Isaac Mizrahi

A premier American designer, Isaac Mizrahi (born 1961) established womenswear and menswear businesses noted for their uncluttered, witty designs before he was 30 years old.

Isaac Mizrahi was born in Brooklyn, New York, October 14, 1961, the youngest child and only son of Zeke and Sarah Mizrahi. He grew up in Ocean Parkway, New Jersey, in the tightknit Syrian Jewish community. Zeke Mizrahi worked in the garment industry, first as a pattern cutter on Wooster Street and later as a childrenswear manufacturer. Isaac's mother was instrumental in exposing him to fashion at an early age. A devoted fashion lover, Sarah Mizrahi exposed young Isaac to the genius of designers Balenciagas, Chanel, and Norman Norell. He would often accompany his mother on shopping trips to Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman. She would also take Isaac to the ballet and to movies.

When Isaac was eight, his family moved to the middle-class Midwood section of Brooklyn. He contracted spinal meningitis during this time and his confinement was spent eating junk food and viewing television, especially old movies. The 1961 remake of Back Street, about an affair between a fashion designer and a married man, was a pivotal event in Mizrahi's development. The glamour of the fashion industry depicted in the movie became an inspiration to him to design clothes. When Isaac was 10 years old, Zeke Mizrahi bought a sewing machine for him. Isaac set up a workroom in the basement and created clothes for puppets for neighborhood birthday parties. At 13, Isaac was designing clothes for himself, his mother, and a close friend of his mother, Sarah Haddad.

Mizrahi was expelled several times from the strict Ye-shiva school he attended for impersonating rabbis and scribbling fashion sketches in his Bible. At six years old, the school required him to begin psychotherapy or they would not let him return. One Yeshiva teacher encouraged him to audition for Manhattan's High School of the Performing Arts—the school used as a basis in the movie and television series Fame. He was accepted and took diction, speech, singing, dance, and academic classes. He had a small role in Fame and wore a costume of his own design. At 15, while attending the Performing Arts High School, Mizrahi produced clothing under his first label, IS New York. His financial mentor for IS New York was Sarah Haddad.

When Sarah Haddad's husband fell ill, IS New York closed. Mizrahi continued to sketch his ideas. Zeke Mizrahi showed the sketches to a childrenswear designer, Ellie Fishman, who suggested that Isaac should attend the Parson's School of Design.

After graduating from the Yeshiva in 1979 he enrolled in Parsons full time. By his junior year at Parsons Mizrahi was an outstanding student. His junior collection, a final project, was videotaped by the school to show to future classes. Mizrahi got a job at Perry Ellis for the summer following his junior year. Perry Ellis was Mizrahi's first industry mentor, the man he called "my guardian angel." He continued to work for Ellis part-time during his senior year and was hired after his graduation. In 1983 Ellis fell ill from AIDS. During this time Isaac's father died. After working at Perry Ellis for two years after graduation, Mizrahi left the company and joined Jeffrey Banks to help spearhead a new womenswear collection.

He remained at Jeffrey Banks for a short time due to the withdrawal of financial backing by the parent company. Mizrahi then joined Calvin Klein, but remained there for less than a year because of personnel changes. During his short time at Calvin Klein he created one of the company's most interesting collections, highlighted by streamlined red suits.

After leaving Calvin Klein, in June 1987 he and Sarah Haddad-Cheney pooled $50,000 each and opened Mizrahi's own womenswear company. They occupied a loft on Greene Street in SoHo. Seven stores bought the first season's collection. By the first collection show in April 1988 Haddad-Cheney had secured additional financing from the owners of Gitano Jeans company. In 1990 the company's workrooms and showroom moved to an expanded space on Wooster Street. Mizrahi's menswear collection premiered in April 1990.

In 1995, Douglas Keeve directed a 79-minute documentary entitled Unzipped in which home movie clips of Mizrahi's childhood are pieced together with excerpts of his influences (including Mary Tyler Moore and the 1922 documentary Nanook of the North) which won the Audience Award at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival and was praised for being "funny, succinct and modestly instructive about a fairly recondite business," Martha Duffy commented in her article for Time. The film presented a thorough portrayal of Mizrahi, the man—so fearful of rejection he hovers near depression. Viewers even see a few temper tantrums. His hard work and success, however, surge him out of dejection and one appreciates Mizrahi, the artist—a designer with a flamboyant personality. Audiences also learn a good deal about the fashion world from drawing board to catwalk. Besides the praise Keeve garnered for his documentary, viewers previously unfamiliar with Isaac Mizrahi learned that he doesn't take his success for granted, maintaining both a sense of humor and perspective. Audiences saw real-life footage of Mizrahi as a hyperactive baby, sketching fur pants while in bed, teasing supermodel Naomi Campbell about her navel ring, and crying when he reads about Jean-Paul Gaultier beating Mizrahi to the runway with a fashion first.

Unzipped seemed to be the extra spark in Mizrahi's fire. Although his company had been earning $10 million a year, a 1995 Newsweek article noted that he had yet to turn a profit. After Mizrahi made his debut on the silver screen, his popularity and recognition became even more prominent. When Mizrahi launched a new collection in February 1996 in New York, he also broadcast it live via satellite to locations outside the state. His new "Isaac" label featured two pink stars instead of A's, declaring, "Our motto is, Inside every woman is a star."' He's been tapped as star material himself, being called the Calvin Klein of Generation X.

The year 1997 proved to be a milestone in Mizrahi's career. He announced an unprecedented deal with three major Asian markets in Japan, Singapore, and Korea which included freestanding stores, in-store shops, wholesale distribution, manufacturing, and sublicenses in Japan and shops and distribution in Southeast Asia, an online ABC source reported. The deal was estimated to generate at least $150 million in retail sales by the year 2000.

In 1989, after two collections, Mizrahi received his first award, the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Perry Ellis Award for new fashion talent. In 1990 Mizrahi received the coveted CFDA Designer of the Year Award. He was also named best designer of 1990 by the Fashion Footwear Association of New York, and Crain's New York Business included him in their annual "40 Under 40" award for great strides in business at a young age.

Mizrahi stated that his inspiration came from "food and fun" and "motion and movies." "Le Miz," "Le Wiz," or "The Miz," as he was nicknamed, was compared with such design greats as Claire McCardell, Geoffrey Beene, Halston, and Norman Norell. His creations have been referred to as "classics, with a twist," "a blend of ease and elegance," and "simple shapes, clear colors and unlabored touches of wit"—all hallmarks of American style.

Further Reading on Isaac Mizrahi

Several periodicals of the early 1990s feature Mizrahi and his designs: "A Conversation With My Alter Ego," Harper's Bazaar (March 1993); "Mizrahi Unzipped," Newsweek (July 24, 1995); "Life Along the Catwalk," Time (August 14, 1995); "Mizrahi Loves Company," Entertainment Weekly (March 8, 1996); "Movement—That's What Design Is All About," ELLE Magazine (June 1990); "The Great Hip Hope," Michael Gross, New York Magazine (October 1, 1990); "The New Smash Hit: Le Miz," Gentlemen's Quarterly (August 1990); "Nobody Beats The Miz," Vogue Magazine (February 1989); and "Shooting Stars, Isaac Mizrahi," Sarah Mower, British Vogue Magazine (September 1989). Online sources include "Media savvy Mizrahi beams himself up to launch line," http://www.detnews.com/menu/stories/34751.htm; "Mizrahi's Asian Coup," http://www.wwd.com/samples/today/Thursday/014.html; "'Unzipped' follows fall & rise of designer Mizrahi," http://www.cis.yale.edu/ydn/paper/9.23/9.23.95storyno.DB; "Unzipped," http://www.panix.com/~bfrazer/flicker/unzipped.html; and "Unzipped," http://www.mogul.co.nz/reviews/unzipped/unzipped.html. For a book on fashion facts see Lynn Schnurnberger, Let There Be Clothes (1991).

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