“What the hell am I doing?”
Isaac Mizrahi couldn’t help but wonder as the debut of his memoir “I.M.” neared. Now out from Flatiron Books, the page-turner reads like the designer speaks — speedily and unabashedly describing his prismatic career. Before designers were all about self-branding and embracing all things multimedia, Isaac was just being Isaac. After working for Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein and others, he debuted a signature collection in 1987. Eight years later he starred in the documentary “Unzipped.” Talk show host, cabaret performer, costume designer, graphic novel author, “Project Runway: All-Stars” guest judge, movie cameo-maker and QVC personality are among the many job titles he has or continues to juggle.
After a seven-year slog to finish “I.M.,” Mizrahi said in an interview, “It feels great, I have to say. I feel like I told my story so if someone doesn’t agree with it or like it, I swear it really doesn’t matter that much to me. When I finally handed the damn thing in, I felt like the past was absolutely gone because I told my story ad now we’re moving on. There was only present and future. I’m not sure how I feel now [laughs].”
The reality is he has been keeping journals since 1996 and published diaries by Noël Coward, Dawn Powell and Cecil Beaton are among his favorite reads. Never one to shy away from sharing personal moments, Mizrahi said, “Just give me the opportunity to and I will. I’m kind of the perfect reality show talk show guest. I overshare. When I took the [book] job, my mother who is very literate said, ‘Oh darling, if you’re going to do this you have to tell the truth.’ I thought. ‘Wow, that is great advice coming from this 90-year-old lady.’ Then I would call her to say, ‘Remember that time when duh, duh, duh’ and she would say ‘Oh no you can’t tell that story.'”
While Mizrahi has written numerous articles, he was surprised by “the enormous terror” of composing a book this size. “I’ve always understood why writers drink and why they abuse stuff, but never to the extent that I do now. It is crazy, crazy commitment. The funny thing is once you do commit and you get yourself into it for a few days, there is no coming out of it. It’s like a drug — you want more and more and more. Then life pulls you back and you have to get back into it. Every time you have to get back into it there is some kind of crazy drama — you cut yourself or have a tooth abscess. There is something that distracts you or you create all this weird nonsense around it. I felt that way about collections, too,” he said. “I honestly think people do that to themselves — procrastinate. I did a TED Talk 15 or 20 years ago about the creative process and procrastination…I’m not kidding. I think that’s the best way to get stuff done. After a while, you’ll just have to do it. If you keep putting it off and allowing yourself to put it off, at some point you’ll say, ‘OK, now I’m ready.’”
But Mizrahi isn’t looking over his shoulder. His QVC gig carries on and he is gearing for an activewear and footwear collaboration with New Balance. His one-man show will be in Princeton, N.J., Friday followed by a handful of other locations. “I don’t exactly regret anything. I look forward to more — to more writing,” Mizrahi said. “Aching” to see Holy Week in Seville, Spain, the designer will vacation there and in Madrid with his choreographer and collaborator Mark Morris. At work on a few scripts for TV and theater including a musical adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Devil’s Eye,” Mizrahi said, “Everything is one very big vague work project and I’m excited by that. The meaning of life is waking up every day with something that you are doing that makes you excited.”
Before H&M and a small army of other brands recruited well-known designers like Karl Lagerfeld, Jil Sander and Vera Wang for limited-run collections, Mizrahi teamed with Target in 2003. Aware of the power of a high-low combo, the launch coincided with a couture line offered solely through Bergdorf Goodman. Mizrahi said, “The trajectory of my career started in a very classic way and I got myself to fit into this mold of the way that you are supposed to start stuff. Midway through the pathway, it changed, but I changed it. It wasn’t a mistake for me to do a collaboration with Target or a one-person show or to make ‘Unzipped’ — all of that was really, really, really, heavily considered. That was part of my story and it took me to where I am today. I’m not exactly sure how people look at me, but that’s not my problem. That’s how I feel now about my career in general in all ways.”
Readers learn about all sorts of behind-the-scenes moments in Mizrahi’s life including his hesitancy before dressing Audrey Hepburn in one of his coats, during a shoot at Richard Avedon’s Upper East Side town house. The perceptive “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Funny Face” actress advised, “But that’s your job, silly!” Before presenting Mizrahi with his first CFDA award in 1988, another renown performer, Liza Minnelli, steeled his nerves with, “Imagine yourself two hours from now, no matter what happens, even if this night is a total bust, eating a big bowl of mint chocolate chocolate chip.” Or how after a reading in 1996 for a part in the film “As Good as It Gets” with Jack Nicholson, the Oscar-winning actor pointed to his Versace loafers (in a subtle leopard-print suede) and said, “I wore these for you.”
Mizrahi also described feeling like an interloper during what should have been Kelly Rector and Calvin Klein’s 1986 honeymoon in Europe. One day after marrying in Rome, the couple was off to Paris for a Lesage appointment at the Plaza Athenee, followed by “an anomalous schedule of fabric shopping, sweater fittings and what felt like wedding dinners,” writes Mizrahi, who worked for the designer at that time.
Perry Ellis, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anna Wintour, Taylor Swift, Norma Kamali, Dawn Mello, Kevyn Aucoin, Grace Mirabella, the “greatest hairdresser of all time” Suga and a slew of other fashion-friendly names are referenced in the tome. After a seven-year slog to polish off the 372-page book, Mizrahi said, “I’m reading this, thinking, ‘Am I dreaming? Did I actually have dinner with Barbra Streisand? Did I dress Liza? Were we friends? Did I work with Calvin? Did he influence me and did we know each other?’ It was so long ago and the memories are still so vivid to me….I wrote it to tell the story and because I love those people. There isn’t anyone in the book that I don’t love. I didn’t bother writing about people I don’t like. And there aren’t many people I don’t like. I don’t care. There isn’t enough time in my life to not like people.”
However dishy the book reads at times, Mizrahi lays bare his own struggles with insomnia, anxiety, weight issues and how his marriage to Arnold Germer is still “slightly taboo” among a few relatives. “I wake up in a state of panic, fear and sadness every day. It’s tied into my difficulty sleeping. There’s something terrible about falling asleep, knowing you’re going to wake up another day older, another night gone forever.”
As for current fashion favorites, Mizrahi said, “I love that Valentino Couture collection. And that Moncler thing with Pierpaolo [Piccioli] is absolutely divine. Oh my God. That Valentino Couture collection is the work of a visionary. That was the most beautiful thing that I’d seen in a good long time. He recently did this insanely beautiful collaboration with Moncler making ballgowns with down coats. That’s my dream. He is basically fulfilling my dream.”
Conversely, he said, “What I don’t love is this thing where designers tip their hands on social media. I love the surprise of something. I love seeing something finished. I don’t like fashion previews — I like fashion. How’s that for a quote? That should be on the side of a f–king bus, c’mon.”
As for whether he is pleased with the final result, Mizrahi said, “Pleased is a very big word. It’s a pendulum of emotions that swings a very wide swath from utter joy and elation to thinking, ’How am I going to show my face in public?’”
All this self-examination about his life has been twofold, but without regrets in either direction. “There was an arc to it. It was meaningful and I meant everything. The opposite is also true. I think, ‘Are you crazy?’ It just happened. I couldn’t stop it from happening, which is true, There is a little of both,” Mizrahi said. “Also, the answer depends on the day, what you ate for dinner if you had too much sugar or too much Xanax or something. Seriously that’s true for everybody across the board. You wake up one day you don’t feel so good about yourself. You wake up the next day and you think, ‘OK, I’m doing alright here.’”
He added, “In the preface, I write how my husband keeps telling me, ‘Oh darling, everything just goes to dust.’ It’s an interesting thing to accept when you’re not dust.”