bums, they're so elegant." And I do that every time I see a bum. But there was something about this particular bum with the orchestra next to him, something beautiful about the contrast of the bum and the elegance. So I thought, my Fall collection has to be bum-ish, right? So I came into work and told everybody and they were like, "You're crazy."
LAURIE: They told you to say homeless?
ISAAC: No, they told me to think of something else, actually. But then I started looking at Weegee's photographs, because where do you get better bums than Weegee?
ISAAC: So I started making these men's suits for women that looked like the fabric was water damaged, or that had been slept in. And the collection ended up looking like heirlooms. It looked like it was from the grandfather's closet. Or like a dress that was just a beautiful column of satin, and it had a faded line through it. Like it had been in a closet for 30 years and the door was ajar, and the sunlight hit it at just that angle every single day.
LAURIE: Oh, I love thinking about that.
ISAAC: Me too. That's what I love. And for some reason I was thinking, this is what I like about being a designer. You can't really get it until you see it. It's like, all I want are high heels, high heels. If I was a girl, I'd wear a lot of high heels right now. High, stiletto heels. And then two weeks before we showed this collection of men's suits with high heels, Tom Ford at Gucci did all men's suits with big shoulders and with very high heels and big trousers.
There you are. I don't know where he got it from. But I got it from Weegee and from Harry Partch. That's how it came about.
LAURIE: Well, I don't know if it works like this in fashion, but it certainly works like this in art.
LAURIE: You're having a dialogue with the people you feel most competitive with and the people you feel most empathic with.
LAURIE: It's almost like a card game - "I'll deal you this and you deal me that."
LAURIE: Now, this thing with men's suits - I've always worn them. I was just in an article in the Styles section of The Times, about the "power suit." I thought - this is weird.
ISAAC: It's weird. People say it's really the press who create those soundbites about fashion - "Oh, it's men's suits with stiletto heels." If you look at the show that I did, there were only five or six of those suits. And there were also old, beaded dresses with stilettos, and there were long things with flats. I mean, there were a lot of different things going on. But that's what they stressed - "Look, Tom Ford did it, Isaac Mizrahi did it, Ann Klein did it."
LAURIE: They pick up the threads.
ISAAC: Yeah, and it's good that they do that. That's what sells magazines and that's what sells clothes too, you know. But it's funny, in the beginning you sort of say, "These are the things I own, I own these things." Somewhere in the back of your head, it's like, in my computer exist these million things, right? And each season you stress something else. It's all about different accents. You know, when you dance a mambo, you get to accent the two and the four ...
LAURIE: I've heard you dance the mambo ...
ISAAC: So you accent certain things at certain times. And you don't know why, really, but you do.
LAURIE: One thing you did that really startled me was using Natalie Portman in your ads, a 14-year-old girl, as a representative of every woman.
LAURIE: How did that go over? How do you feel about it?
ISAAC: That line sold really well. We got some remarks, but the thing is, when I met Natalie, I didn't get that she was 14 - I got that she was a woman. I got that she was an actress. And gorgeous and talented. I got that she was a lot of things, but not 14. Did you ever see her?
LAURIE: Oh, sure.
ISAAC: Forget Beautiful Girls because that should have just been called "Beautiful Girl." She was the only beautiful girl in it. And The Professional - the movie stank basically, but seeing her in that movie, I mean, forget it.
LAURIE: When I think about your clothes, who can afford them and who actually wears them, it makes me wonder, who are you thinking about when you're designing? Is it your mom? Is it Natalie?
ISAAC: It's both, it's all. You know she's Natalie Portman at that point in history. You know she's 14. But most people looking at the ads, they get an emotion. You can take a picture of a model, and it's wonderful and it's graphic and it works and it sells clothes. But if you get an actress in the clothes who can give you an emotion that comes through the photograph - that's what we were trying to get across.
But it's not fashion designers who create the socio-sexual image of a woman anymore and say, "You've got to wear this." It's the woman who says, "I am this, and that and that and that, and I look like this." She is more in control of her image than ever.
LAURIE: Well, I also think that we're all so - if distorted is the right word - we're all so distorted in a certain way, from reading fashion magazines, that I can look at a suit that I really love on a 17-year-old and relate to that image.
ISAAC: Oh, totally, of course.
LAURIE: I'm not sure if I even know what I'm looking at in the mirror anymore, I'm so confused by ...
ISAAC: That's it. But also, there are moments of clarity. You can't tell me that there aren't moments of clarity, Laurie, when you say, "Oh, this is me, finally, tonight." Because I go through the same thing. Half the time I don't even think about it. I just throw something on because I'm so late or I'm so busy, and hopefully it's a great thing. But sometimes I'm really dressed up and it really turns me on - I know that this is me.
Other times I'm dressed up and I think, "What am I doing? Get these socks off. I can't believe I walked out of the house like this."
LAURIE: You have this strong identification with the idea of being an American designer, even though you grew up in a not-so-terribly American community. I don't know if you're influences and inspirations are Claire McCardell or Charles James or ...
ISAAC: Well, I identify so much with Claire McCardell and Norman Norelle that I can't believe it. He's sort of my idol. I always wished that I could live up to that, in a different way - and that's a whole other interview.
But even though I grew up as a Sephardic Jew in Brooklyn where we ate Syrian food and went to temple and all that, it was still America. And most of my life I was occupied with American television and American food. And my ethnicity was my choice. It still is. That's what's so great about New York. You have selective privacy, you have selective ethnicity. Everything is your own choice. And that's different from Europe and that's different from Asia. That's different from a lot of places, or at least it was.
You know, in Paris it used to feel like you were living in a museum. As beautiful as it was, it's still limited to this one little thing that you can choose from. But here you have just everything. And you don't necessarily live for the moment; you live for hope, you live for the next, for what you're going to get, what you're going to say, what you're going to think. You know what I mean?
ISAAC: That's why the American thing is really, really important. It's like, we hate genericism, we hate anything that isn't specific. So I don't like people to feel completely and totally described by the clothes they wear of mine. I want them to feel that they're describing themselves, and then what they found of mine is helping them do that. You're looking at it and you can free associate, and it's you that's interpreting it. It's like your work, I'm sure. Don't you feel that way?