Born: New York City, 14 October 1961. Education: Attended New York High School for the Performing Arts; graduated from Parsons School of Design, New York, 1982. Career: Assistant designer,
Martin, Richard, and Harold Koda, Bloom, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995.
Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York, 1996.
"Mr. Clean: New Designer Isaac Mizrahi," in Vogue, February 1988.
Slonim, Jeffrey J., and Torkil Gudnason, "Retro-Active: Back to the 1960s with Isaac Mizrahi," in Interview, March 1988.
Foley, Bridget, "Isaac Mizrahi: Setting Out for Stardom," in WWD, 18 April 1988.
"Color Me Chic," in Connoisseur (New York), October 1988.
Hoare, Sarajane, "Vogue's Spy: Isaac Mizrahi," in Vogue (London), November 1988.
Bender, Karen, "Isaac Mizrahi," in Taxi (New York), February 1989.
Mansfield, Stephanie, "Nobody Beats the Miz," in Vogue, February 1989.
Mower, Sarah, "Isaac Mizrahi," in Vogue (London), September 1989.
Jeal, Nicola, "The Divine Mr. M.," in the Observer Magazine (London), 1 April 1990.
Hepple, Keith, "Plum in the Middle of the Pomegranate," in The Independent (London), 12 April 1990.
Menkes, Suzy, "Mizrahi: The Shooting Star," in the International Herald Tribune, 17 April 1990.
Wayne, George, "Brooklyn Kid K.O.s Couturiers," in Interview, June 1990.
Talley, André Leon, "The Kings of Color," in Vogue, September 1990.
Gross, Michael, "Slaves of Fashion: Isaac Mizrahi, the Great Hip Hope," in New York Magazine, 1 October 1990.
DeCaro, Frank, "Mizrahi Loves Company," in Mademoiselle (New York), January 1991.
"Isaac Mizrahi," in Current Biography, January 1991.
Bernhardt, Sandra, "I and Me," in Harper's Bazaar, March 1993.
Foley, Bridget, "Hard Acts to Follow: Isaac Mizrahi," in WWD, 24 October 1994.
Spindler, Amy M., "Cocktails, Anyone? Clothes that Strut," in the New York Times, 2 November 1994.
Menkes, Suzy, "Mizrahi's All-American Swirls," in the International Herald Tribune, 3 November 1994.
Ezesky, Lauren, "Isaac Unbound," in Paper (New York), March 1995.
Spindler, Amy M., "Luxurious Armor by Karan, Klein, Mizrahi," in the New York Times, 8 April 1995.
"Dueling Isaacs," in WWD, 10 April 1995.
Pogrebin, Robin, "Mizrahi, Once Again the Main Attraction, Sings it Like it is," in the New York Times, 3 October 2000.
Mattingly, Kate, "From Off the Rack to Off the Wall," in Dance Magazine, October 2000.
Malkin, Marc S., "Isaac Mizrahi's Next Stage," in US Weekly, 6 November 2000.
Comita, Jenny, "Life After Isaac," in Vogue, May 2001.
* * *
Isaac Mizrahi worked, upon graduation from Parsons School of Design, for Perry Ellis, Jeffrey Banks, and Calvin Klein. When he started his own business in 1987, he intimately knew the world of American sportswear at its best, but his work refined the sportswear model by a special sense of sophistication and glamor. His ideals, beyond those he worked for, were such American purists as Norell, Halston, Beene, and McCardell, each a designer of utmost sophistication. Suzy Menkes analyzed in the International Herald Tribune in April 1990: "The clean colors and Ivy League image of Perry Ellis sportswear might seem to be the seminal influence on Mizrahi. But he himself claims inspiration from his mother's wardrobe of all-American designers, especially the glamorous simplicity of Norman Norell."
It is as if Mizrahi was challenged by distilling the most well-bred form of each garment to an understated glamor, whether tartan taken to a sensuous evening gown but still buckled as if Balmoral livery; pocketbooks and luggage ingeniously incorporated into clothing with the practical pocket panache of McCardell; or versions of high style in adaptations of men's bathrobes or sweatshirting used for evening. While Mizrahi was often commended for the youthfulness of his clothing, the praise was for the freshness of his perception, his ability to recalculate a classic, not just a market for young women. His interest in the Empire waistline; his practicality of wardrobe separates in combination; and his leaps between day and evening addressed all women equally. In the early 1990s, many designers and manufacturers saw the value of simplification: Mizrahi sought the pure in tandem with the cosmopolitan.
When Sarah Mower of Vogue described Mizrahi in September 1989 as "that rare thing in contemporary design: a life-enhancing intelligence on the loose," she rightly characterized his revisionist, rational, distilling, pure vision. With his fall 1988 collection Mizrahi was immediately recognized by the New York Times as "this year's hottest new designer" in unusual color combinations (such as rust and mustard and orange-peel and pink) as well as the diversity of silhouettes from baby-doll dresses to evening jumpsuits to long dresses.
Mizrahi had clearly demonstrated the range of a commercially viable designer while at the same time demonstrating his simplifying glamor and the cool nonchalant charm of his smart (intellectually and aesthetically) clothing. The spa collection of 1988 included rompers and baseball jackets and playsuits as well as the debonair excess of trousers with paperbag waist. His spring 1989 collection assembled sources from all over the fashion spectrum to create a unified vision of elegance and appeal. The fall 1989 collection featured tartan (later developed by Mizrahi for a Twyla Tharp American Ballet Theater production in 1990) with most extraordinary accompaniment. In a notable instance, New York (21 August 1989) showed Mizrahi's tartan dress with his raccoon-trimmed silk taffeta parka in a perfect assembly of the wild and the urbane.
In 1990 Mizrahi showed a short-lived menswear line and sustained his color studies, creating double-faced wools and sportswear elements in watercolor-like colors, delicate yet deliberate. Spring 1990 was a typical Mizrahi transmogrification: black and white patterns recalling both art déco and the 1960s was, in fact, derived from costume for the Ballets Russes. In 1991 Mizrahi's themes were American, creating a kind of Puritan revival in dresses with collars and bows in spring/summer 1991 and an American ethnic parade in fall 1991, including Native American dress and a notable totem-pole dress inspired by Native American art.
Mizrahi's drive to find the most sophisticated version of each concept he developed was the leitmotif of his work. His spring 1991 collection examined motifs of the 1960s, but with a clever sharpness not observed in other designers of the same year looking back to the period. In 1991 his tube dresses with flounces were inspired by Norell, but given proportion. McCardell's audacious applications of cotton piqué are extended by Mizrahi's love of the same material and Halston's radical simplicity is inevitably a source for any designer longing to return to essential form. Mizrahi's color fields owed their consciousness to Perry Ellis, but the particular color sensibility was Mizrahi's own. Mizrahi's immaculate, ingenious modernism was as clearly aware of sources as it was pushed toward the clarification of form.
Mizrahi had referred to his style as a "classic New York look," which presumably meant a casual American idiom, but inflected with big-city reserve and refinement. Mizrahi captured something of Manhattan chic and glamor of the 1940s and 1950s. His fashion was indescribably beautiful in subtlety and sophistication. Yet Mizrahi soon gave it all up to pursue another dream—performing. From the early 1990s Mizrahi had begun collaborating with choreographers like Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris, and designed costumes for an increasing number of ballets, modern dance productions, and even film.
Mizrahi himself was the subject of a documentary film, Unzipped, detailing the assemblage of his 1994 fall collection, working with Douglas Keeve, who directed, and Michael Alden, who produced. Released commercially to raise funds for varied AIDS programs, the experience must have helped crystallize Mizrahi's direction for the future. In 1998, after Chanel pulled its backing, Mizrahi closed his fashion business and was suddenly with little to do. Within a year he turned in a new direction, writing a one-man show about his life. The funny, satiric cabaret show was LES MIZrahi, yet the only similarity to the long-running and much honored show, Les Misérables was in name only. LES MIZrahi, debuted in Greenwich House Theatre in New York in October 2000, and was well received by critics and audiences.
For those yearning for the perfectly designed Mizrahi dress or outfit, a former protégée, Behnaz Sarafpour, garnered raves for her debut collection in 2001. Amid the praise for the black and white collection, however, were comments about Mizrahi's obvious influence on her style. For his part, Mizrahi declared in the May 2001 Vogue, "She knows what people really want to wear…. She's a great editor of her own accord. I learned as much from her as she did from me."
Generous, funny, immensely talented—that's Isaac Mizrahi. Whether on the stage, behind it designing costumes, or dressing Hollywood's elite, he made an indelible mark on the fashion scene. When asked by US Weekly in November 2000 if he missed designing, Mizrahi admitted this was so but countered, "I don't miss the business side of it. Just the idea of doing that makes me cringe." But would he ever return to designing? "I can't say never," he told US 's Marc Malkin, "There are all sorts of ways to sell clothes that feel more like me."
updated by Owen James