Designer Isaac Mizrahi will dish about life, his Judaism, fashion and more at Hadassah’s annual meeting at Congregation Shaarey Zedek.
By Alice Burdick Schweiger, Special to the Jewish News
At just 5 years old, fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi would rather dress a Barbie doll then play with a G.I. Joe. Around his sixth birthday, while at a local Brooklyn variety store, his mom acquiesced and tossed a Barbie set, complete with a change of clothes and black pumps, in her shopping cart.
“I stayed cool on the outside, but, on the inside, I was hopping up and down with joy,” he writes in his new memoir I.M. (Flatiron Books). “I measured the minutes it would take to get from that spot — out of the danger zone of changing her mind — back to the security and privacy of my bedroom.”
That’s just one of the revealing stories that Mizrahi shares in his compelling book, released earlier this year. His says childhood was wrought with depression, overeating, insomnia and being bullied by his peers and rabbis at the yeshivah he attended. He writes about growing up in a Syrian Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, his special relationship with his mother, the challenge of being gay and rising to the top of the fashion world.
Detroiters can learn more about Mizrahi’s upbringing, career and the world of haute couture on Tuesday, Sept. 10, at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, when he will be the guest speaker at Hadassah Greater Detroit’s Judi Schram Annual Meeting. The event, which includes 30 boutiques open free to the public, is named for longtime local Hadassah leader Judi Schram, who died in 2017. Funds raised will benefit critical needs at Hadassah Medical Organization in Israel.
Sherry Margolis, news anchor at Fox 2, will ask Mizrahi questions, and then the audience will be invited to participate.
Mizrahi says he hopes many of the questions will be about his childhood and his memoir, which will be sold at the event. “I will I start off by giving an overview of the book — I want people to know who I am,” says Mizrahi, 56. “I hope my experiences will resonate with the audience.”
As a young boy, Mizrahi thought his calling was show business. “When I was about 7 years old, I went to see Funny Girl with my family and was so inspired by Streisand I started imitating her,” recalls Mizrahi, who attended a yeshivah from kindergarten through eighth grade. “I impersonated Judy Garland and Liza Minelli, and I would do these female impressions inappropriately in places like the lobby of shul!”
Drawn to Fashion
But it was designing clothes for the rich and famous that made Mizrahi a household name. When he entered the High School of Performing Arts in New York City, his focus was the entertainment world. However, by the time he was a junior, he switched gears and found a better way to express himself.
“I realized all my friends were gorgeous, thin, blond and movie star types; I was fat and I didn’t have that self-image,” he says. “So, I rethought my career and decided to work in the fashion industry. It enriched me so much and gave my life a different kind of story and platform.”
His interest in the world of fashion didn’t come from out of the blue. His father was a children’s clothing manufacturer, and Mizrahi, who loved reading fashion magazines, had sewing machines at his disposal.
“I started to make puppets and sew clothes for them,” recalls Mizrahi, who added that he liked doodling sketches of outfits in the margins of his Hebrew books. “By the time I was 10, I had this big puppet theater in the garage, and I made their clothes. My father had sewing machines everywhere and he taught me how to sew. By the time I was 13, I was a really good sewer, and I started making clothes for my mom and myself. It became this fun, compelling thing. My mom (who is in her 90s) was really into fashion and encouraged my interest.”
After high school, Mizrahi attended Parson’s School of Design in New York City. His first fashion job was working at Perry Ellis, then with designer Jeffrey Banks, then Calvin Klein. Along the way, he honed his skills — selecting fabric, participating in design meetings and sketching clothes. By the time he was 26, he went out on his own.
In 1989, he presented his first show, which catapulted him into fame and his couture soon dominated the fashion mags. He dressed celebs for red carpets, and his clients have included Michelle Obama, Meryl Streep, Hillary Clinton and Oprah.
“Barbra Streisand was so lovely,” he recalls. “I tailored a suit for her and Woman’s Wear Daily erroneously attributed it to Donna Karan. Barbra wrote me a note saying, ‘We know who really made this suit!’”
Wearing Many Hats
But this fashion designer’s enormously successful journey had its highs and lows. He made countless guest appearances on television and in the movies. He earned an Emmy nomination for Best Costume Design for his work in Liza Minnelli Live. He was the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary film Unzipped, which chronicled his 1994 collection. And he’s a cabaret singer.
Despite being one of the world’s most beloved designers, the company was losing money and closed after his fall 1998 collection. Still, he returned to fashion in 2002, teaming up with Target and becoming one of the first high-end designers to create affordable clothes for the masses. In 2009, he launched his lifestyle brand ISAACMIZRAHILIVE! sold exclusively on QVC. In 2011, he sold his trademark to Xcel Brands.
Among his many credits, he hosted The Isaac Mizrahi Show for seven years; he wrote two books; in 2016, he had an exhibition of his designs at the Jewish Museum in New York. Currently, he sells on QVC and Lord & Taylor, and served as a judge on Project Runway: All-Stars.
When asked what he’d like his legacy to be, he referred to his Judaism. “My name is Isaac, which means laughter in Hebrew,” says Mizrahi, who considers himself a cultural Jew. “I think, most importantly, I want my legacy to be about humor.”
Nevertheless, he added that he’s “obsessed with obituaries” and the first thing he does when he reads the New York Times is look at the obituary page.
“I have dreams about my obituary,” he admits. “Although the New York Times probably already has it written (as they do for famous people) and revises it as time goes on, I hope I can live longer to add more things. I want people to know I had integrity, and what my life really stood for.”
Isaac Mizrahi will speak at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10, at Hadassah’s annual fundraising meeting at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield. Speaker-only tickets are still available at $50. A private reception with Mizrahi is at 11 a.m.; tickets are $230 including his speech. The deadline to register for the luncheon has passed. More than 30 boutiques are open free starting at 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. (with a pause for the speaker), with 15 percent of proceeds going to Hadassah. For tickets, call (248) 683-5030 or register online at Hadassah.org/detroitevents.