This month marks the 25th anniversary of Unzipped, the documentary that exposed the fabulous and occasionally fearful designer Isaac Mizrahi to the world. But couture was just the beginning of the Renaissance man’s ever-evolving brand. Mizrahi’s new cabaret show, Isaac Mizrahi: Movie Stars and Supermodels, premieres January 21 at New York City’s legendary Café Carlyle; his recently released memoir, I.M., has become a must-read for the fashion-hungry and celebrity-obsessed; and the collections he’s released through his decade-long, highly successful QVC home-shopping partnership have become go-tos for an array of stylish women who can’t always make it to the big city.
Mizrahi caught up with NewNowNext a few days before he kicked off his Café Carlyle engagement to discuss the music and fashion that inspires him, and if we’ll ever see a trans model on QVC.
Good morning! How are you, Isaac?
I’m really great. I have to say, I like winter a lot, you know. I’m really in a better mood in the winter than I am in the summer—if anybody cares.
I just rewatched Unzipped last night. I can’t believe it’s been 25 years since its release—
I can’t even.
I was struck by your innate sense of theatricality. It’s easy to silo people into this or that—fashion designer, writer, etc.—but your career has had much more breadth. Is there a connecting factor in terms of your creative expression?
I feel like it starts with the idea that you do one thing well. How you see fashion relates greatly to how you see entertainment. There’s nobody that would agree with that more than me, but I think it’s about being a person first. I cook really well. I also, you know, play very good bridge. I’m good at crossword puzzles. I’m very good at a lot of things, but they’re not art. Art is a whole other thing. It’s so funny, somehow the world adores Pharrell when he does clothes—how great it is that he can cross over—but it’s hard for them to grasp a fashion designer making forays into show business, singing and telling jokes.
What has that move been like?
It is a leap. In my case, I’m hoping it’s going to be the meaning of my life in the end. People think those disciplines are so different, but to me they require discipline and development like every other talent. I always lead with my unconscious. I lead with my heart; that’s the difference.
You mention the discipline one needs, not just in fashion but in any art form. Have you found mentors to help with that in the cabaret world?
I’ve been working with the same musical director, Ben Waltzer, for more than 20 years. The minute he walked into the room, he was the man of my dreams. He’s straight (it’s a platonic love), but I really feel I can trust him, and he can trust me. We nurture each other.
When did you get the performance bug?
I’ve been doing clubs dates forever—since high school. That sounds ridiculous, but I’m from New York. You just get yourself into a club, you stand on a stage, and you do it. The first people who gave me a big break were called Drama Dept., this small theater production company downtown attached to this wonderful theater now called the Barrow Street. I owe them so much. Michael Rosenberg and Douglas Carter Beane were the first people who discovered that I could do this on stage and produced a show for me that ran for a year.
Who inspires you, and how does that influence your musical choices?
The funny thing about me and music is that I’m attracted only to what I’m attracted to. I cover things like Cy Coleman, but it’s not American Songbook standards at all. I’ve done Blondie, Chrissie Hynde, the songs that appeal to me. I’ve done Cole Porter. Every season I re-lyricize “You’re the Top,” and it becomes this topical thing.
Given your celebrity interactions over the years, is it tricky to balance fun and whimsy without crossing the line?
Sandra Bernhard is one of my best friends. She is devoted to this idea of talking about people. If you listen to her radio show, it’s great. She says what’s on her mind—it doesn’t matter who she’s talking about. The thing you learn from a person like Sandra—and I learned this from my mom, too, which I think is what makes us such good friends because my mom is a lot like Sandra—is that you know when she says something critical, she doesn’t mean it as shade. Sandra says something critical in love. I’m going to talk about Linda Evangelista in the show at Café Carlyle. I’ve got a story about Hillary Clinton that’s hilarious. But you’re right, it does cut a little bit.
Shifting gears to fashion, you’ve mentored so many designers over the years through Project Runway All Stars. Who’s really sparked your interest recently?
There’s one person that I really like to look at: Christopher John Rogers. He uses a lot of colors and seems to be fearless. There’s a refinement to it. I follow him on Instagram, and I just think his work is kind of wonderful. It’s very spirited. Sometimes it’s too spirited, but that’s fine. I say, “Err on the side of grand.”
I want to say one other thing. The reason I’m mentioning this is because I remember when I was a young designer, there was an older designer—I’m not going to mention any names (he’s dead now)—who actually sent me notes telling me how terrific he thought I was. Then he did an interview on Charlie Rose, and I was watching because he was a mentor and I was obsessed with his work. Charlie Rose asked him, “What young designer do you like?” and he said, “You know, there aren’t any that I can think of.” And I thought, Fuck you. Really? Can’t you say it? So, Christopher John Rogers. There’s an answer.
I’m obsessed with the QVC host you’ve worked with, Shawn Killinger. If I have to hitchhike to Pennsylvania to have coffee with her sometime, I’ll absolutely do it.
She’d be so happy to know that.
You made the jump from couture to ready-to-wear before a lot of other designers did, launching your label IsaacMizrahiLIVE! on QVC. Have you ever thought about how your current collections might resonate with the transgender community?
From my perspective, and I hope this is taken the right way, my dream for everybody is full integration. I don’t do a special collection for plus-size people. I don’t do a special collection for gay people. I just assume we’re all having a smart conversation, and everyone partakes equally. I’m not sure that’s the answer that everyone wants to hear. I want it to be the smartest conversation possible, which means complete and total integration.
I agree, and didn’t mean to imply you do a specific collection marketed to that community, but wouldn’t it be cool if QVC had a transgender model?
It would be an incredible opportunity to have a transgender model at QVC. Now that you’ve suggested it, I should press that a bit. That would be great.
You talk about having a conversation. People need to be invited into the room to have it.
When you’re talking about integration, you’re 100% right. What’s so beautiful about the QVC models is that they’re all sizes and shapes. Can I ask you a question?
Would one point out, “This is a transgender model,” or not say a word and just integrate them? What’s the answer to that?
This is just my opinion—I’m not on a soapbox doing any professional advocacy work—but I think it would be great to have that person there, and if they choose, to allow it to unfold organically. The network doesn’t need to do anything besides open the door and offer the opportunity. It will unfold as it’s meant to. Keep marketing and PR people out of it.
It’s a smart idea. So that you know, I don’t get involved in getting models. If I saw a transgender model come in, I’d be thrilled, and open up my world so much. By the way, when you said, “I’m not into advocacy, I’m not on a soapbox”? Darling, don’t be defensive if you’re on a soapbox or advocating. Please do. We need it. We absolutely need it.
Isaac Mizrahi: Movie Stars and Supermodels runs January 21 through February 8 at New York’s Café Carlyle before heading to other U.S. cities.