‘Unbuttoned’: A candid conversation with fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi

Isaac Mizrahi

Writer and musician Wesley Stace (left) in conversation with fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi (right) at FDU's Florham Campus. (Photos by Dan Landau)

By Kenna Caprio

Following the WAMFest 2015 finale, Isaac Mizrahi let students, faculty, staff and visitors in on important secrets: “If you get a facelift, everyone can tell” and “Love the pictures of yourself as you are now.” Also: “Wool is god.”

The fashion designer, entrepreneur and entertainer joined Wesley Stace, singer/songwriter and novelist, on stage for a conversation that was equal parts candid, witty and enlightening. The two discussed fashion, social media and creativity in an hour-long chat, injected with Mizrahi’s signature sass and life truths.

Conversation highlights:

Brooklyn, N.Y. roots

“I made puppets. That’s how I learned to sew by hand,” said Mizrahi, who spent his childhood surrounded by clothes and sewing machines with a fashionable mother and father who worked in the garment industry.

While working on his memoir, Mizrahi said, he recalled the moment his father bought him a sewing machine, and what it really meant. The 1920s machine is going to last longer, his father said, so that’s what they bought. Thinking of it now, fondly, he said: “It was a moment — with all the misunderstanding — he loved me.”

By age 15, Mizrahi, with assistance from a family friend, launched his first line: IS New York.

An artistic education

“The arts are the best thing for young people to study,” said Mizrahi, “because they teach you more than what you’re just looking at. The campus is a bigger place than you think.”

A graduate of Parsons School of Design in New York City, Mizrahi had previously attended the High School for Performing Arts and considered a career in acting.

“At Parsons, there was no ‘fringe,’ just society,” he said. “We learned all the (fashion) essentials” — sketching, pattern-making, draping, constructing, knitting, tailoring and more. Much of which, he lamented, is now taught digitally.

Ultimately, Mizrahi opted for a career in fashion design over acting, running his own label and then a historical partnership with Target stores. He’s also made costumes for operas. These days the Mizrahi brand is on QVC, he’s been a judge on the design competition, “Project Runway All Stars,” and he has his own production company.

Isaac Mizrahi crowd

Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi (right) speaks candidly before a crowd of students, faculty, staff and parents at the Florham Campus.

The creative process

“I like sketching, when a color or gesture hits me,” said Mizrahi, known for his work with and attraction to color. He told the audience how he used to follow people down the street in New York City, if they were wearing something that caught his attention.

Having his first line, showing his designs, “it was amazing. And very anticlimactic,” he said.

Famed film director Alfred Hitchcock reportedly “got bored after storyboarding because it was all better in his head,” Mizrahi shared that vignette and voiced his agreement.

“What’s really exciting is envisioning it and getting it out,” added Stace.

High fashion fetish

“The most important thing is beauty,” he said. “Not style or artifice. Vanity is not that beautiful to me.” He misses how fashion once indicated a certain type of lifestyle. “Style used to have context, now people are just stylish for social media, just for a picture. Where’s the excitement?” Discussing fashion shows and the element of surprise, Mizrahi said he feels something is lost when designers overuse social media to do big reveals and previews ahead of time.

He also voiced concern over the way the fashion industry treats models and beauty, especially for women. “The fashion photography moral standard is repulsive,” he said. So leaving the couture industry for the next phase of his career, focused on promoting everyday, wearable clothes, “made a lot of sense instead of staying and being bitter.”

On his terms

“Don’t enter the fashion industry if you don’t absolutely adore it — it’s so, so hard — because it’s heartbreaking,” Mizrahi said.

Though critics often praised his designs, he decided a long time ago not to take critiques too much to heart. “I take criticism poorly, but it’s never affected me unless it was good.” He talked about receiving critiques that weren’t proofread and that confused leather and feather. Criticism from customers, however, he said is “a good thing.” Designers need to know if the button falls off, he added.

Eventually, Mizrahi reached a point in his career where he just “couldn’t listen to people anymore” and had to become his own boss.

Now, “I don’t do things I don’t want to do anymore.”

Mizrahi, a leader in the international fashion industry for more than 30 years, is the recipient of many accolades including four Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) awards. He has designed dresses worn by some of the most distinguished women in the world including Audrey Hepburn, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and First Lady Michelle Obama. His classic designs have been seen on the red carpet and are a favorite among celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep.

Stace is a critically-acclaimed singer/songwriter and novelist. He has released 15 music albums, ranging in style from folk to pop, most under the stage name John Wesley Harding. He has also published three novels under the name of Wesley Stace.