Isaac Mizrahi
by Karen Alberg Grossman
There are few designers in the fashion world with the personality, integrity and talent of Isaac Mizrahi. His candor, humor and lack of pretense are refreshing traits in a name designer, showman and television celebrity. At a UJA Pride event on Tuesday night at The Jewish Museum, Mizrahi spoke about his fashion, his career, his mother, and coming to terms with his identity as a gay, Jewish man growing up in an Orthodox community. What follows are brief excerpts from the Q&A session Mizrahi held with the audience at this memorable exhibition. (And the clothes were amazing too!)

Q: Can you talk a bit about growing up in an Orthodox community?

A: Yes, I’m actually working on a memoir about this. Back then, you’d never hear the words Orthodox and gay in the same sentence. I’d never have believed it possible for me to have a fashion exhibit here at the Jewish Museum during Pride month.

Q: Why did you choose this venue to showcase your designs?

A: Because they asked me, and no one else did. I’m not even sure that fashion should be shown in a museum.

Q: How/when were you outed?

A: I was never outed. I told people I was gay. I underlined it!

Q: Is your fashion inspiration more gay or more Jewish?

A: I think the integration of being Jewish and gay is more to the point. I’ve never been to Israel I’m sorry to say, but growing up in an Orthodox suburb of NYC definitely influenced me. To the women in my neighborhood, clothes were more important than food; fashion more important than worship. And they all had this style: short short skirts, big hair, cleavage. My mother was the textbook example of how to get a gay son; she was all about fashion and I learned so much from her.

But to answer your question: I suppose I’m an artist first, gay second, and Jewish third. I believe it was the conflict in my past that brought out the creativity. Also, much of what influences me is New York City and its skepticism.

Q: So your designs result from your conflicted past?

A: Not exactly. I don’t like “victim art,” which is art that’s in response to tragedy. I like art when it’s good.

Q: Your women’s fashion is beautiful; why no menswear?

A: I considered doing men’s for this exhibit but changed my mind. I love menswear, not gimmicky contrived clothing but styles rooted in the classics. The main problem is that I haven’t had the right partner. If only I could find someone to make it properly, price it correctly and deliver it on time…

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Q: Your name is so Israeli: did you ever consider changing it?

A: No, why would I?

Q: What person, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

A: Winston Churchill. (Sounds like a good answer, right?)

Q: Which designer do you most admire?

A: Geoffrey Beene. All the right people wore his clothes, including my mother. It’s been downhill from there.

Q: Do you consider your collaboration with Target trailblazing?

A: It was great, and led the way for numerous high-low collaborations. Suddenly socialites were shopping discount stores, proving that there’s luxury to well-conceived product, regardless of price and that expensive does not necessarily mean good. (I hate expensive clothes that are not beautiful: not only are they bad. but they’re expensive!)

Q: Why all the focus on transgender these days?

A: I think transgender is part of the evolution and will ultimately be assimilated. But for the record, I don’t like surgery: most people look way older when they have work done. And I believe that if you want to be a woman, you can be a woman without surgery.

Q: What’s your take on reality TV?

A: I love it! I watch a lot of it, mostly because I have a sleep disorder. Especially QVC. For the longest time, I never watched Project Runway and when I finally did, I was surprised that it was such a good show.

Q: What else do you love doing?

A: I love reading obituaries. There are so many wonderful stories in the obituary section. Okay. once in a while you read about a boring accountant, but most of it is fascinating.

What I don’t love reading is fashion reviews. Once a reviewer wrote about my collection and referred to a feather dress when it was actually a leather dress. Obviously, that was an editing error, but it just shows how random the process is.

Q: What’s do you consider the most important trait in a person?

A: To me, it’s humor. My husband says such amusing things. So does my mother. Another important trait is kindness. I think we should all go through life performing various acts of kindness as often as possible!

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