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Dressed in his typical uniform — a black blazer over a black T-shirt paired with black pants and Nike Flyknits — he briefly looks over the menu before declaring everything has too many calories and settles instead for a housemade cream soda. Moments later, a spread of lox salad, matzah, pickled vegetables, and potato chips magically appear, courtesy of Russ & Daughters. The designer barely blinks an eye before digging in.
"I'm sorry I'm eating this entire thing, but too bad girls: you snooze, you lose," he half-apologizes to me and a rep from his company, who is sitting with us and seems nervous to hear what her outspoken boss will say. "You know the Jews really know how to do their smoked fish."
While the 54-year-old native New Yorker loves to drop Jewish references (and his delivery is impeccable, given his quick sense of humor and thick Brooklyn accent), this is the first time Mizrahi has made it to the cafe, which opened a couple of years ago to complement Russ & Daughters, a 102-year-old Lower East Side institution known for its stereotypically Jewish fare. In fact, Mizrahi admits he's really not a very good Jew at all.
"I'm definitely not practicing, and there are certain aspects of the misogyny and anti-gay ideas that I just can't do. And we aren't the happiest bunch, are we?" he laughs, enjoying the lox spread. "But I am very Jewish, culturally, and I feel completely conjoined with the Jewish religion. I don't know, it's hard to explain."
It may be hard to explain, but it's a familiar sentiment in contemporary Judaism, and it's why the Jewish Museum in New York City is mounting an exhibit all about Mizrahi, set to open next week.
In its press release, the museum writes that the show will examine "Mizrahi's unique position at the intersection of high style and popular culture," which is a diplomatic way of alluding to Mizrahi's tumultuous journey. After his initial reception as a fashion wunderkind and subsequent wild success, Mizrahi went on a bumpy ride that included bankruptcy and several failed ventures before he found stability in the mass market, designing a first-of-its-kind line for Target for five years and then signing an exclusive deal with QVC in 2009.
"To some extent, it left me," Mizrahi says of the fashion world, "and to a greater extent, I didn't mind. I felt relieved at that point. In retrospect, my fashion shows were amazing. Living through them was horrible though. I was scared every minute of every day. I was afraid that I would let myself down in some way. That's actually a Jewish thing: Jews don't know how to enjoy themselves. I enjoy, in retrospect, looking at what I've done, but living through it was rather difficult."
"The early Jewish presence in the American garment industry came from a serendipitous pattern of immigration, along with the growth of the industrial manufacturing industry."
Manhattan's Soho neighborhood is of particular significance to the Mizrahi fashion story. For Isaac, it was where he bought a studio on Greene Street to first house his business in 1986; for his father Zeke, it was the location of the clothing factory he worked in during the late ‘30s.
The Mizrahi family immigrated to America from Aleppo, Syria in the 1910s, joining 20,000 other Syrian Jews who were fleeing mandatory army service under Ottoman rule, as well as the country's sudden economic decline. The family settled in Brooklyn, in an area of Flatbush where a large community of Syrian Jews still resides. In their hometowns back in Syria, many Jews — the Mizrahi family included — were merchants of trade because "Syrian Jews believed trade was the road to socioeconomic mobility," Mark Avrum Ehrlich wrote in his 2009 book Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora.
Mizrahi describes his paternal grandparents as "dirt poor." His father took a job at the Soho sweatshop both since he was familiar with garment-making and because America's garment industry was already populated with Jews, a holdover from a time when they were barred from entering other industries. In 1700s Europe, for example, Jews in some countries were not granted the same working rights as their non-Jewish neighbors and often resorted to manufacturing and peddling after being shut out from careers in medicine and law. Journalist Alexander Stille writes in his book Benevolence and Betrayal that the Jews of 17th and 18th century Rome "were eventually driven out of all businesses other than the repair and sale of old clothes."
"The early Jewish presence in the American garment industry came from a serendipitous pattern of immigration, along with the growth of the industrial manufacturing industry," says Gabriel Goldstein, an independent museum consultant and co-author of A Perfect Fit: The Garment Industry and American Jewry, a book that published in tandem with a 2005 Yeshiva University exhibit on the topic. "While some Jews arrived with industry knowledge, others were Yankee tailors and learned the trade when they got here because American education and culture was not initially accessible for Jews. The garment industry had an easy access point."
Mizrahi's father quickly climbed the ranks, learning how to cut garments and make patterns. Eventually he started his own company wholesaling children's coats and suits to stores like JCPenney and Sears. It was through the family manufacturing business that Mizrahi first became exposed to the retail industry.
"I have to say that my father's business didn't appeal to me, but of course, the sewing machines and the craft of making clothes did," says Mizrahi. "What I gleaned from all of that was that he literally put his life into the idea of the manufacturing of these suits."
When his father bought him a sewing machine at age 10, Mizrahi started making puppets. He conceived elaborate stories and began a small puppeteering business, performing at birthday parties to earn money. But his creativity wasn't celebrated within his insular community. Mizrahi says the faculty at Yeshivah of Flatbush, the Orthodox Jewish school he attended, was less than thrilled with his enterprise, and as a result, he often clashed with authority. His teachers preferred he agonize over Talmudic interpretations, but Mizrahi was far more interested in doodling sketches in the margins of his Hebrew books.
"The puppets themselves were a conflict because at Yeshivah, we would talk like this was idol-making," he says. "But any sort of art was looked down upon, so already I was kind of behind the eight-ball. It was this really bipolar existence because I didn't fit in at all. The idea of being homosexual in the religion is not exactly something that's accepted, and while I wasn't out yet, at that age I knew and I was effeminate and artistic, and I was bullied and ridiculed for it."
"The idea of being homosexual in the religion is not exactly something that's accepted. I was effeminate and artistic, and I was bullied and ridiculed for it."
One of Isaac's teachers at Yeshivah, Sheila Kanowitz, recognized Mizrahi was a fish out of water and convinced his parents to let him audition for the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. Although his father preferred Mizrahi continue his religious education and join the family business after graduating from Yeshivah, he eventually agreed to let him attend.
In high school, Mizrahi studied drama, but also began using his sewing machine to experiment in fashion design. His muse? His mother Sarah, who used to take him to Bergdorf Goodman as a young boy to scope out the latest from Balenciaga and Chanel.
"My mother was like the Grace Mirabella of the Jews," he recalls. "She was obsessed with clothes and mostly wore these amazing designer samples from Loehmann's. She was good at altering things to make them look better. She would cut things off, get them hemmed at different lengths, make them tighter, or wear them in different sizes, or back to front. I remember when I was a kid she used to wear my father's pajamas on the beach. I mean, who thinks of that?"
Mizrahi started taking evening classes at Parsons School of Design, and when he was 15 began producing women's clothing. He teamed up with a family friend, Sarah Haddad Cheney, whose husband had access to a production facility through his own children's wear business, and the duo sold pieces under the label "IS New York" to high-end New York boutiques like Charivari and Lonia. At this point, Mizrahi says he decided to pivot his aspirations from the world of performance to the world of fashion, which came as a relief to his parents.
"It was hard for them to think of me doing theater and movies," Mizrahi says. "It was a concession I made. I sought their love and affection, and fashion was my way of expressing myself and also being accepted by them."
Mizrahi adds he was never able to come out as gay to his father, who passed away in 1983.
"My father had a really bad heart condition, and I always felt that if I told him, he would literally die," he says. "And, second of all, he just didn't want to know. By the end of high school I was out, but I felt a little bit like I was in the dark, like I didn't belong in the world. I do often think that only after he died was I actually able to step into my life."
Enrolling in Parsons full-time after high school graduation also helped him come into his own. It's there where he says things suddenly clicked.
"You could tell which students at Parsons were the ones that were going to shine, and Isaac really stood out as a kid," says Parsons professor Joe Pescatore. "The story went that Ellie Fishman, a children's wear designer and Parsons teacher, came to the [fashion design department chair] Frank Rizzo and said, ‘I saw this kid's portfolio, I know his parents, and he is amazing.' Isaac was really loved by the faculty. His color sense and taste level was way up there and he was never at a loss for design. I learned so much from him as a teacher."
Mizrahi interned at Perry Ellis before moving on to jobs at Jeffrey Banks and Calvin Klein. After seven years working for other designers, Mizrahi decided the time was right to start his own company in 1986. This decision came shortly after he was informed by his mother that his father had left him a $50,000 trust fund: "I was like, I do? I'm so glad you never told me this! We talked about what I was going to do with the money, and I was looking at buying apartments, and then I thought, ‘No, I'll start a company.'"
He launched his eponymous Isaac Mizrahi label with $100,000: the $50,000 from his trust fund and another $50,000 from Haddad Cheney. Eventually he sought additional funding from several other Syrian families and expanded his small operation on Greene Street to an entire building on Mercer.
"He was a Studio 54, nightclub kind of guy. People thought of him as trendy, as fashion."
His pieces were "as sophisticated as they are youthful," the New York Times wrote, things that would be worn by a "young Audrey Hepburn." He created elegant pieces that mixed patterns and were produced in loud colors. There were structured striped rompers, bright-red high-waisted pants, and ahead-of-their-time alpaca blanket coats. His line, priced from $200 to $2,500, simultaneously produced evening dresses and sportswear, which was unique at the time. It was first picked up by Bergdorf Goodman, and then soon by Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdale's, as well as local boutiques like Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco and Hirshleifer's on Long Island.
Mizrahi quickly became a fashion sensation. In 1988, the New York Times wrote that Mizrahi "displayed sure signs of stardom" and that his designs "caused everyone to sit up and take notice." The Washington Post called Mizrahi "the rising star of Soho." His success was attributed to both his unique taste and his lively personality, which caught the attention of nearly everyone.
"He was a Studio 54, nightclub kind of guy. People thought of him as trendy, as fashion," says Andrew Jassin, a managing director at retail management firm Jassin Consulting Group. "He started off with trunk shows. This was a time when the industry was volatile and people could make it doing presentations as a small designer and develop a loyal following."
"The word we all used to use for Isaac was ‘clever'," adds Teri Agins, a former fashion reporter for the Wall Street Journal. "His clothing was incredibly original and creative. It was always high-concept, but also very wearable, and everything he did had a twist to it."
Kristen Naiman, Kate Spade's vice president of brand creative, was a creative director for Mizrahi from 2009 to 2014 and says that his design inspiration has always been particularly distinctive.
"He was super unique in fashion because he mixed high and low references," says Naiman. "He's a wildly voracious consumer of all kinds of culture, which made him fun to collaborate with. He was also charming to watch because he looked for intelligence in everything. He was a minimalist with a maximalist hand."
In keeping with his love of theater, Mizrahi hosted elaborate fashion shows that were consistently the "most anticipated event in town," as Agins puts it. Mizrahi turned the runway into a full-fledged production, painstakingly arranging every single detail himself. His shows became an industry spectacle, as Mizrahi had befriended all the major models of the day and convinced them to walk in his shows.
"The first fashion show I ever went to was an Isaac Mizrahi show in the early ‘90s, and it was the most glamorous thing I'd ever seen," recalls Kim France, the former editor-in-chief of Lucky who now runs Girls of a Certain Age. Back then, she was writing for places like Elle and New York Magazine. "Literally every single supermodel was there: Naomi, Linda, Christy, Kate, Cindy. Also, editors that you had read about but had never seen, like Polly Mellen and Anna Wintour. It was probably the last time I ever had a lot of fun at a fashion show!"
Newsday reported that Mizrahi's clothes were "glamorous; not show-biz, but truly glamorous," and that WWD was giving his shows "equal play with Ralph Lauren and Oscar de la Renta." Mizrahi went on to win two Womenswear Designer of the Year awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1989 and 1991. Around this time he began filming the landmark fashion documentary Unzipped, and by 1994, his label had secured financial backing from Chanel.
"Literally every single supermodel was there: Naomi, Linda, Christy, Kate, Cindy. It was probably the last time I ever had a lot of fun at a fashion show!"
"The whole thing was kept pretty quiet. One day, we looked up and suddenly Mizrahi had money from Chanel," says Agins. "It made sense, though. His cool factor was so high and Chanel was looking for a designer to invest in."
Under Chanel's auspices, Mizrahi created another, more affordable line called Isaac, which sold sportswear and $150 dresses. But his cool factor did not translate into sales, and after four years of losses, Chanel pulled the plug on both the Isaac Mizrahi and Isaac labels in 1998. Agins reported in the Wall Street Journal that the brand likely didn't see more than $10 million in sales. "It made a small profit in the early stages, but not once it got going," Michael Rena, executive vice president of Chanel, told the Washington Post.
With the closing of Mizrahi's business, "a smile had gone out of the fashion industry," Harper's Bazaar Liz Tilberis was quoted as saying when the story broke. Robin Givhan wrote that it wasn't surprising, but "that does not lessen the blow to the American fashion industry. It has lost one of its most beloved talents and eloquent spokesmen." The news even made the front page of the New York Times.
"It's so sad," Vogue's Anna Wintour told Givhan. "The fashion world needs these characters. It needs these life-affirming forces who relish the pure enjoyment of things so that it all doesn't become banal."
Looking back on that period, those closest to Mizrahi say the news indeed came as a shock, at least on the inside. Nina Santisi was Mizrahi's vice president of advertising and communications for several years and also produced entertainment projects with him. "The team all worked very hard from our big loft in Soho and Isaac was always getting so much press because he was such a celebrity," she says. "We were in the middle of working on producing a fragrance line, and it was getting lots of positive reviews from focus groups, so it was very surprising."
Agins believes poor sales came as a result of Mizrahi's unwillingness to create a signature, sellable look: "One season, he did paper bag waist pants and everyone thought they were really cool," says Agins. "Stores were begging Isaac to make another version of the pants, but he was already onto something else, so it was hard for people to latch onto him without an identity." When she pressed him about this issue, Mizrahi had told Agins, "Look, it is all I can do to make fabulous collections. I can't imagine how it will translate at retail."
Analyst Jassin posits Mizrahi was doomed from the start of his relationship with Chanel because they were not the right business partners.
"Companies don't usually fail because of bad design, they fail because they are rife with bad planning," Jassin says. "Mizrahi's line did not have the right ingredients. It didn't have the support it needed. It was poorly financed and did not have enough financial capital or credit put into place, but Mizrahi still had courage and conviction."
After we finish our soda and snacks at Russ & Daughters, Mizrahi and I hop into his private car and make our way uptown to a launch party for a smartwatch Mizrahi has designed for HP. The conversation mostly revolves around reality television, of which Mizrahi is an obsessive consumer, but eventually pivots to discussing the smartwatch, a gadget Racked sister site The Verge calls "unabashedly aimed at women." Once we arrive at the party, Mizrahi charms his way through the crowd, making seamless pitches for the product. It's not hard for him, though. Mizrahi is a pro.
When his company folded in 1998, Mizrahi decided to try his hand at entertainment. This included hosting a talk show on the Style Network, acting in a one-man show about his life called Les Mizrahi, and working as a cabaret singer in New York City. Agins says that people gave him flack for doing the Unzipped documentary in the mid-'90s because it looked like he "cared more about Hollywood than design, but he was way ahead of the curve because being a celebrity is what helped him in the long run."
In 2002, Mizrahi received a call from big box retailer Target, which proposed a licensing agreement in which the designer would produce a diffusion line for the company. Higher-ups at Target had spotted Mizrahi on TV and knew he would be a good collaborator.
"I was scared I would lose all my credibility as this couture kind of person."
"The reason why [Target's then-CMO] Michael Francis plucked Mizrahi was because he had such fashion pedigree, but the Hollywood factor was also really important to Target," says Agins. "He was taken seriously in the budget market because he was this prestigious fish in a big pond."
Mizrahi says he was initially hesitant to partner with Target.
"I was scared I would lose all my credibility as this couture kind of person," he says. "I even started making couture again at the same time, until I finally got the idea that it was not the right game for me." Ultimately he told himself it was the right fit because while he "wasn't going to make a deal with KMart, I did love Target, with all its humor in advertising."
Mizrahi's instincts were correct. His line for Target, which included women's clothes, shoes, and accessories, as well as home goods, reportedly generated over $300 million in sales each year for five years. Retail analyst group NPD considers it to be one of the most successful fashion collaborations in history, essentially creating a new kind of retail category.
The Target line vindicated Mizrahi, and not just because it brought him commercial success. "All of America was wearing Isaac Mizrahi's clothes," Agins says, because his designs actually resonated with shoppers. It also triggered a light bulb: if Mizrahi could be so successful in mass retail, why not just go all in? The Target line proved once again that Mizrahi was a special talent, one that no longer had to conform to the fashion industry's rigid boundaries.
Today, Mizrahi's main gig is designing his line for QVC and selling it on-air. He started working with the company, which operates an $8.8 billion business that reaches over 358 million homes worldwide, in December of 2009. QVC vice president of fashion and beauty merchandising Rachel Ungaro says his brand, Isaac Mizrahi Live!, gets bigger by the year. QVC would not share sales figures, but did note that with Mizrahi appearing on TV twice a week, he's gone from selling 884,000 units in 2010 to 3.1 million units in 2015.
Mizrahi has found his niche. His QVC items — colorful trench coats, patterned blouses, and statement accessories — are affordable, but still priced higher than your average Macy's brand ($120 fit-and-flare dresses, $60 sweaters, and $80 d'Orsay flats), and so they propose a certain level of luxury to shoppers. Plus, he gets to leverage his outsized personality on TV.
"Isaac's brand continues to flourish and customers know and love him," Ungaro writes via email. "Isaac is a passionate partner. His QVC collection is designed with the promise to deliver a fresh perspective on women's apparel and accessories."
Mizrahi sold his image, trademarks, and license agreement with QVC to Xcel Brands, a licensing and management company, for $31.5 million in 2011. Some recent projects have raised the suspicion that perhaps Mizrahi has sold out (Isaac Mizrahi Kleenex! Isaac Mizrahi Band-Aids!), but the designer maintains he is "cautious to maintain a kind of integrity" and that "always when I partner with a maker or a license, it's an upstanding thing."
And Mizrahi's current business partners, Jassin says, are a perfect match. Robert D'Loren, CEO of Xcel Brands, "has been instrumental in putting together securitized debt and understanding royalty-flow transactions," says Jassin. "He's found a savvy way for Isaac, an iconic American designer, to make money through designing and to communicate with his shoppers. Because the only way to make money in this business is to deal with the masses, instead of the classes."
"God bless all of them out there, but once you fall out of being a true fashion believer, you can move on to do really amazing things."
Gracing television screens thanks to QVC might not be the same as gracing the pages of Vogue, but in a time when the Marc Jacobs empire is struggling to restructure before an IPO, and fashion brands are doing everything in their power to not become the next Michael Kors, Mizrahi is truly in a unique position.
"The fashion world are a bunch of snobs; we know they are all jealous of him," Kim France says. "Every designer secretly wishes they could have a line with QVC or HSN because you are minting money once you land there. Fashion can make a person really unhappy, and a lot of the wrong things are valued. God bless all of them out there, but once you fall out of being a true fashion believer, you can move on to do really amazing things."
If anyone doubts Mizrahi's dedication to his current projects, consider this: twice a week, the designer schleps two-and-a-half hours each way to West Chester, Pennsylvania for his live appearances on QVC. This is in addition to the several other times a month Mizrahi appears on the channel, sometimes even taking a midnight shift.
"I love TV," Mizrahi tells me from the green room, a few minutes before he's scheduled to arrive on set. Of course, he's wearing his uniform — all black with sneakers — except his typically mussed hair is now gelled back and sits in neat corkscrew curls. "Did you catch that the other night in the car, when we talked about Housewives the entire time? I love the immediacy of television and I love that it's the laziest thing ever. If I can just sit in my room and watch TV, I'm so happy. And I really feel at ease, being on television. I had a talk show for five years and I've been on a million shows. I think it's my favorite thing to do."
"I also love it here," he continues. "I've always been obsessed with the hosts, and QVC makes you feel really well. There's plenty of food around, wonderful products, lots of good lighting, and people are editing things all day. No kidding! They have great buyers and great programmers."
In addition to selling handbags, footwear, jewelry, and home goods, Mizrahi also sells apparel that goes up to size XXXL. This is a necessity when working with a brand like QVC, but it also strikes a chord with the designer. A self-proclaimed "fat kid" who is still a frequent dieter, Mizrahi takes pride in making clothes that are accessible to a wide range of sizes.
"I don't want women to feel like they are too fat or too poor for my clothing," he says. "Fashion predicates on that part of a woman's psyche. I don't want people to want my clothes for those reasons. Personally my goal is to make the best thing for the least amount of money, and make it extremely convenient for her to get this thing. I want to be inclusive, so I've finally put my foot down. I put my big gay foot down!"
Chee Pearlman, an independent creative director who co-curated the Jewish Museum exhibit on Mizrahi, says she admires the clothing Mizrahi designs for QVC because "he makes clothes for women, not clothes that are trying to redefine who they are. They act as a form of self-expression, and they are never about compromising anybody."
While kindness is an attribute everyone that's worked with Mizrahi uses to describe him, Mizrahi is not particularly kind to himself. Perhaps this stems from the insecurity of sticking out at Yeshivah, hiding his sexuality from his father, or enduring devastating career setbacks, but underneath Mizrahi's sparkle, there's a certain sadness, even if it's fleeting.
"I've only congratulated myself once in my life," he admits. "I got this one good black suit from Anderson & Sheppard and I was a goal weight, I had these beautiful shoes, and my socks were gorgeous. I had a good shave, for once. For once! It just felt good one night and I wrote in my journal, 'Hey, tonight I actually feel chic.' Once."
Those around him, though, fill in the gaps in affection.
"Isaac is truly a renaissance man," says Steven Kolb, president and chief executive officer of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. "He is a rare talent that has never been tied to one singular idea. The status quo is not him. A willingness to adapt in our industry is important and that is Isaac. He is fun, has great wit, and understands what women want."
"He makes clothes for women, not clothes that are trying to redefine who they are. They act as a form of self-expression, and they are never about compromising anybody."
Mizrahi says the thought of sifting through 30 years of fashion specimens for the exhibit was initially daunting, a task he was sure would elicit melancholy. But while he was "filled with dread" at the prospect, he admits the whole thing ended up being pretty fun.
Titled "An Unruly History," the exhibit opens Friday, March 18th and will explore the breadth of Mizrahi's influence. The 250 pieces on display include everything from theater costumes to runway looks, and are accompanied by a floor-to-ceiling installation of Mizrahi's sketches, some dating back to his start in 1981. There is also a gallery dedicated to a video montage featuring, among other clips, footage of his elaborate ‘90s fashion shows.
The museum is working hard "to show Mizrahi's character, fluency, and drama," says assistant curator Kelly Taxter. Pearlman notes the show "is explicitly not meant to be a retrospective but a mid-career analysis, because Isaac is still very much active and his designs continue to impact lives." At QVC, I ask Mizrahi what he hopes museum attendees will learn from the exhibit.
"I guess I want them to understand that I never made a formula that designers are supposed to create. I only did things that were interesting to me, and I hope they will notice the humanity in that," he says with a sheepish smile. "It was very loving, as opposed to merely designing."
I have more questions, but it's show time and the millions of people about to tune into QVC cannot, and will not, wait. There are ballet flats and cardigans to be bought.
We walk through a giant warehouse of props on our way to his set, which is made to look like a cheery living room with plush furniture and bright lighting. Moments later, he's talking directly to his fans, effortlessly selling item after item. He sits with a female host, traveling back and forth between a high stool and a white couch. He interjects a "Divine!" or a "So true!" when the opportunity arises. (It arises a lot.) He adjusts the clothes on the models, calling them by their names, because of course he knows their names — Mizrahi is what you would call a "mensch."
"Can you resist these colors? I mean, when you feel this cotton, you will know that this is luxury," he swoons over a T-shirt as a huge crane pushes the camera slowly into Mizrahi's face. "Plus, the white is thick enough so you won't see bra straps. And look at the neckline: it's not quite scoop and it's not a crew. It's a screw!"
The turned-up-to-11 enthusiasm, the off-the-cuff jokes, and the million ways to describe a trench coat all look utterly exhausting. But Mizrahi is genuinely having fun. At commercial break, we lock eyes and he winks at me with a grin. Here he is truly in his element, he's found his place. There's nowhere else he belongs.
Chavie Lieber is Racked's features writer.
Photo illustrations by Brittany Holloway-Brown
Editor: Julia Rubin