Once upon a time, the stage-and-screen Maria von Trapp sang about bright copper kettles, warm woolen mittens and a few other of her favorite things. Were she around today, Maria might do more than hum a few bars and trek the Alps, heading instead for that things-friendly enclave of West Chester, Pa., where the right combination of personality and product can translate into success worth singing about.
That locale, QVC headquarters, is the latest destination of Isaac Mizrahi, the shopping network’s newest and most high-profile fashion recruit. The designer’s “Isaac Mizrahi Live,” slated to make its debut Dec. 4, will feature a wealth of his own favorite goodies, the first installment with a holiday slant. Tonight at his company headquarters, Mizrahi will host a press preview of the far-flung lineup, everything from handbags and berets to toggle coats and sequin Ts to cheesecake, in a launch price range of about $32 to $300. “If you feel passionate about something,” Mizrahi says, “they say, ‘Do it.’ Sometimes they cut 300 pieces and sometimes, three trillion.”
Or bake. Regarding that cheesecake, dressed in tartan no less, it hails from Junior’s and will feature a Mizrahi-mandated chocolate cookie crust, while keeping company with Mizrahi-selected chocolate chip cookies and banana nut loaf. And pardon the designer if, when asked about the credibility of his gastronomic selections, he turns a bit defensive. “To me, they’re very important, wonderful things,” he says, adding that he did “1,000 tastings.” More to the point, he maintains they make perfect sense within his repertoire. “I have been building and building and building over the past 10 years. I have been doing a TV show with a lot of cooking segments, working with Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali. It has made me quite good at tasting food. I’ve been a judge on ‘Iron Chef.’”
The point, lest one miss it, is that Mizrahi is expanding in what he calls a “pan-discipline” direction, his second multicategory gig, following the Target deal under which he designed a range of fashion and lifestyle products from 2003 to last year, until he left to join Liz Claiborne. “I feel like I have built a certain look, a language, a certain sense of color and whatever,” Mizrahi explains, noting his use for Target of huge, photo-print flowers on hot-selling plates and bedding. “People looked at them and said, ‘Oh, just more popular culture that someone is representing.’ But if you look back, there were no bubble-jetted giant printed flowers until I did them in the collection, on the inside of the raincoat that was on the cover of W on Yasmeen Ghauri. I don’t remember anyone doing that before me, and it becomes part of the vernacular.”
Mizrahi is adamant that his role at QVC is far more than that of pithy camera-ready pitchman. He is involved in the design process from start to finish, and feels confident that every item produced under the partnership will radiate his upbeat aesthetic. “I create, that’s what I do. I’m an artist. I’m a designer,” he stresses, while making no apologies for his sizable aspirations. “Household name — that was the Seventies. Now it’s brand name. As I build my brand, I think about Martha Stewart and her very upward trajectory. She has always been a great inspiration to me.
“I love my product,” Mizrahi continues. “I believe in my product. If I do plates, if I do bedding, which I did, if I render cookies, I do it in the same way that I think about a couture dress. [My approach] bespeaks someone who cares deeply about it, on whatever level. What makes us trust Martha to talk about chickens and trees and window treatments? What makes us think that Oprah Winfrey would have [so successful] a book club? Like, ‘Hey, Oprah, what do you know about reading, just because you sit there and talk to people?’ Well, she knows a lot about books. She’s been talking to authors her whole life. So, it’s one thing [marketed] to the public leads to another. I’m just saying, maybe at the end of my trajectory, we’ll look back and go, ‘Oh, remember, before him, there was no X, Y, Z. Just as before Martha, there weren’t people who cooked and had TV shows and farms and that and that and that.”
From the QVC angle, product may be king, but it will face a shaky reign without the force of personality. “We’re enamored by Isaac’s body of work and also his energy,” says Doug Howe, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer of QVC. “You have to have an obviously compelling product offering. Then, it is absolutely critical to have somebody who’s very engaging and very entertaining to educate and talk to the customer with regard to the product. He will be amazing.”
Though numerous fashion personalities, including Bob Mackie, Marc Bouwer, Vivienne Tam, Erin Fetherston, Rachel Zoe and Lori Goldstein, have preceded Mizrahi into the QVC fold, his lineup is by far the most ambitious, the first time in the company’s 23 years that a designer has been positioned across so many of the network’s categories.
To that end, Mizrahi may be uniquely qualified among the major names in fashion to hook up with QVC as a springboard for his lifestyle aspirations. He was a trailblazer in both the fashion-entertainment fusion (“Unzipped,” among his various television pursuits) and, via Target, in the formerly taboo counterpoint of high and low. “I think I had the first [such] fashion show in the world,” he says. “I said that once — high-low — in an interview, and there was a snarky backlash. But maybe we weren’t the first; maybe it was in the background of things.”
Now, Mizrahi can’t wait to hit the studio — or studios, as some segments will air from his own headquarters, and some from QVC’s — and take his mass message directly to consumers. Which raises the issue of his much-hyped deal to design the Liz Claiborne New York collection, the distribution of which is being pulled from stores, other than Claiborne outlet stores, and will follow Mizrahi’s own label to QVC. He maintains there’s no conflict, while acknowledging that making a clear distinction between the two lines might take some time. “I don’t want to say that the Liz line is older, or more for working women, because that’s not the case,” he says. As for that collection’s exit from traditional retail, the designer declines to discuss it except to note that where his work was presented as a concept, it did well. “I’m a gentleman,” he says. “I don’t want to point fingers.”
Mizrahi does stress that, as excited as he is about QVC, which also has an Internet sales component, he believes firmly in the great names of traditional retail. “The words ‘Neiman Marcus,’ the word ‘Macy’s,’ the word ‘Saks,’ the word ‘Bergdorf,’ those are meaningful words,” he says. “They are meaningful ideas, meaningful brands. Those have tons of amazing, monstrous history. They will find a way into the future, they will. Because of those words, their monstrous brand power.”
Which is not to say that he thinks the major retailers, or any other aspect of fashion, can continue unchanged. “There are always going to be people who have new ideas, who are controversial, and they’re always going to spur some kind of fashion reality,” Mizrahi says. “You will always notice people looking a certain way, because that is the zeitgeist, and everyone wants to look that way one day. That’s what fashion is. This is exactly what fashion does all the time. All it does is reinvent itself. Fashion without reinvention doesn’t exist.”