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Slave of Fashion

Isaac Mizrahi is the Great Hip Hope.

By Michael Gross
Originally published in the October 1, 1990 issue of New York Magazine

ISAAC MIZRAHI’S EYES ARE WILD WITH WORRY. “Where are the girls?” he calls down a staircase in TriBeCa’s old Mercantile Exchange building. Glancing at his watch, he stares balefully between the banisters at the crowd already arriving for his fall 1990 fashion show.

“I sent a van,” he complains desperately. “Every time I see two girls in black with big hair, I think, They’re coming! They’re here!” He slumps. “I’m going to the bathroom to cry.” At last, the models stream in. “Shall we? Shall we?” Mizrahi nags, clapping like a homeroom proctor.

Forty minutes later, a blast of pop music heralds the fashions on the runway: layered kimono coats, cardigans and shirts, ombre alpaca men’s suits, Creamsicle-color pea coats, high-top moccasins, five-pointed seed-pearl star necklaces, kite-striped skirts, and sling-back gowns that could slay Goliath. Serious clothes are hardly ever this much fun anymore.

It is over in about 30 minutes-a breathtakingly brief parade of 113 outfits for men and women, ending with a scarlet empress in an iridescent gown, portrayed by Melanie Landestoy, Mizrahi’s fit model. She is also, he’ll confide later, “a witch.” You can see why he’d want one nearby as the members of the crowd follow her-scores of them squeezed so close they risk bangle burn-down the backstage stairs, yearning for a moment with Mizrahi. As they approach, he taps a cigarette from a pack. “Now you can take a breather,” says Gene Pressman of Barneys New York. Wrong.

Mizrahi toys with his cigarette as Kal Ruttenstein, the resident fashion seer of Bloomingdale’s, whispers in his ear, ending with an audible “Think about it.”

“My God!” gasps Ellin Saltzman, Ruttenstein’s counterpart at Macy’s. “You did it. It was so … so… Thank you!”

Vogue’s Carlyne Cerf and her many accessories spill into view. “Soo-bleem!” She speaks French. “Soooo-bleem!”

“Woooooooo!” comes a sound from behind her. A fashion storm whips past-Hurricane Carrie Donovan of the New York Times. “Woooooooo! Woooooooo!”

Now Mizrahi is smiling, looking warily confident. “You liked it, huh?” he asks Grace Mirabella, tap-tapping his still-unlit cigarette.

“We loved it, as usual,” says Vogue’s Anna Wintour. Next up is Paul Sinclaire, a Mirabella editor.

“Don’t I get a kiss?” he asks.

* * *

THE ISAAC MIZRAHI LABEL has existed for only three years, but already fashion is having a major moment over the 28-year-old Brooklyn-bred designer. Three months after his fall show, the Council of Fashion Designers of America gave him its ultimate accolade, naming him the best women’s designer of 1989-one year after he had won its rookie-of-the-year award.

Mizrahi is suddenly everywhere-on Sandra Bernhard and Liza Minnelli, at benefits and ballets (he’s designed for Twyla Tharp), in all the best stores, and in every fashion magazine. He’s the clothing trade’s great hip hope, following the flameouts of David Cameron, who went out of business, and Stephen Sprouse, who went out of business twice. For a young designer today, it is an accomplishment merely to survive.

That isn’t to say Mizrahi is making much money. He claims his business had wholesale revenues of $6million last year. This year, with the addition of a small men’s line, he’s projecting $8 million. But that’s volume, not profit.

Indeed, one of Mizrahi’s financial backers, Haim Dabah, whose family runs Gitano, looks pained when discussing his investment. “I didn’t expect it to cost what it’s cost,” he says. But in the depressed fashion world, Mizrahi has hit like methamphetamine. “We already feel good,” Dabah says. “And at the end of the day we’ll make money, so it’s not just being nice.”

All the signs say Dabah is right. “Isaac is light-years ahead of most other young designers,” says Ruttenstein. “He created, developed, and established a style in an amazingly short time.” Ellin Saltzman agrees. “He is leading the pack almost scarily quickly, but he seems able to handle it.”

Mizrahi is often compared to American design greats-individualists all-Claire McCardell, Norman Norell, Halston, and Geoffrey Beene. Fashion historian Caroline Rennolds Milbank says Mizrahi’s “simple and refreshingly casual” styles have “a depth based on a reverence for the best American fashions of the past” yet are “grounded in innovation.” Simply put, Mizrahi reminds people of America’s endangered exuberance.

* * *

THAT MAY BE BECAUSE MIZRAHI REMAINS CLOSE TO the ambitious immigrant culture that spawned him. He, his business partner, and his financial backers all come from a close-knit clan of Syrian Sephardic Jews who settled in Brooklyn and have spent summers together on the Jersey Shore for two generations. This is a family affair, not some fantasy spun out of P.R. ether and the ambitions of fashion editors.

Its business personality, like everything else connected with the label, is a reflection of Mizrahi’s. He is an ingenuous swirl of cotton candy over a core of steely drive. Though the designer dabbled in acting and piano, his course was set toward fashion from birth. His mother was a fashion lover; his father worked in the trade. At thirteen, Isaac started designing clothes for his mother’s friends. By fifteen, he had launched a label and was selling his wares-labeled IS New York-to boutiques.

Mizrahi attended the High School of Performing Arts, and classmates say they knew he’d be a star. He even won a bit part in the movie Fame, auditioning as Touchstone in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. In the film, he wears a clown’s hat and carries a clown head on a stick-both made in his home studio. His own fame was a few years away, but he’d found its persona. Shakespeare’s wise fool is still a touchstone for Mizrahi.

By the end of his junior year at Parsons School of Design, he’d won a part-time job at Perry Ellis. His graduate studies started there and continued at Jeffrey Banks. He got his doctorate in fashion stardom in the mid-eighties as a designer of Calvin Klein’s collection. Within weeks of quitting, Mizrahi launched his own name.

Now Mizrahi is taking careful steps toward his future. His first men’s line, a small one for fall, was shown with his women’s clothes in April. His spring men’s collection was shown alone in August-a few days before his fourth annual “spa” (or winter-vacation) collection for women. Most important, he has moved his offices and his 50 employees into 27,000 square feet on four floors of aloft building on Wooster Street in SoHo.

“All of my life I dreamed of a design house like that of Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, or Yves Saint Laurent,” Mizrahi once wrote to potential investors. That dream is already coming true.

* * *

LATE IN JULY, MIZRAHI’S DAYS WERE SPENT CONDUCTING fittings in a temporary studio on the third floor of his new building. He won’t let a reporter into the first fittings, where outfits are actually created on Melanie Landestoy. “Scissors are thrown,” he explains. “It’s a scary time for me. I’m beastly.” Final fittings-the last quality check-are less stressful. But Mizrahi still has his little outbursts. Serious business is going on. “What is this hood?” he complains tartly to sample hands at a spa fitting. “Who is making these clothes? Let’s just pretend it’s beautifully lined.”

But mostly, these fittings are a combination pep rally, trivia-recall session, and stand-up routine that would probably pass muster at Performing Arts. Mizrahi’s props are clothes, a mirror, a smoke-grabber ashtray, a pack of Camel Lights, and a desktop laugh machine. His chorus consists of a roomful of models, executives, assistants (including one he hired for her resemblance to Edith Sitwell), and sample hands. His self-created co-stars are Thelma Ritter, Phyllis Diller, Greta Garbo, and Liza Minnelli.

Mizrahi is psyching his team up for the show. At his spa fitting, his running commentary never stops. “Oh these are fine, these pants,” he says. “Oh, the very next thing, you’re going to faint, die, pass out, and drain your lizard … I don’t want to take the consequences when I put this on you … Ohhh, Grandma … It’s kind of insane, but that’s what I like about it.” He glances around as a model changes, then breaks out singing, “She’s got legs!” Exit Z. Z. Top. Enter Liza. “Gee! Hey! Wow! Whoa! Hey!”

The references-visual as well as vocal-come fast and furious in Mizrahi’s studio. Pinned on the wall above his desk are a flower with petals made of Barry White’s face, photos of Sandra Bernhard, Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Angela Lansbury, Eartha Kitt, James Dean, and Maria Callas, an invitation to Liza’s Halston memorial, and another to a drag show called Night of 1,000 Wongs.

At a men’s-show fitting, Mizrahi wears an oversize Earth Day T-shirt, baggy black slacks, and black velvet Belgian Shoes without socks. He is holding up one of the desert boots Manolo Blahnik designed for his shows. “These fit so well,” he says. “Even me. Me and Ethel Mertz. Remember? Fred used to make jokes about Ethel’s feet. They went to Grauman’s Chinese, and everyone’s feet were smaller than John Wayne’s except Ethel’s. Look at my feet. Incredibly wide and misshapen. Ballet dancers look at my feet and scream. I could jump over the Empire State Building.”

The desert boots go on a model-briefly. “A little too Chariots of Fire,” Mizrahi decides. He rejects natural-linen shoes, too. “Way disgusting,” he says, then switches to pig Latin. “Navy could be ic-chay.

Whiskey could be good. Oh, wow. Oh, wow.” Enter Anna Christie. “Giff me a viskey, baby, and don’t be stinchy.” A paisley coat goes over a pair of plaid pants. “I love these effortless fabric mixes, don’t you?” Mizrahi asks. The phone rings and he picks it up, his voice high and quacking. “Bill, darling! Hi! It’s Phyllis!”

Another model puts on a pair of tailored chambray overallsa typical Mizrahi twist. “If you’re a hayseed, I’m a Hasid,” he says, hitting his laugh box. Exit Minnie Pearlstein. Mizrahi turns to me. “We are really mortifying in the studio,” he says. “Can’t take us anywhere, I swear.”

Another male model walks in. “What you want me to do?” he asks.

Mizrahi bats his eyes and deadpans, “Take off all your clothes, basically.”

* * *

A FEW NIGHTS BEFORE Mizrahi’s first fashion show in March 1988, there was a wedding reception for one of his cousins at the Pierre Hotel. That Sunday night, Bill Blass was also at the Pierre, preparing for his Monday-morning presentation, when a brassy woman with a helmet of parlor-done hair and assertive glasses stuck her head into the salon where he was working.

“Have you ever heard of my son, Isaac Mizrahi?” the woman demanded.

“No,” Blass said.

“Well,” said Mrs. Mizrahi. “You will.”

A few days later, Blass and the fashion-conscious across America knew that a star had been born. But Isaac Mizrahi’s star had been rising since October 1961, when he was born to descendants of Syrian Jews, who, he says, consider themselves “the aristocrats of the Jewish religion.”

He grew up on Ocean Parkway and then in a big Dutch Colonial house in Brooklyn’s middle-class Midwood section. His mother’s father, nicknamed “the Duke,” was known to give gifts from Tiffany & Company. His father, a onetime pattern-cutter on Wooster Street, became a dapper manufacturer of children’s wear under labels like Big Guy and Little Ruffy Togs. His “toilette in the morning was a huge process,” says his son. “It would take hours.” His mother (who stopped talking to the press after Vogue made her sound “too Jewish,” she says) wore designer clothes.

“It was a regular obsession,” her son recalls. “She would say, `Look inside this Geoffrey Beene dress. This is how Mr. Norell puts a patch pocket on.’ ” Isaac was enchanted. “It’s fetishistic,” he says. “I am maniacal about clothes.” He can still describe the “gold piping and the thousand gold buttons down the back” of a “divine” Yves Saint Laurent dress his mother once wore on a Passover cruise.

The family was schizophrenic about religion. Isaac’s parents encouraged open minds but kept a kosher house and sent him and his sisters. to Yeshiva of Flatbush, a religious school. “I hated temple,” Mizrahi says. “Being bar mitzvahed was a trauma. I love the Bible. The Bible is fiction.”

Already introspective after a childhood bout with spinal meningitis, he became a self-described “recluse” at the age of eight, when his family moved to Midwood. He went to camp one summer but spent his time “hiding in the woods and reading Elie Wiesel,” he says. He did better with girls than with boys. “I don’t threaten them,” he says. He was the adored center of attention of the women at home. His mother was a best friend. “She’d take us to the ballet and the movies, and she gave us any kind of lessons she could think of,” Mizrahi says. “The weirdest, coolest things. She’d take us to the airport for lunch.”

“He comes from a home where education is important,” says Rabbi Abraham Kahana, then the principal at Yeshiva of Flatbush. “His performance was not the same as his ability. He was not a serious-minded student.”

“I would do the most astounding feats” to avoid school, Mizrahi says. “Once, I punctured the tires on a car.” He preferred to watch and sketch his mother and sisters doing their morning hair and makeup. “I was fascinated with the transformation,” he says.

He’s often told stories of being repeatedly suspended from school for doing impressions of the rabbis and drawing fashion sketches in prayer books. Kahana insists Mizrahi exaggerates. “He was a little bit of a clown; so what?” says the rabbi. “I don’t remember suspensions. He went out, took a walk, and came back.” But he recalls no hints of Mizrahi’s talents, either. “I did not see the so-called greatness,” he says.

* * *

IT WAS BETTER FOR MIZRAHI TO KEEP HIS INTERESTS AT home, where they were encouraged. His father bought him a sewing machine, and he started making clothes in a basement studio when he was ten. He dressed puppets for shows he created for neighborhood birthday parties and even built a puppet theater, out of aluminum.

Teenage insomnia brought Mizrahi an epiphany. It happened while he was leafing through a fashion magazine at two in the morning and watching a movie on television, Back Street, in which Susan Hayward plays a designer. “It all of a sudden just crystallized,” he says. By fifteen, “I was really making beautiful clothes. Every morning I would go to my parents’ room, kiss them good-bye, and take money to buy felt and tulle. I thought my father didn’t know, but of course he did.”

He dressed himself, his mother, and one important friend, Sarah Haddad, whose husband worked in the same children’swear office building as Mizrahi’s father. “I felt fat and ugly,” Mizrahi says. “I was 250 pounds, and I had acne and a big Afro, and it was just awful-looking. I brought my sketches to her. She made me feel worthy.” They went shopping for fabric to make her a dress. A friend of hers bought one, too. “Overachiever that I am, we decided to do ready-to-wear,” Mizrahi says.

Sarah Haddad Cheney, today in her early forties, doesn’t look like a mother of six as she sits at her desk in Mizrahi’s sample room wearing a coral linen blouse and a short-very short-tan skirt. She heard about Isaac from a niece his age who said he designed his own clothes. “I was amazed at his sophistication,” she says, “his extraordinary taste level.” The peach silk dress and chiffon scarf he made her was a hit.

But still, Mizrahi was unhappy. “Longing was one of my biggest creative impulses,” he says. “It compels you.” He longed for fabulousness. Improbably, a Yeshiva teacher helped him on his way. “She was a regular scene from To Sir With Love,” Mizrahi says. He’d always been a little performer, with his puppet shows, classroom routines, and the impressions he did at the Sephardic community’s summer club in Deal, New Jersey. The teacher “got it in her head that I was going to audition for Performing Arts High School,” he says.

His mother agreed and predicted that he’d be happy and thin there. And sure enough, a year later, after a semester at Performing Arts and a winter on the Scarsdale diet, fifteen-year-old Isaac had lost 75 pounds. “It was a cultural environment that I felt very at home in,” he says. “It was a very big adjustment, but by my sophomore year I was really swinging. Yeshiva of Flatbush was repressed. Fifteen girls were pregnant at Performing Arts, there were drug addicts, there were drag queens my age. It was just fabulous. I felt so much less fucked up. I had become sort of, like, accepted, and I had found my whole personality.”

At Performing Arts, Mizrahi took speech, scene, diction, singing, dance, and academic classes. After school, he and Haddad produced the IS New York line with fabrics bought through her husband’s company and made in a factory he found them in Ossining. “We did decently for what it was-two kids schlepping clothes around, shipping, invoicing, billing,” Haddad Cheney says. “Talk about practical experience.”

At night, they sometimes danced in discos like Studio 54, where lack Dushey, another Brooklyn neighbor, was a partner. Even after Haddad’s husband fell ill and IS New York fell by the wayside, Mizrahi kept his hand in fashion, doing free-lance sketch work or just hanging around his father’s office. Eventually, Mizrahi’s father showed his son’s sketches to a children’sfashion designer in the next showroom, named Ellie Fishman. She suggested Isaac take classes at Parsons.

His switch back to fashion didn’t surprise his friends. “He was resisting the obvious, dabbling in theater,” says one, screenwriter Ted Lambert. Lambert had brought in Mizrahi’s first star commission when a friend of his, Diane Lane, got a role in the film A Little Romance. She had nothing to wear to dinner with her co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier, so Lambert financed a Mizrahi dress. They held fittings in a dressing room at Alexander’s.

Mizrahi says he was wild in high school, but Lame’ bert thinks he was restrained. “It was a very decadei’t time. Isaac didn’t do drugs. That made him an outsider.” But still, he was a star among his schoolmates. “Obviously, they sensed something,” Lambert says.

* * *

BY HIS JUNIOR YEAR AT PARSONS, Misrahi was noticed, both for his classwork and for his arguments with the faculty, and designer critics like Donna Karan. “He was the kind of argumentative person you enjoy,” says Frank Rizzo, now-chairman of the Parsons fashion-design department.

He was light-years ahead of most of “the other students, already sketching while they were searching magazines to borrow ideas. His junior collection, a final project, was so memorable that the school videotaped it to show to future classes. Mizrahi spoke over a Mahler score about oversize sketches he’d rolled in on casters. “That’s the way he did things,” says a teacher, Marie Essex. “Everything was always larger than life That certainly didn’t hinder him at Parsons.”

That summer, he got a job if Perry Ellis. “Perry really got into Isaac,” says Rizzo. “He understood him. They were flip about clothes. You know. ‘Oh, ‘miss, you’d look dreadful in that.'” During senior year, he worked at Ellis part-time but still found time to win a critic’s award at his class show.

Mizrahi was not named designer of the year for his class, however. That honor went to his best friend, Peter Speliopoulos, now at Carolyne Roehm. “Isaac was-I don’t know if headstrong is the right word,” Speliopoulos says. “He was quite determined. He had an edge on everyone.”

Even then, he knew he wanted to be a Designer-like Ellis, whose grand, spare-no-expense operating style inspired him as much as movies and magazines. “His design room was divine,” says Mizrahi. “It was long and had the most beautiful casement windows, very tall ceilings, like a bank, and the showroom! That marble and that wood! Everything was just flooding-peonies, pink swatches, and sketches all over the place.”

Though he still went home for Friday dinners, Mizrahi moved into a studio apartment-cum-sample room on West End Avenue. He quickly decided his boss, who called him “Yves-aac,” was brilliant, and no wonder: Ellis let Mizrahi help design whole groups in his collections.

“A lot of people do this work for glamour,” says led Krascella, one of Ellis’s two top assistants. “Isaac really slaves. He likes the work, the process. He was so much fun. The mood helped him be what he is and never put lids on anything. Bring on the dog act. Bring on the twins.”

But then, in 1983, Ellis’s partner, Laughlin Barker, fell ill, Ellis followed, and no one was talking about why. Instead, doors were closing. “Nobody could know,” says Krascella, who was one of the very small group told that Ellis had AIDS. Krascella watched, helpless, as Mizrahi flailed. Mizrahi had felt chosen at Ellis. “Then, suddenly, there was a big change,” he says. “There were certain design meetings I wasn’t invited to.”

Mizrahi moved to Jeffrey Banks, who was then starting a women’s collection. “For someone so young, he was wise beyond his years,” says Banks. “He was interested in a lot of things besides fashion. I had the sense I could send him anywhere. He could handle it.” At Ellis, he’d styled photo shoots. At Banks, he went on fabric-buying and factory trips until the designer’s backer pulled the plug. “It hurt me to tell him,” Banks says. “I wanted him to stay in the worst way.”

Sarah Haddad Cheney had remarried, but she stayed in touch with Mizrahi and tried to find backers for him when he left Ellis. “A lot of my friends are in the business,” she says. “They offered him free-lance work. I said, `No, no, you don’t get it.'”

Meanwhile, Mizrahi took a job with Calvin Klein. “Klein was the quintessential American designer,” says George Malkemus, a friend of both designers, who owns Manolo Blahnik’s American operation. “He stood for everything Isaac wanted-not the clothes but the whole thing of Calvin Klein. Isaac was enamored with the mystique.” Zack Carr, Klein’s key assistant for almost a decade, had just left to start his own line. Mizrahi cast himself in the role of replacement. “I wanted a role in his life,” he says. “I was thinking I would somehow become very important to him.” And for a time he did. He sketched, traveled, and did fittings. He met buyers and magazine editors.

Banks, an ex-assistant at Klein, had warned Mizrahi that he’d be the fair-haired boy-for a while. “For a few months it was the charmed life I said it would be,” says Banks. “But that changed, as I warned him it would.” New faces appeared. Grace Coddington, a Vogue editor, arrived as design director. “I decided I would be leaving, not because she was awful but because she was so great,” Mizrahi says.

He called Haddad Cheney. At a party, she talked to Haim Dabah, who was married to her first husband’s cousin and had known Mizrahi for years. Serious meetings were held, but nothing solidified. Dabah feared they would need his time. “It was hard to tell him, `We only want your money,’ ” Haddad Cheney says. “He got cold feet.”

So, for the next six months, Mizrahi worked with Coddington and designed one of Calvin Klein’s most interesting collections. “Red suits, totally streamlined, a big Charles Jamesesque evening gown, and a lace suit that was magnificent,” Mizrahi says. “We did that lace dress with the push-up bra.” But he was not entirely happy, and the last straw was a canceled trip. “Honey, I’m sorry,” Mizrahi says Coddington told him, “but you’re not coming to Europe this season.”

* * *

MIZRAHI CALLED HADDAD CHENEY. “IT’S TIME,” he said. They went to see Dabah again. He told them they’d be better off without his money-they had to prove they could run a business. Mizrahi’s father-who’d died when Mizrahi was at Jeffrey Banks-had left him a $50,000 trust fund. Haddad Cheney matched it. A SoHo landlord gave Mizrahi a break on a lease to a walk-up loft on Greene Street. “I was terrified,” he says. The first collection was made with stock upholstery velvet and common jerseys. “It wasn’t that fabulous,” Mizrahi says.

It was enough. Kal Ruttenstein was among the first people he called. “Isaac, don’t spend money, don’t send a car, don’t send flowers; I’ll get down there,” he said. “Stay little,” he added when he arrived. Ruttenstein was worried: “I’d watched Sprouse and Cameron go out of business. I was crazed he would become an editor’s delight. I kept giving my speeches. I said, `You need the backbone, the jackets and the pants.’ I was wrong.”

Mizrahi knew what he wanted-and it was a grand design. He wanted his house, but on his own terms. “I didn’t want it to be like anything I’d been involved with,” he says. “That much I knew.” So no overspending. No closed doors. No tortured assistants. No star trips. No nine-figure deals. “I will never be that rich,” he vows. “It’s corrupting. Rich people-they all steal. They get obsessed, and it’s dangerous. I want to be famous because I’m a brilliant designer, not because I have a big business.”

He stayed small. Haddad Cheney made deliveries in her Jaguar. They both sold the line. Spring was shipped to just seven stores. He prepared his letter to potential backers. “I am not looking for just a financier,” it said. The quality of the production wasn’t very good because he was giving small orders to factories. Mizrahi’s mother called to tell him what he already knew. “I don’t have to hear this from you!” he screamed.

“Then suddenly I was having a show even if I had to spit on a plate and polish the runway with my own hands,” he says. He had help. Nina Santisi, a Glamour editor who’d worked at Perry Ellis, volunteered nights and weekends, doing the press list and seating. Greg Mills, who’d retired from the garment business after working for Ellis and Stephen Sprouse, was on the phone to Mizrahi every day. Models who’d met him at Calvin Klein gave their time. “Some of them still won’t take money,” Mizrahi says. “They just want clothes.”

In the midst of all this, lawyers were hammering out a deal for backing. Haddad Cheney had already kicked in more money, and her second husband, a jewelry-and-antiques retailer, had given the business a loan. Finally, she went to lack Dushey, who was the executor of her first husband’s estate. “I told him it wouldn’t take that much money,” she says, laughing. He wanted to spread the risk. Dabah reappeared. While they negotiated, the pair set up a $500,000 line of credit as a gesture of faith.

Then came Mizrahi’s first show, in April 1988. “He was able to explode, finally,” Haddad Cheney says. Mizrahi calls the day “the most emotionally wrenching experience I can remember.” The Greene Street loft was gloomy. The first models came out in neutral-colored outfits. Then Linda Evangelista burst into view in an orange coat, and the audience, led by Elizabeth Saltzman, a young Vogue editor in on her first find, started screaming. “It was like opening a dam,” Saltzman says. “I gushed. I no longer had to be dressed in black.”

She wasn’t the only one who felt she’d seen something special. In its post-pouf stage, American fashion was lacking color, punch, originality, and excitement. Mizrahi’s designs had it all. “I thought my heart would leap from my chest,” says Jeffrey Banks. Haim Dabah said to himself, “I’m not crazy.” The show induced Greg Mills out of retirement. Ellie Fishman, who was invited along with Mizrahi’s Parsons teachers, cried afterward with Sarah Mizrahi. “I don’t believe what I just saw,” Mizrahi’s mother said, hands up to the heavens, tears streaming down her face.

Mizrahi got fat again for a while (“I was so freaked out I needed padding”), but since then he hasn’t faltered. The day after that first show, he praised the designers who had influenced him-Beene, Norell, and Claire McCardell-as he explained how he struggled to be himself. “Fashion is a beast,” he said. “I’ve seen that. If I wasn’t prepared, if it wasn’t all thought out, I wouldn’t be here.” Now looking back, Mizrahi admits he was scared. “It was annihilation anxiety,” he says. “When am I going to find out I have cancer?” But the deal was closed with Dabah and Dushey. Mizrahi kept clear control of his company’s shares and expanded onto several floors on Greene Street. And each successive collection hit like a thunderbolt.

How did Isaac Mizrahi get so far so fast? It took more than talent. His Herms diary, with lists of tasks methodically crossed off, attests to his compulsive organization. “He doesn’t miss a trick,” says Nina Santisi, now a Mizrahi vice-president. “He’s thinking about five things at once.” One of those things is what women want. “He can become the woman he’s designing for,” says George Malkemus. “He’s connected with both sides of his sexuality.”

But don’t call him confused. “He’s got his head screwed on straight,” says Peter Speliopoulos. “He has an incredible mother who has handled his success well, a partner he can trust, and he’s surrounded by devoted young people, which is so rare.” Also rare, particularly in fashion these days, is his sense of humor. “That’s more powerful than beauty,” says Jed Krascella. “There is nothing more seductive than humor.”

But sometimes humor fails him, and the issue of how his line sells right here in New York is a major irritant. Though Mizrahi does well in some high-fashion stores, he doesn’t in others. “It may look great, but it doesn’t perform,” one retail executive says. Another agrees, “It’s difficult. But every season it’s becoming more commercial.” Even his friend Ruttenstein admits Mizrahi has a way to go. “It’s been a big-city phenomenon,” he says. “It didn’t sell well consistently until last year. We’re starting to put it in more stores now.”

The other thing that makes Mizrahi mad is the question of influence. When he started, he gave credit freely. Nowadays, he pauses before saying who he admires. A big reason he changed was a critique in Details magazine by its fashion critic, Bill Cunningham, with photographs illustrating similarities between new Mizrahis and old Geoffrey Beene designs. Cunningham did his homework. The photos speak volumes. But Mizrahi claims coincidence, and eighteen months later, his frustration still bubbles over when the subject is raised. He dismisses Cunningham as “unbelievably unfair and arbitrary,” then reels off a list of critics’ favorites who are equally open to charges of being overly influenced. Catching himself, he asks me not to print their names. He’s not looking for a fight.

To his credit, he still invites Cunningham to his shows and placed Details editors in front-row seats the season after the critique. “I’m just smart, that’s all,” Mizrahi says. “It’s a dream to be a powerful designer. That much I calculate.”

* * *

0N THE SURFACE, MIZRAHI IS ALL CONFIDENCE. When he finished his men’s fittings, he came out of his studio to leap on Haddad Cheney’s desk and do a victory dance. But it’s clear that behind the ingenuous facade, Mizrahi is also smart enough to worry that a run of fortune like his can’t be sustained forever. He works most weekends, lives alone in Chelsea, and doesn’t have a lover. On the rare occasions when he gets to the rented house he shares with friends in Bridgehampton, all he does is sleep.

“I’m very perfect-oriented,” he admits. “You don’t want to know that part of me. Shakespearean fools are all tortured individuals. I am. You don’t come to beautiful simplicity without a great agony of body and spirit. I don’t like saying that because it sounds so f —ing precious. But certain collections, if you catch me after the show, watching the video, I’m biting my nails, screaming, thinking, It’s over, I’m dead, I hate this.”

You could see that screaming Isaac behind his eyes in the last minutes before his last spa show at SoHo’s Pace Gallery in August. While his employees set up chairs (seventeen for Vogue, six for the Times, seven for Bergdorf Goodman), lights, and music, he prepared the clothes, dressing the models for photographers who’d come early and supervising the hair and makeup process, just as he did when he was twelve. As the hours wore on, he sang and joked and vogued. But just before show time, he started fidgeting, pacing, and chain-smoking, eyes darting and fingers snapping, both hands at a time. Mizrahi peered out from backstage.

Would this be the time fashion’s blithe spirits turned nasty? He swallowed two Advil and then sat down for a second with model Anna Bayle.

“Someone told me it’s winter in Argentina,” he said wistfully when she asked if he would be taking a summer vacation. “I’d like to go there. I was supposed to go to Rome. I don’t want to go to Rome. I was supposed to go to the Maldives, but I can’t right now. I’m sorry. I just can’t.”

©1990 Michael Gross