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.