So What Do You Do, Isaac Mizrahi, The Fashion Show Host/Liz Claiborne Creative Director?

The consummate Seventh Avenue showman describes his new reality show and the joys of blogging

Isaac Mizrahi is a man of many talents: he’s headlined his own one-man off-Broadway show, makes a mean roast chicken, wrote a series of comic books (Sandee the Supermodel), designed costumes for Broadway (The Women, for which he won a Drama Desk Award) and the New York Metropolitan Opera (Orfeo ed Euridice) and just happens to design two of the most talked-about women’s collections of the year. The man who helped make Target the capital of high-low chic, is currently having a moment. His eponymous line shown during New York’s Fashion Week garnered rave reviews, his first collection for Liz Claiborne has just hit stores, and everyone from Michelle Obama to savvy and newly price-conscious socialites are stepping out in his sunny, cinema-inspired looks.

Mizrahi’s personal story is just as compelling as one of those “fabulous” black and white films starring Joan Crawford or Carole Lombard that he can (and will) recite line by line. Born in Brooklyn, he spent much of his childhood staging puppet shows in his backyard and designing clothes for his mother’s friends. He went on to study at The High School of Performing Arts and Parsons School of Design before launching his own business in 1987. Mizrahi became a pop cultural phenomenon — and a household name — when he made the 1995 documentary Unzipped, which offered a hilarious and unvarnished look at his life behind the seams in fashion. While his own star continued to rise, his company faltered, and in 1998 backer Chanel shuttered his business.

But Mizrahi came back in a big way in 2003 with his trailblazing line for Target and the launch of a number of licensed brands. Now newly installed as the creative director for Liz Claiborne, Mizrahi is determined to revive the brand that was a staple of the working woman’s wardrobe in the 1980s with his signature mix of bold brights, whimsical accessories, sunny prints and public relations savvy. He’s off to a good start: Just last month, it was announced that Seventh Avenue’s renaissance man would be helming a new reality show on Bravo called — what else? — The Fashion Show. As host and “head judge,” Mizrahi’s presiding over a team of aspiring fashionistas looking for their big break. The show is scheduled to premiere May 7.

Name: Isaac Mizrahi

Position: Creative director, Liz Claiborne, and host of The Fashion Show on Bravo

Resume: Designer, television personality and first-time author (How to Have Style, Gotham Books 2008). Joined Liz Claiborne as creative director last year after a successful six-year run with Target. Winner of four CFDA awards, including a special award in 1996 for Unzipped. Hosted two television series — for Oxygen and the Style Network.

Birthdate: October 14, 1961

Hometown: Brooklyn, New York

Education: Parson’s School of Design

First section of the Sunday Times: “The obituaries. It feeds the morbid side of me that wants to know about people who just died. It also feeds my obsession with my own death. But the first thing I read every morning is the horoscope in the New York Post.”

Favorite TV show: “I love Ugly Betty, The Ghost Whisper and Ace of Cakes on the Food Network and Top Chef.”

Guilty pleasure: “Eating. My addiction is food. I love to cook.”

Last book read: I read a lot of different things at one time. I just read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time and Secret Ingredients, which is a compilation of all the great food writers of The New Yorker. It’s really, really good. There’s this thing in there on casseroles that I loved.”

You’re one very busy man who just got busier. How did the new show come about?

I was talking to Andy Cohen [Bravo’s senior vice president of production and programming], who I think is the most charming, fabulous person on Earth, and we were talking about one project and he came back and said, ‘What about this?’ I had even more enthusiasm for this idea than the one we had been talking about. A few weeks later, he came back with an offer and here we are. I can’t refuse him anything. Actually, that’s the best part of this relationship — I do adore the Bravo people so much. They’re so smart — smarter than the average network executive.

They certainly are committed to marketing their shows in a big way.

Yes! They’re really taking over — this [fashion reality show] genre belongs to them.

When did this all happen?

Recently — in December. And to all you deal-makers out there: Unless something happens quickly, it’s not going to happen. Unless it takes 10 years. Things either take two months or 10 years.

What can you tell me about your role on the show?

I’m the host and kind of like the head judge. The first day of work was the day after my collection [premiered], and I was so exhausted. It was a day of blocking and I was like, I am not going to make it through these five weeks. I don’t sleep well usually, but I ended up going home after that first day and slept for like 20 hours or something scary like that, and I found myself in the most divine position. I felt like, ‘Oh my God, this is the most fun, engrossing job in the world because when you take away all your preconceived notions about it and get that this is a bunch of struggling young designers who are really trying to prove themselves, the drama of that, at least to me, is irresistible. After almost every elimination, I feel like sobbing. It’s very, very sad for me.

I don’t know how they are going to edit it. They may edit it where I’m telling [the contestants] all the bitchiest, meanest things, but I do think they need to hear that. They do need to rise above the whole personal thing and play it like a game, but it’s tricky. At the same time you’re encouraging them to make it the end-all, be-all of their lives — like, ‘Unless this is completely attached to your ego, don’t bother.’ This is totally personal and not personal at all. Do you know what I mean?

When Unzipped came out, people stopped me in the street and said, ‘That was such a lesson about tenacity and not listening to anyone and just doing what you want and I was so inspired…’ Artists, lay people — all kinds of people were stopping me on the street. I think this is going to inspire people. The message to me, so far, is you have to completely attach yourself and completely detach yourself at the same time. On top of that, you need to enjoy your life. Do something out of a place of joy and fun, otherwise don’t bother. This is what we keep coming back to on the show.

“[Michelle Obama]’s kind of like the Carrie Bradshaw of the next 10 years.”

You’re hardly someone that sits home doing nothing to begin with. How are you fitting this into your already jam-packed schedule?

(Laughs) Honestly, I don’t know. I have 10 days of work and one day off. So there’s one day of the week which is quite calm — or really every third day I get a half day of shooting, so I take care of a lot of business on those days. I have a day off every 10 days and a lot of it gets done then. And, I work at night because I don’t really sleep that much.

How many hours a night do you need?

Four. I don’t need a lot. Then, occasionally, I’ll sleep for like 20 hours.

It seems as if Bravo’s plan is to have your show fill the void left by Project Runway. What do you think?

I’m sure strategically that’s part of what the network is thinking. Also, it’s thinking, ‘Hello, we created this genre and somewhere along the line, they took it away from us.’ Of course, I don’t know what critics will think, and I don’t know if Project Runway is totally a beloved thing, but I don’t really see it at all as competing with that show. It’s just a fashion competition show. There should be more than one. There are so many food competition shows on every channel — not just the Food Network. I think it’s just a really entertaining form of reality television.

One big advantage working with Bravo is that you’ve got NBC Universal behind you. Are there promotions or cross-overs with the network planned? I noticed you did the Oscar fashion post-mortem on Today.

Probably. I’ve worked for the Today show a lot. I used to do segments for them.

I know you’ve done some red carpet reporting. The infamous Scarlett Johansson boob grab comes to mind…

That was for E!, actually. (Laughs) Can you refer to it as the ‘underwire grab?’ — because I so was not grabbing her boob. It was more like the ‘underwire feel.’

Speaking of the red carpet, I thought the fashion at this year’s Oscars was bad. And those few women who did look fabulous ditched the red carpet and went in the back door. Bad news for fashion all around. I thought it was dreadful.

Honestly, so did I. There was no color and nothing daring. Nobody took any risks. It’s getting worse and worse that way.

“I do feel at this age — I’m 47 now — I can walk into a room and say to a television executive, ‘I think this is a really good idea.'”

I know you’re a huge television fan. What were your favorite shows growing up?

There were so many. I’m really a television person. Because of the insomnia, I never shut it off. It was always like my best friend. At some point, my parents thought that maybe it was the TV that was keeping me up, so they tried to get rid of it. I threw such a fit, they couldn’t do that. Honestly, it ended with this really bad scene with my mother throwing the TV set on the floor. (Laughs) It was not pretty at all, but I ended up getting my way.

I loved reruns of I Love Lucy. It’s such a typical, trite answer, but I love watching it. It’s not on TV Land anymore — I think it’s on the Hallmark Channel. I happened to see it the other day — it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen an episode, I was screaming. It’s the funniest damn thing on television.

I grew up watching talk shows — I loved Merv Griffin, I loved Mike Douglas, I loved Johnny Carson. I was an addict for those. It seemed like people actually talked. When I did my talk shows on Oxygen and Style [Network], I tried to actually talk — I really didn’t just want to promote movies. I wanted to talk about people’s thoughts, and I didn’t want it to be so pre-produced. If I go back to talk television, I’ll do something like that. Just come on because you feel like talking about something.

You’ve always seemed to gravitate toward television in a big way. You’ve been on Oprah and every talk show imaginable, you’ve had your own shows and appeared on Sex & The City and Ugly Betty. You’ve even been on Jeopardy. Why are you so drawn to the medium?

It is true that I gravitate towards it. It’s part of who I am because I’m a ham. I like talking. I like to express myself in many, many ways. I like a lot of things. I don’t just like designing clothes. I’m very inspired by all different forms of expression. I read a ton. It’s not enough just to design clothes. I don’t know what I’ll ever be remember as — if I’ll be remembered. I don’t know what I’ll be remembered for — Unzipped or my clothes or my cabaret act. I have to say a major part of the joy of my life is not knowing that and not looking over my shoulder and wondering why I’m not doing more of one thing and less of another thing.

If people think of it as me reinventing myself, I’m glad. If that’s a good lesson for people, it’s good, but more than anything it’s about me not feeling bored. It’s me being engaged in the moment. I don’t mean to be arrogant about stuff. I used to sew a lot as a kid. When I look at a sample and the pattern maker says, ‘I can’t do any better’ I say, ‘Well, you’re fired because I can do better.’ When I go to a restaurant, I think, ‘This is a roasted chicken? You’ve got to be kidding me!’ There are some things you become really good at, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend the rest of your life roasting chickens. You know what I mean? I do feel at this age — I’m 47 now — I can walk into a room and say to a television executive, ‘I think this is a really good idea.’

“Of all the things I do,

is probably my favorite because it’s more personal. It’s what I do instead of a talk show now.”

Unzipped is arguably the high-water mark for depicting what really goes on in fashion in a very accurate and entertaining way. Fashion is such fodder for movies and television — how do you think the industries have affected each other? Is there any downside to it at all?

I don’t think there’s a downside. I think it’s a paradigm that is continually shifting. The more we portray fashion as something that’s over the top, the more we’re going to sell over the top clothes. There’s the Shakespearean other to side to that coin too, which is the more over the top things there are in the world, more of the opposite of that exists as well. I think the more you shine the light on fashion in the form of entertainment, the better it is for our industry. Unzipped was probably my most important life’s work, unfortunately. No matter what I do as a designer, it will never be as potent as what I did with Unzipped because it made fashion work in that format.

You’re also opening yourself up in much of the same way on your Web site and seem really into that. How much time do you spend on that?

Every single day there’s a new reason to log on. Either it’s a three-minute segment or a new video blog or some bit that’s new. We spend three long, full days a month taping. Then I tape my video blog two or three times a week. We also take pictures with my video blog camera, and I put stuff up almost every single day. Of all the things I do, it’s probably my favorite because it’s more personal. It’s really like a scrap book. It’s what I do instead of a talk show now.

Now with the added commitment of the show, will you be scaling back your involvement with that?

No. We have shoot dates planned for April. With daily blogging, I’m trying to do what I can in my dressing room. It’s fun. It’s too delicious to give up. (Laughs)

There’s probably no bigger fashion star right now than Michelle Obama. What do you think she’s going to do for American fashion?

I think she’s going to be an unbelievable ambassador for fashion. I love her — especially because she loves clothes. She has such a young take on the whole thing. Young, yet proprietary. She’s kind of like the Carrie Bradshaw of the next 10 years.

You were one of the first proponents of ‘high-low’ style. These days everyone is having to consider what that means. How do you think that phenomenon is going to affect the fashion industry long-term?

Even more than the economy, I think the Obama family is going to affect it. [Michelle Obama] is the perfect example of high-low because she values the J.Crew sweater as much as she does some ensemble by Isabel Toledo. I just think that speaks volumes about the direction everyone has been going in for a number of years.

The acceptance of design at different levels is remarkable now. To me, the greatest luxury is the right thought or the right idea. That could cost very little — the right thinking at the right time. So more and more, as people get conscious of budget, I don’t think ‘fast fashion’ will be as trendy. I think actual design will be valued.

[Michelle Obama’s] choices, for the most part, haven’t been at all mainstream.

That’s true. It’s for the love of something. It’s not because she sat with a million stylists and they said, ‘You should do this or that.’ It’s like someone actually had some passionate feeling for something. And, it’s very politically correct that she wore Isabel Toledo [for the inauguration].

Do you think it’s harder to break into the fashion business now than it was 10 year ago?

(Pauses) No. My answer is no, I don’t. It was so hard breaking into the fashion industry 20 years ago. If you ask Calvin Klein how hard it was breaking into the fashion industry 40 years ago or Ralph Lauren how hard it was 50 years ago … it’s always really hard. It doesn’t get any easier. Every generation thinks, ‘Oh my God, it’s never been so terrible,’ but it has.

Speaking of hard times, your costar Fern Mallis told me not too long ago that she thought the coverage in WWD and other publications has focused too heavily on gloom and doom of the economy — there wasn’t enough cheerleading for the fashion industry and all the negativity almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. What do you think?

I don’t know that people are that gullible anymore. I think WWD is right on. I love the idea of telling it like it is. When I was a kid growing up, it was much less about that. It was kind of like propaganda — ‘Oh, no, everything is great!’ and then you’re out of business. I was once having lunch with Joan Collins and she was in a revival of some Noel Coward play. I said to her, ‘How are tickets selling?’ and she said, ‘Lousy!’ I thought, ‘Wow, imagine, you’re in this play, and you are so fabulous and you can say, ‘I’m sorry the ticket sales suck.’ I wish I was in an industry like that, where you could just say, ‘Business isn’t good right now.’ So I’m a champion of telling it like it is.

Your collections and certainly your attitude toward the business in general have always been very optimistic. How significant a part has that played in your career and your desire to keep trying new things?

I’ve trained myself to think a certain way. For me, there’s nothing in life but bravery. There’s nothing in life but looking at the thing you’re most afraid of and doing it. That, to me, is all. You can see it in my clothes. The clothes for Liz [Claiborne] are so optimistic. If you go and just wear black for the rest of your life now because there’s a recession, the circumstances have won. They’ve won out. You have lost the big hard battle. It just like what President Obama was saying: Now is not the time to lose the battle, now is the time to see all the gray areas and try to work within those areas. I want you to think about a pink print. You take one step at a time, one belt at a time, one shoe at a time, and you’ll get there.

Despite having had some bumps in the road, you’ve continued to do try new things and reinvent yourself in some interesting news ways. What’s the secret to your longevity?

I don’t see this as reinvention, I see it as living my life every single day and not being bored to death. I don’t reinvent anything, I just do what I think is right and seems amusing. I only do things I’m excited about.

What the best piece of advice you could offer to someone looking to get into the business?

(Pauses) Don’t listen to anybody. Do exactly what you think is right, and you’ll find your moment and your audience.

What would you consider your greatest success at this juncture?

Probably the Target thing. Having made that ‘masstige’ [prestige for the masses] thing happen.

What about your biggest disappointment?

Wow. (Pauses) My partnership with Chanel.

How would you say you’ve gotten to where you are?

The way I’ve gotten to where I am was not thinking about getting anywhere. I really mean this — I don’t think about where things are going. I think about where I am and how much I am engaged in what I’m doing. That’s one of the early lessons I learned after 10 years in business: If you feel put upon or if you feel like you have to do something you’re never going to be good at, you’re never going to do it well. The lesson I learned is unless everybody is doing exactly as they please, it’s not going to work. I’ve learned that in hiring and working with people that unless they’re doing exactly as they please and what they feel they are good at and feel challenged in doing, then you’re not going to get good work out of them. Get someone who really needs the thing you want them to do.

Do you have a motto?

I don’t have a motto, but I have this thing that I made up about style: Style is knowing when not to have any.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the ‘Lunch‘ column.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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