Visu­al Arts

Isaac Mizrahi

Chee Pearl­man and Ulrich Lehmann
  • Review
By – May 27, 2016

You need not be a fash­ion­ista to enjoy Isaac Mizrahi by Chee Pearl­man. This visu­al­ly stun­ning book — meant to accom­pa­ny the high­ly acclaimed exhib­it Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly His­to­ry on dis­play at the New York Jew­ish Muse­um March 18 through August 7, 2016 — is clear­ly a labor of love devot­ed to show­ing the beau­ty and inge­nu­ity of Mizrahi’s work. Mizrahi is more than an inter­est­ing design­er” writes Clau­dia Gould, the Helen Gold­smith Men­shel Direc­tor of the Jew­ish Muse­um. He is, rather, a great design­er — one who mer­its the extend­ed atten­tion of a muse­um — is a change mak­er, a vision­ary, some­one who both cap­tures a key cul­tur­al move­ment and cre­ates it.”

Mizrahi was born in Brook­lyn in 1961 to obser­vant Syr­i­an-Amer­i­can Jew­ish par­ents. In a can­did inter­view, con­duct­ed by Pearl­man and reprint­ed in the vol­ume, Mizrahi dis­cuss­es how his sense of design appeared ear­ly in his life. I start­ed mak­ing pup­pets when I was quite young, and they were glam­orous.” The pup­pets had a daz­zling col­or palette” that would remain one of his sig­na­tures, writes Pearl­man. When Mizrahi was ten, his father, a children’s‑wear man­u­fac­tur­er, bought him a small refur­bished sewing machine. His first cre­ations with the machine were a wool skirt and a shawl for his moth­er, which she wore on the High Hol­i­days. By age fif­teen, Mizrahi was sell­ing his designs to high-end bou­tiques. How­ev­er, life was not easy for him. He says; I went to Yeshiv­ah of Flat­bush, the wrongest school imag­in­able. It was a very lone­ly time, and I was huge­ly fat. I was hope­less­ly bul­lied. In those days it wasn’t even called x bul­ly­ing, it was just called soci­ety. Yet some­how I knew that they were wrong. And that taught me about fol­low­ing my own per­spec­tive, my own dream.” That is what Mizrahi has done through­out his life.

Mizrahi’s designs include cost­ly haute cou­ture worn by such celebri­ties as Natal­ie Port­man, San­dra Bern­hardt, Julia Roberts, Oprah Win­frey, Liza Minel­li, and Sarah Jes­si­ca Park­er. He has also cre­at­ed daz­zling cos­tumes used in com­e­dy, bal­let, opera, movies, and numer­ous the­atri­cal pro­duc­tions. Always a cut­ting-edge entre­pre­neur, Mizrahi was one of the first design­ers to devel­op a high/​low col­lab­o­ra­tion between A‑list design­ers and mass-mar­ket retail­ers that are now com­mon­place” reports Lynn Yaeger in her essay, Amer­i­can Mas­ter.” In 2002 Mizrahi launched a line of clothes for Tar­get, a mass-mar­ket retail­er. He also has pro­duced a tele­vi­sion pro­gram, Isaac Mizrahi Live!, which presents his ready-to-wear designs on the QVC network.

Isaac Mizrahi also address­es Mizrahi’s sec­ond career as a per­former. As a young­ster he attend­ed the High School for Per­form­ing Arts; he stud­ied act­ing for many years and also played piano. He cre­at­ed an acclaimed one-man cabaret act, Les MiZrahi. The­atre was, as he says in his inter­view, his first pas­sion” but for him he saw Hol­ly­wood as a road to nowhere.” Nonethe­less, he has appeared in sev­er­al walk-on movie roles, and was the sub­ject of the doc­u­men­tary Unzipped, which fol­lows him through the mak­ing of his fall 1994 col­lec­tion. The movie dis­played his bril­liant and whim­si­cal work­ing style along with his dis­tinc­tive humor. As Mizrahi says of him­self, I think humor sets me apart. I thrive on self-mock­ery. A lot of design­ers out there have to take it all seri­ous­ly.” Pearl­man agrees, stat­ing that humor” is at the core of his sensibility.”

This book is a delight to read and visu­al­ly beau­ti­ful. The essays by Lynn Yaeger, Kel­ly Tax­ter, and Ulrich Lehman fur­ther clar­i­fy why Mizrahi is such a unique and impor­tant figure.

Relat­ed Content:

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions