essay: fashion, art and entertainment – isaac mizrahi 1.0


After a long break from fashion, Isaac is back and strong for a few years, first with Target and now Liz  Claiborne. That’s the 2.0 version. Let’s revisit my paper written in the late 90’s.



This essay is about how fashion design related to the issues of art in the 90’s. The subject is a Parsons School of Design alumnus Isaac Mizrahi (who inspired me to go studying there). We will look at some facts and his profile, following by his relationship with art, and close by discussing a few samples of his works.


Mr. Mizrahi was born on Oct. 14, 1965 in Brooklyn, New York. His father manufactures children’s wear and his stylish mother, whom he credits as a major inspiration, wore the designs of Balenciaga and Norman Norell. The 8 years that he attended a Yeshiva, often he would be yelled at for drawing fashion sketches in bibles. At 13, he began designing clothes for his mother’s friends. A year later, he entered the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, studying drama while taking night classes at Parsons, where he would enroll as a full-time student in 1979.

A Chester Weinberg Golden Thimble winner and a Claire MacCardell scholar, he started working at Perry Ellis Sportswear in his senior year, staying there for 2 plus years (his “guardian angel” Perry died in 1984) and then switched to Jeffery Banks. From there he moved to Calvin Klein, leaving in June 1987 to form his own business with Sarah Haddad-Cheney.

What began with just a few pieces in Soho would become a solid and rapidly growing business with the level of recognition few designers have achieved. Adding to the women’s collection, the Mizrahi package includes a short-lived menswear line in 1990, accessories in 1992, handbags in 1993, Shoes in Spring ‘94 with the Italian company Pancaldi, Eyewear in September 1995 with California-based EyeOTA. Notable venture IS**C, a lower priced line similar to the situation of DKNY of Donna Karen or cK of Calvin Klein, folded about half a year ago. 



With just 2 collections under his belt, Mizrahi found himself his first honor with the Council of Fashion Designers of American (CFDA) Perry Ellis Award for New Talent; That was an indication of many more to come. Merely a year later, he received the coveted CFDA Designer of the Year Award. In additional, he was named the best designer of the year by the Fashion Footwear Association of New York. Crain’s New York business presented him their 40 under 40 award, for making great strides in business at such a young age. On February 1992, Mizrahi was once again the proud recipient of the CFDA Designer of the Year Award, his 3rd in just over 4 years. It is clearly a remarkable achievement, not to mention his Fashion Industry Foundation Award in 1990, Michelangelo Shoe Award, New York in 1993, and Dallas Fashion Award for Fashion Excellence Award, among many others.

‘A star is born!’ had not been applicable to the Art Forum or any other major art magazines for the same 8-year period. There was no major art movements or any representing artists. The reason? I don’t know. However, I speculated that it would once again happen in the near future with other causes differ from the past. Hirst, anyone?

Fashion is more than just selling products. It is entertainment much like the movies or the rock ‘n roll scene. They are all part-fantasy and they all need stars to shine. And sell. At the end of the day, Mizrahi knows that the engine is money. It was not hard to picture part of art would become some kind of entertainment. The art field was moving in this direction by the end of the 80’s by the Warhols, but turned the corner back to the suffering-enhance-creativity van Gogh’s frame of mind when the economy depression got deep at the beginning of the 90’s. The palladium swinging back, the uplifting economy turned art into mass entertain. Besides, do you agree that all these galleries and museums shows had been a lot more ‘entertaining’?

Fashion really is closely related to the Entertainment industry. In fact, Hollywood has always been a big influence on his design, and it was obvious in his IS**C ad campaign. Even the main entrance of his studio resembled a Hollywood studio door. Moreover, Mizrahi has designed costumes for Twyla Tharp’s ballet Brief Fling, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Mark Morris, and Lisa Minelli. If that isn’t enough, he clarified the link by making his feature film debut in Universal’s Michael J. Fox comedy For Love or Money, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. He played the role of Julian Russel, the world’s leading fashion designers. Next came Unzipped, a documentary by his then boyfriend Douglas Keeve about the creating process of Mizrahi’s fall ’94 collection. It won the 1995 documentaries at Sundance. Prepared for the AIDS benefit, and later distributed by Miramax Films, it was screened internationally at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals. Selected as one of the best films of 1995 by People, Art Forum, and Rolling Stone, Mizrahi and Keeve received a special CFDA award for ‘bringing the fashion world to cinema’.



Mizrahi’s continued support and commitment in the battle against AIDS was recognized nationally when he received the AIDS Action’s 1995 National Leadership Award for Community Service in Washington D.C.

Increasingly, not only do people want to know about his designs, they have a thirst for his personal live. Inside the December issue of W of 1994, they devoted 6 pages to talking about him and his new apartment, but not much about his new collection. The clothes are no longer enough; a true admirer has to read Isaac’s favorite books, listen to his kind of music, and eat at his beloved restaurants. The material fantasy of the 80’s transformed by the decline of the economy to a more imaginary ecstasy. The superficial altitude got under people’s skin. People do not want to just wear fashion. They want to live fashion.

Perhaps sometimes, his personality comes before his works. Most people know who he is, his profession and his images of being a (really) gay Jewish guy who could easily have his own sit-com on NBC, while few of them know his designs. Upsetting? His art works are no longer limited to his creations. He himself may be his best artwork! What I mean is that his natural charm contributed to his overnight stardom. The definition of ‘talent’ is getting more ambitious in the creative fields in the 90’s, and talent is not the only ingredient of success. Examples are found in the film industry; I am sure you can name a few celebrated actors and actresses who can’t really act.




Rooted from Claire McCardell, Mizrahi’s clothes are young and inventive in unexpected colors and fabrics. They are comfortable and easy with a pared-down glamour that attracts the sophisticated ladies, yet with a sense of adventure in dressing and an appreciation of quality. The freshness of his concepts, his ability to recalculate a classic, his practicality of wardrobe separates, and his leaps between day and evening address all women equally.

It is of little use to look at a sportswear fashion designer’s works in pieces, for the main axiom of American ‘sportswear’ is defined by the separates in combination, the potential of mixing and matching invented by none other than McCardell herself, the most important designer that still has an influence on today’s designers.

His ‘88 collection was immediately recognized by the New York Times as ‘this year’s hottest designer’ for the unusual combinations of color, such as rust and mustard and orange-peel and pink (pink is his favorite color), the diversity of silhouettes from baby-doll dresses to evening jumpsuits to long dresses. This collection set the tone for his career – his range of a commercial viable design while at the same time showing his simplifying glamour and the cool, nonchalant charm of his smart clothing. My favorite is his ‘89 Tartan Collection (later used for the Tharp production for the American Ballet Theater in 1990). The black and white art deco pattern of Spring ‘90 was inspired by the ‘60’s Ballets Russes. His ‘91 Spring collection brought back the collars and bows in dresses. In my opinion, these were his best years. It was different from what was around. It was fresh. It was a transition period design wise for the following years.

Finally, after his struggle with fashion that was fascinated with heroin chic, he was back and strong in Spring ‘98. His inspiration was the Greek relics and his new physique. ‘Now that I’ve lost so much weight, I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to look thin and elegant’. His Grecian formula turned up in all sort of silhouettes wrapped and tied around the bodice with skinny strips. He went both crisp and languid, wrapping everything from gabardine coats to gentle puckered pieces. Lovely.

In my opinion, his early years were the most successful: his ideas were so fresh and effective with such a young edgy theme going for more mature customers. The sophisticated baby doll dress, his interest in the empire waist, the Claire McCardell-like humor with practicality, his color sense, etc. It seems like he has been corrupted by the fashion system. And it was exemplified by his collections in the mid-90’s: all those Calvin Klein look-alike clothes (while Calvin’s looked like Helmut Lang’s), the blackness of New York, the unfocused efforts, etc. He is usually at his best when he has no concern for the magazine editors and the buyers. Sales usually follow.



Mizrahi is the 1st fashion designer that became a star in the eyes of the public. He took his field and popularized it, similar to what Andy Warhol did. For that, he can easily be claimed as an important fashion designer in the ‘90s.

I truly believe that every aspects of life are intertwined together. Art are linked and interact with the economy, Psychology, Sociology, etc. this Shapiro view is obvious in my above discussion. With the technology advancement, art and fashion will surly be closely affecting each other more and more.

(Chanel, his chief financial backer, pulled the plug and closed Isaac before the end of the millennium. But as fate would have it, Target would later rescue and facilitated Isaac Mizrahi 2.0)

One thought on “essay: fashion, art and entertainment – isaac mizrahi 1.0

  1. I really enjoyed your essay. I love reading your blog (when I can). Each and every time I pull something from it. I enjoy knowledgeable and inspiring blogs. The (angry) fashion blog is awesome. Very different. I love it. Awesome essay. If I were a teacher I would give you an A!

Leave a Reply