Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi discusses his anticipated memoir, I.M., his love of New York City, his favorite designs from his many influential collections, creativity and more.
Why was now the right time to write your memoir?
It’s never a great time to write a memoir, but recently it’s seemed like the right time ’cause I was ready to share the specific details of my past and talk about where I wanted my life to go. I was ready to be honest. Any earlier it would not have been the right account. It takes a certain kind of distance from one’s past to be able to return to it.
You write, “I hate summer weather and sunny days.” What’s your idea of the perfect day, weather-wise and otherwise?
My idea of perfect weather is FREEZING COLD and grey. I love being able to open the window if it gets too warm indoors. I love the idea that I don’t sweat. I love the idea that my hair always looks so good. I love LOVE coats.
In your memoir, you’re very honest about your struggles with depression and body image. Was it difficult to write about issues you’ve grappled with since childhood?
Now that I’m in my 50s it seems like there’s enough distance from those troubled times, also I have enough strength in my life currently between my career and my husband, that no matter what anyone thinks of the book, I’m still OK. If the reviews are bad, if certain people don’t like it, it’s my story, told I think with no rancor, no anger, and deserves to be respected.
You write with such love for New York City. How has your relationship with your hometown evolved over your life?
For me, New York City has been a kind of magic place. I grew up here in Brooklyn, and began going to the city every day at high school. It was my way out. My way to a life of my own, which was something I had to take, I was not given. A big anonymous city is really important. A place where you can be exactly who you are without being judged. You can make mistakes and start over. You can actually start over any number of times here. You select your privacy here. I was told early in my life by a psychic that NYC was my forever home and not to think of moving. He described my feelings about NYC the way a farmer feels about the earth under his feet, there for his safety and cultivation.
Your mother is an enormously stylish woman, and you write about your weekend breakfasts when you both talked fashion as a child. Do you think you would have become a designer without her influence?
My mother was a great influence on me. She was a great example of pluck, of style, of shrewd maneuvering of events to suit her own agenda. More than stylish she was Machiavellian in her approach to making the best of her situation, manipulating the world to suit her. More than anything about style, I learned that.
You are one of the most successful American designers, yet you reveal you still feel like “a performer, a writer, trapped in the body of a fashion designer.” You’ve appeared in movies, had a talk show and performed cabaret! What do you think it’ll take for you to feel like a performer?
The more I work on stage the more I feel like a legitimate performer, and these days I do more and more of it.
You’ve worked with some of the most famous women in the world. Who are some of the most memorable women you’ve dressed?
Women I’ve dressed that I was awed by: Streisand, Liza, Meryl Streep, Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Sarah Jessica Parker, Julia Roberts.
When I think of you as a designer, I think of the Isaac Mizrahi dress from Target that I’ve owned for years and will wear until it disintegrates or I die. Which specific pieces or collections first come to mind when you think back over all the clothing you’ve designed?
I love to think of the plain, well-cut, beautifully fabricated pieces I made for Target that were literally under $20. I think of a pink corduroy blazer I did in the first collection. I think of a red duffel coat. I think of the cashmere sweaters I did. Not to mention so many of the great, great handbags I did for them, some of which I still see people carrying. When I first started working with them, the merchants were scared of anything besides tops, mostly T-shirt tops. And by the time I left five years later, they had a big business in dresses and even skirts.
You married in 2011. How did that influence your creativity?
Meeting my husband, Arnold, and learning how to commit to him, learning how to love him, is a big influencer on creativity. As the relationship gets stronger I feel bolder about my approach to my work. It feels like I have nothing to lose. I can’t tell if that’s age or being secure in my marriage. My work is the most important thing in my life, but it wouldn’t be possible in so many ways unless my husband was there to support me. Not creatively, just as a human.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of I.M.
Author photo by Gregg Richards