Jewish Fashion Icon of the Month: Isaac Mizrahi

Sure, plenty of designers make clothes you might like to wear, but how many of them have the wit and charisma to sustain your interest across a movie, a memoir, or their very own cabaret show? Meet our Jewish Fashion Icon of the month, and possibly the only fashion designer we’d trust with a show tune: Isaac Mizrahi.

The New York Jewish designer who lit up the ’90s is currently back in the spotlight thanks to his memoir, I.M., which has been warmly received by critics. Not content with a boring old book signing, he publicized it by taking his show cross-country (cabaret artist is just one of his many hats, along with talk show host, costume designer, and actor) and treating audiences to a selection of favorite songs along with the anecdotes.

 

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As you’d expect from a man who chose to call one of his previous cabaret shows Does This Song Make Me Look Fat? the memoir is a thoroughly entertaining — and moving — read. “I stuck out like a chubby sore thumb,” Mizrahi writes near the beginning of the book, which begins with his Syrian-Jewish upbringing (his descriptions of the High Holydays as fashion shows are particularly acute). His story moves to the pinnacle of high fashion via puppet shows in his garage, the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (yes, the Fame school), and singing along to — and eventually hanging out with — Liza Minelli.

Mizrahi eventually shuttered his first label in 1997. Although he remains in the public eye thanks to his theater and TV work (he was a judge on Project Runway), a 2016 retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York, and his collections for QVC among others, it’s easy to forget just how much he influenced fashion in his heyday. His memoir provides a timely reminder. Known for his love of color and sense of fun (see the oversized poppy dress from spring 1992, or the Star of David waist belt from fall 1991), he pioneered the concept of high-low dressing — mixing uptown and downtown influences in the same outfit, as when he paired ballgown skirts with humble tees for fall 1994.

 

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In 2003 he took the high-low concept to a whole new level with his first capsule collection for Target (while simultaneously producing a high-end couture line). The line lasted until 2008 when Mizrahi moved on to Liz Claiborne, and ushered in a wave of mass retailer/designer collaborations. Karl Lagerfeld swiftly followed suit for H&M, which has been launching annual designer collections to much fanfare ever since. Meanwhile, Target has tapped the likes of Anna Sui, Victoria Beckham, and Peter Pilotto.

And if every fashion personality is the subject of a documentary these days, remember that Mizrahi did it first with the movie Unzipped. Released in 1995, this fly-on-the-wall account of his Eskimo-themed Fall 1994 collection is still the standard by which all fashion films are judged. It would take a heart of stone not to weep along with our hero when he learns that Jean Paul Gaultier pipped him to “Eskimo chic” in Paris. (To rub salt into the wound, influential fashion paper WWD declared the Gaultier runway show a smash).

Is it possible that Isaac Mizrahi will set yet another trend with his cabaret tour? Let’s hope so. I can’t be the only one who’d love to see Anna Wintour belting out I Feel Pretty.

Susannah Cohen
Susannah Cohen is a fashion journalist, e-commerce editor (specialist subjects: lingerie and diamonds) and Jewish mom. Recently relocated from London to the West Coast, she’s feeling a lot more spiritual these days.