THE FOOTLIGHTS AT LES MIZ MIZRAHI PLAYS HIS FOOTWEAR ROUTINE TO A CAPTIVE AUDIENCE.
Byline: VIVIAN INFANTINO
NEW YORK--"Fashion starts at the foot and hair," announced ready-to-wear designer Isaac Mizrahi, tossing off the bon mot with the aplomb of an Oscar Wilde. Then he grinned and said, "That's not my quote, it's Diana Vreeland's. But for me," he added, "it's really true." The young designer is a blend of seriousness and stand-up humor. Looking like a modern-day pirate in his black and white bandana head scarf, he sat in his SoHo office and talked with FN about fashion, the arts, movies and more, with an earnestness that reflects the maturity of his 32 years but with flashes of his "wonder boy, whiz kid" period. He has a quiet demeanor, unlike the enfant terrible image one might expect, more down-to-earth than pixie (but there's some of that, too), and most certainly grounded in reality-reality. Actually, he is the quintessential fashion boy genius who showed precocious glimmers of what was to come--drawing clothes when he was seven years old. ("I don't know, I just found myself obsessed.") From early sketches he moved on to having his own atelier in the basement of his Brooklyn home when he was 10. His father (a children's wear maunfacturer) built him a cutting table, added two or three sewing machines, a sketching and drafting table, telephone and desk. Born with an interest in the stage, he made puppet clothes and had his own puppet theatre. By the time he was 13, he was making clothes for his mother, his family, himself and his friends. His schooling reflects his dual interests of theater and fashion--Mizrahi attended the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, and from there it was an easy step to Parsons School of Design, where he majored in fashion. While a student at Parsons, he took a summer job with the late Perry Ellis, with whom he went to work full-time after his graduation. The next move was to Jeffrey Banks and then to Calvin Klein. The by-then seasoned designer at age 25 decided it was time to pull his own strings. "I knew I wasn't going to work for anyone else. I knew it was time to go," he said. Within a year, Mizrahi opened his own business in 1987, establishing a reputation for witty, innovative fashions. The line was an instant success, moving from strength to strength and winning numerous awards along the way including the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) Designer of the Year Award in 1990 and 1992. This year, after launching a footwear division (with the shoes made by Pancaldi), he won another Designer of the Year award from the Italian Trade Commission and the Italian Footwear Manufacturers Association. The shoes, retailing from $195 for a basic to $1,610 for a thigh-high boot, have won the immediate success his rtw did (the rtw prices go from $210 for something like a merino tee, to $2,575 for a sequined dress.) Mizrahi didn't rush into the business of licensing his name for shoes, turning down the offers that came to him with the success of his clothing line. "My philosophy is take your time ... slow and steady wins the race." First, he launched his accessory business, he explained, then men's. He has since closed the men's business but would like to go back into it as a franchise "with someone else doing the manufacturing." He doesn't like spreading his talents thin or, as he put it, "I hate being pulled in a thousand directions." He designs shoes exactly the same way he does clothes, which in part means prolifically: "It never takes anything out of me to do 1,000 sketches or to go to the factory." Reminiscing, he said he learned a lot from shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, who did the footwear for his collection before he had his own line. About his new partner Pancaldi, he said, "I'm very comfortable in my partners and their experience and in our rapport. I tell them, they tell me." His first visit to the shoe factory "was heaven" and now he schedules visits twice a year to the Bologna-based firm. Timing of shoe lines (earlier than rtw collections) is not a problem. "Pancaldi gave me carte blanche. I can get anything... it's at their fingertips. I'm comfortable with the turnaround time." Nice guys finish first in the opinion of Tom Chunovic, executive vice president, Pan Shoes, the U.S. arm of Pancaldi. When asked to describe his relationship with the designer, he said, "He is the nicest person to work with, sensitive to the factory needs." Chunovic went on to explain how Mizrahi does his job "within the framework of what's possible," which is not always the case with rtw designers. "I can't say enough about him as a person and someone to work with. He truly is a gentleman." When Mizrahi is asked to define his customer, he said he's thinking of "alternatives, a customer who loves looking great and different. She's predominantly a young fashion customer. I tend to dress people who do more than work. That's not the end-all and be-all of their lives. They're multi-faceted, mothers and daughters, women who do a lot of different things. A modern woman. She's everything a man is," he finished with a grin, "but a lot prettier." He doesn't presume to tell a customer how to dress, but rather likes it when the customer tells him--otherwise it's like "putting the cart before the horse." In line with this multi-talented woman of the '90s, Mizrahi likes designing "hybrids." As an example, he described his "tuxedo boot," a riding boot with a bow that can go from riding wear to evening wear. He elaborated that it could be compared to the concept of a "high-heeled Hush Puppy--sporty and easy, but the high heel carries it from day to night." Mizrahi has finished his "spa" rtw collection and will introduce it on Aug. 9. It's a capsule collection which will be expanded for November. Talking about colors (one of his specialties), he said he favors "brights and lots of white, predominantly patent leather ... and suedes. And I really like high or low heels. I love skinny elegant highs, as well as chunky heels echoing what we've done, but different for spring." He also "very very much" likes the idea of open shoes. "I like what's happening in fashion. We're back to very sexy, womanly--I don't like the word feminine--fashions. I like a sexy look in shoes and clothes." He includes high heels in this look, as well as slides and open designs. "It's a very-pulled together look," he insisted. "I can't mismatch anymore. If people think that's old-fashioned, let them. I think it's simple and modern. The deconstruction thing is over." Mizrahi's leisure time is taken up with his passions, which include old movies, going to the ballet and playing classical piano. He's not only a movie buff, he's a player. He made his acting debut in Universal Studio's Michael J. Fox comedy "For Love or Money" which typecast him as one of the world's leading designers. Shoe people also remember him for his witty comments on a FFANY (Fashion Footwear Association of New York) video in '92, when he loudly said "no" to platforms. For the past two years, he's been in a "Truth or Dare" mode, the subject of a documentary film by Douglas Keeve. The backstage view of Mizrahi's fashion world will be shown on cable and screened in major cities with store tie-ins scheduled for late August or September. About it all, the designer sighed, smiled and tossed off a final bon mot: "It's giving me a mid-life crisis 10 years earlier."
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