In Conversation with Isaac Mizrahi

Isaac Mizrahi
Photo by Jason Frank Rothenberg

Though Isaac Mizrahi is best known for fashion, he has also directed and narrated a children’s production of Peter and the Wolf at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; directed and designed The Magic Flute and A Little Night Music for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis; and won an Audience Award at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival with director Douglas Keeve for Unzipped, a documentary about the making of his fall 1994 collection. He appears as a judge on the television series Project Runway: All Stars and is currently at work on another series and memoir.

Here, Mizrahi talks about his Jewish heritage and family story.

Q. How did a nice Sephardic boy from Brooklyn get to where you are?

A. The world I grew up in was filled with dichotomies and contradictions, things that didn’t add up or make sense. I went to Yeshivah of Flatbush; I attended a synagogue I think was Orthodox. It was this crazy Orthodoxy but then the women wore really short skirts and really high heels and really big hair and were not modest at all. The men were as sexy and crazy as the women. I have two older sisters I love dearly. They became very Orthodox and it continues to drive a wedge between us because they are not permitted to accept certain things about my life. I definitely respect who they are. But I feel shut out. I’m trying to write about it now without rancor in my memoir.

My mom just turned 88. She was a big influence in my life. She tried her best to sit comfortably on the edge of all the dichotomies. The synagogue was very misogynistic. Women were not allowed to educate themselves or do anything except marry well. I could never understand that, and she was my role model in questioning all that. She questioned it. She is college-educated, which was very innovative for her time, and she worked for a bit before she got married.

Q. Is there any Sephardic influence in your work?

A. I think so. I don’t like to treat women like that. Being born Syrian and Jewish raises the issue of what happens to women. It’s good to be a Jewish woman but not so much a Sephardic woman. The High Holidays were about dressing your daughter up to show her off to the richest guy. What you were wearing was more important than anything else. It was kind of disgusting to me—and yet the clothes were so good. It became the idea of empowering through clothes and a good shoe.

Q. How does Judaism inform your identity?

A. Judaism really informs who I am in a deeply felt skepticism and a deeply felt commitment to literature and art. The idea of constant questioning and raising standards is very Jewish. I feel deeply Jewish but I don’t think about being Jewish as much as I think about being an artist, being gay, being a married man, being a good cook, being a good father to my dogs, Harry and Dean—and then I’m a Jew. I had such a bad formative experience with the actual religion and its teachings. I was so mistreated and misunderstood in that yeshiva, and it was so unfair and wrong. I don’t want it to sound vengeful because I have a great life, but when I left it, I really left it behind. I didn’t look back. When I grew up you couldn’t be Jewish and gay. There was no way to reconcile those two things.

Q. What are some courageous decisions you’ve made?

A. The most courageous was to go to performing arts high school, and it wasn’t even my decision. It needed to happen. It was all brought about because my teacher, Sheila Kanowitz, saw that I was in the wrong place. She convinced my parents to let it happen and she prepared me for the drama audition. It was life-altering and courageous in retrospect. I was supposed to go to Yeshivah of Flatbush High School and drop out and go into my father’s business like all the other Syrian boys. It was culture shock but also the best four years of my life.

Closing my company in 1998 took a lot out of me. The company wasn’t making money and the options to keep it open weren’t to my liking. I felt I had other things to do. I wasn’t turning my back on fashion but on a kind of business that I thought was antique.

Q. What are the rewarding aspects of your career?

A. I’ve affected people’s lives. One woman told me her mother survived cancer because she watched my show on QVC and it made her laugh. A lot of young gay people have told me how much Unzipped influenced them; other people tell me that they got married in a dress from my Target wedding collection.

A lot of people are influenced by my QVC show. If you tell women they are beautiful they start to believe you. That’s the message. It’s not false. I’ve given up that whole fashion thing about being skinny and rich and in furs. I don’t think that’s sexy. I think that’s wrong. And I’ve made a stand against it without abandoning hair and legs and shoes, which are delightful. It’s a balanced political perspective.

Q. Your talents cross many forms of the arts. Is anything difficult for you?

A. It’s all difficult, but it’s all part of me. What’s really difficult is living with the consequences of doing a lot of things. One of my two best friends is Mark Morris. He does one thing, and he does it better than anyone on earth. I feel like a poor little wretch next to his mastery. So what’s difficult is the regret of what I don’t do. But if I regretted it that much I would do it. That’s how I am.

Q. Is anything left on your bucket list?

A. I’m forming a new company, Isaac Mizrahi Entertainment. We have several new projects that are about to launch. And writing is a big thing in my life. Of all the things I’ve ever done, writing is the purest. I’ve been reading voraciously since I was a kid and I’ve written so much, mostly unpublished. The idea of forming a sentence, forming a paragraph, a story, an essay, or an opinion—to me that feels like the most heroic of jobs.

Q. What do you read?

A. I love Shakespeare. I study with a tutor once a month and we discuss the plays.

Q. Can you describe your personality in three words?

A. Funny, surprising and cynical.

Published in Hadassah magazine.