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Review: 'I stuck out like a chubby gay thumb': Isaac Mizrahi on his childhood, and his escape


"I.M.: A Memoir," by Isaac Mizrahi

I.M.: A Memoir. By Isaac Mizrahi. Flatiron. 384 pages. $28.99.

In the final scene of “Unzipped,” a documentary that chronicles the launch of designer Isaac Mizrahi’s 1994 fall collection, its subject rises at dawn and heads to a corner newsstand in Manhattan to read reviews of his show. Sporting a cap to tamp down his thick black morning hair (and mask his identity), Mizrahi scans a particularly laudatory newspaper column.

Looking into the camera, clearly awed by the praise, he says, “They gave it to me.” It’s a vulnerable scene in a film that largely presents a stylized version of Mizrahi and his inner circle. Between the celebrity cameos and clips of the designer’s favorite old films, we come away with some essentials about Mizrahi: He is self-doubting, frenetically creative, something of a depressive and drawn to powerful women.

Much has happened in the 25 years since “Unzipped”: Mizrahi has seen his collections both praised and panned; designed for opera, dance and film; performed cabaret; featured his brand at Target; gotten married; and become a fixture on the shopping channel QVC.

Now Mizrahi, 57, has a new memoir, “I.M.” Here, in warm, witty and conversational prose, the designer shares the trials of growing up in a Syrian-Jewish community in Midwood, Brooklyn, and shows us how he forged his way out to become a widely known name in the world of fashion.

Mizrahi begins in his tight-knit childhood neighborhood, a place where reverence for traditional gender norms and ostentatious wealth, combined with what Mizrahi describes as a hypocritical dedication to the appearance of religiosity, made life difficult for him.

“I stuck out like a chubby gay thumb,” he says. Mizrahi describes his mother, Sarah, erudite and a devotee of high fashion. With feathers and fur trim, she transformed “cheater” knockoffs into “important” pieces. She served as a tacit foil to his father, the owner of a children’s wear business, whose more provincial, sometimes callous views often frightened Mizrahi.

Mizrahi’s parents and two older sisters were driven by a desire to outmatch their more wealthy neighbors in everything from synagogue clothing and home furnishings to young Isaac’s post-bar-mitzvah spread.

That Mizrahi dedicates the book to his mother, now in her 90s, is fitting. She looms large as a mentor and confidante. When Mizrahi, at age 6, asked for a Barbie doll, his mother acquiesced, fighting off her hesitation and tossing the toy into her cart at the local variety store.

Mizrahi credits his mother with somewhat passively approving a more worldly view of humanity than the one held by his relatives and neighbors. “She was my cheerleader, filling me with her confidence if I lacked my own,” he writes, even if “she felt too bound by the tradition of her upbringing to give me the consistent acknowledgment I needed.”

Mizrahi negotiates his repressive, lonely childhood, punctuated with insults and mockery from rabbis and schoolmates alike, by hiding in a self-made bedazzled world. In Yeshivah of Flatbush, he disco-dances to the beat of daily prayers and defaces religious books with sketches of shoes and hairstyles in the margins. Once home, he sneaks dollars from his father’s wallet and spends the money on treasures he unearths from the discount bin at the local trimmings store. Mizrahi then uses the scraps to construct his own puppets, decking them in glittery finery. He even builds them a stage in the family’s garage.

“My commitment to the puppet theater was obsessional,” Mizrahi recalls. “At that point I was choosing between creativity and the dark side of the gift, serious depression.” It’s a pattern, he says, that ultimately repeats itself throughout his life. “Unless I’m making something, unless I’m working, I’m fighting off fear and some form of sadness.”

Mizrahi’s life changes drastically when he’s allowed to take the subway every day into Manhattan to attend the High School of Performing Arts. He begins to come to terms with his depression, his anxiety about being gay and his tortured battle with his weight. At the school, surrounded by similarly creative cohorts, a borough away from his family and steps from nightclubs such as Studio 54 and the Mudd Club, Mizrahi finds true friends, fun and a foothold for his talent. Later, he attends college at the Parsons School of Design and works at his first summer internship, with designer Perry Ellis.

From there “I.M.” moves rather quickly through Mizrahi’s rise in the late ‘80s as a maverick Soho-based designer, recounting the many retailers, stylists and fashion journalists he meets along the way. Mizrahi drops a lot of names, especially of the stars he dresses and for whom he designs clothes: his childhood idols Liza Minelli, Barbra Streisand and Audrey Hepburn, Diane Sawyer, Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton and Elizabeth Taylor, to name a few.

While not as deeply resonating as the earlier parts of the book, he does share some trenchant memories of friendships he has had across his career. Mizrahi recalls at length his bond with Minelli, an early champion of his work and a frequent purchaser of pieces from his line at Bergdorf Goodman. Whether he was fitting the fidgety, ever high-kicking Minelli with his garments or accompanying her to downtown bars and clubs, Mizrahi observes that Minelli “was always surrounded by people who didn’t seem to have her best interest at heart.”

He also opens up about his 30-year relationship with Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, who visited his atelier early on to express interest in his designs. Over time, Wintour’s “opinion began to matter in my life as much as in my work,” he writes. “She was the most important presence at my shows. ... When Anna sat, the show started.”

The two had frequent dinners together at her apartment and attended awards shows and charity events arm in arm. The friendship foundered about six years ago, Mizrahi says, recalling a typical moment he was agonizing backstage before the runway launch of one of his collections. Wintour hadn’t yet arrived: “After about twenty minutes it was obvious she wasn’t coming and we filled the seat. It was a blow. I took it as a sign that my years as a couturier were waning.”

That passage, like many others in “I.M.,” is heart-rending, showing us how vulnerability and self-doubt mingle with the glam and glitterati of the fashion world. Even in the face of a standing ovation, Mizrahi is circumspect: “I was never one to acknowledge joy in the present.”

Fashionistas lured to Mizrahi’s memoir hoping it reveals juicy background on the industry may be disappointed by its lack of dish. Yet “I.M.” more than makes up for that with its honest rendering of how the underdog Mizrahi, whose self-image and livelihood are alternately crushed and affirmed, moves through the many creative phases of his life.

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Reviewer Karen Iris Tucker is a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes primarily about health, genetics and cultural politics.

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