In the Aftermath of a New Memoir, Isaac Mizrahi Reflects on Guilt, Glamour and Instagram
For a born-and-bred New Yorker, fashion designer and pop culture personality Isaac Mizrahi seems to find himself pulled to St. Louis with unusual regularity. “I literally love it,” he says. “The first place I ever traveled to in my entire life was St. Louis. As a tiny kid I won a poster-making contest, and the prize was being flown to St. Louis to accept the award.”
Since that inaugural experience, Mizrahi has returned to the heartland to collaborate with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis on designs for Steven Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” And now the city has called him back once more, to deliver a keynote speech at the upcoming St. Louis Jewish Book Festival on Sunday, Nov. 3.
For the uninitiated, Mizrahi’s polymathic St. Louis trips are a fitting introduction to the man. Creative from a young age, Mizrahi quickly distinguished himself—for better or worse—in his orthodox Jewish community as someone with unmistakable artistic talent. In the years since (he debuted his first fashion collection at age 15), it has only become clearer that no singular pursuit could contain all Mizrahi’s fervor for creation. His resumé jumps from fashion labels to opera production design to his latest venture, the one that landed him at the book festival: a deeply personal retracing of the many chapters in his life and illustrious career, entitled “I.M.: A Memoir.”
We caught up with Mizrahi ahead of his return to St. Louis to discuss glamour, Instagram and how a gnawing sense of guilt became a guiding force in his personal relationship with the fashion industry.
ALIVE: With a career like yours, you must have had enough stories to fill multiple books. Why did this particular moment feel like the right time to write this memoir?
All my life I’ve thought of myself as a writer. And I’ve written articles and scripts and things like that, but as far as a long-form book (which is kind of my dream—I’d like to do a novel eventually), it’s been this thing I’ve been thinking and thinking about. Then I had this lunch with a really good friend who happens to be a book agent, and he convinced me to pitch a memoir.
And the thing was, when I then got the deal to do it, I thought it was such a great opportunity because it would give me the experience of writing something long-form. I thought, “Oh, I’m going to write this as if I’m writing some crazy novel—but of course, it’s the actual story of my life.” And then in the process of writing it, it changed my life so much—just because of the scrutiny and the memories. It was a big undertaking. It took me five years at least.
ALIVE: What was that process like, as someone who has been storytelling in different ways throughout your career through designs?
I have this theory about how all creative things kind of add to all other creative things. The more you do, the more you learn—they’re not exactly direct lessons, but of course creating collections is storytelling. Or working on a movie—that sort of informs you about storytelling. Or writing. So the process of this was very immediate, because it was a story that I knew the beginning, middle and, well, not exactly “end,” but the end of the book.
So it wasn’t a struggle in that way where you stare at an empty page and wonder what you can write that will be interesting. But it was a struggle in so many other ways—tempering, and rewriting, and rethinking, and eliminating any anger or rancor to do with certain subjects and certain stories—to do that, and yet to tell the 100 percent truth about my mother and my upbringing and what it was like for me being part of this basically Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn.
It’s funny—I had dinner last night with this old friend of mine who I haven’t seen in years, and he read the book and said that he couldn’t imagine two more different childhoods if he tried—our childhoods were so different, but in fact, a lot of the details really resonated with him. He was amazed by the feelings and by how much we shared.
ALIVE: It seems that a lot of your work, whether it’s an accessible collection for Target or a guidebook about style, has been centered around helping people find and define their visual viewpoint, rather than you imposing your viewpoint on them. Why is that important to you?
I have to say—in my youth, it was not important to me. I was mostly concerned with thin models and beautiful, crazy-expensive clothes and creating an oeuvre, creating a world. And then, roughly midway through it, I started feeling really guilty—about the exclusivity. In my brain, it still feels like a weird thing to be doing with my life.
I started feeling worse and worse about it, especially when I’d consider that so much of the fashion industry—so much of selling clothes—is built on this kind of snobbery. And I was reckoning with having been overweight myself when I was a kid, and feeling like the “fat kid” my whole life. [I started to feel that] I was helping to proliferate these bad things.
When the whole waif-model thing happened, the “heroin chic” thing, it suddenly became so ugly to me. I just couldn’t get a hold on it. I started slipping back into thinking that it wasn’t so good. So at that point I just felt like, “You know what? You can do better. You can do better in terms of what you’re saying here.”
Of course, I love fashion. I love clothes. I love the idea of being vain enough to actually think so much about clothing—I don’t mind that, I don’t think that’s the wrong thing. But what I don’t like is this thing about excluding everybody from the subject. Because to me, the most stylish people are the ones with the least amount of money. That’s my truth. And that’s what led me to my disdain for exclusivity and snobbery: The belief that money is less important to the subject of style than creativity and ingenuity.
ALIVE: Having been in the industry for a long time and having had a front-row seat to its ups and downs, how have you seen the industry transform over the course of your career?
People will talk about how the business has changed, but to me, the most significant change is the advent of social media—and how that changes the whole way people think about clothing.
Design [now] is less important than styling—juxtaposing one thing next to another—because the picture it makes is more socially amusing than looking at a really really good design. In order to look at a good design, you have to get very close to it and look at the inside of it as well as the outside of it, and social media doesn’t allow for that kind of scrutiny. It’s really a flat image of something—something that’s really funny or amusing or just not boring, which I think is a great part of it. To me, that’s the big change—that the look is changing because of the way we look at it, and how much we rely on social media.
I kind of mourn the loss of what we’ve been doing [in fashion] for all these thousands of years, but I also think that what we’re getting into now is very interesting and will lead to something really great. I think that—even if there are casualties!— whatever we do now, or tomorrow, is much better than today and yesterday. You know how you hear old people going, “When I was a kid, blah blah”? I don’t say that. I always say, “I can’t wait to see what will happen tomorrow.” And by that I mean, I want to influence it a little. I want to be influenced by it. That’s what it’s like to be an artist in the world: being able to see something and respond and be influenced yourself.
Isaac Mizrahi opens the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival with a keynote speech on “I.M.: A Memoir” on Sunday, Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. Check out the festival’s website for a full schedule of events running Nov. 3-15.
Featured image courtesy of Gregg Richards.