At 59 years old, Isaac Mizrahi has lived many lives — each of them, at their core, a combination of humor, personality and, of course, fashion.
Now a household name, the once-burgeoning designer established himself as a force in the fashion world with his 1988 runway debut, an explosion of color that cemented him as a man to watch — named “hottest new designer” by the New York Times.
He has dressed supermodels in couture, Broadway actors in elaborate costumes, and everyday women in his affordable clothing lines with Target and QVC. He’s sat as a judge on seven seasons of “Project Runway: All Stars,” written comic books, a memoir, and hosted a talk show.
He sings, acts and directs, and dabbles in comedy — all in the pursuit of his purpose, he said, which is to create, perform and inspire.
But nearly six decades later, it can still come with a heavy dose of imposter syndrome.
“I don’t know what it is, but you always feel like you’re gonna be found out as a fraud or something,” Mizrahi said during a recent telephone interview. “That is so real. And you know what? If it’s not real, you’re probably not a very good artist. I mean it. If you’re that sure, no. Every single person I know has some form of stage fright.”
Mizrahi, who splits his time between Bridgehampton and New York City, tends to feel it less on the Bay Street Theater stage in Sag Harbor, where he’ll return with his six-piece band, led by Ben Waltzer, for a concert on Saturday, October 9.
A screening of the documentary “Unzipped” — which gives a behind-the-scenes look at Mizrahi building his Fall 1994 collection — will follow the next day, including a talkback about the award-winning film that he co-created.
“I did not set out to be remembered for a fashion documentary, I really didn’t,” he said. “That’s always been a source of irony to me. I so thought, when I was a kid, that I would be in show business.”
That dream began around age 10 when, after babysitting for the entire summer, the young boy saved up enough money to buy a sewing machine. But it wasn’t to make clothes. He wanted to make puppets — the stars of a theater that he built in the garage of his house.
And if the door was up, it was showtime.
“If three or four people amassed, I would just do a puppet show. All sorts of people from the neighborhood would check in with me to see if the garage door was open. It was a thing,” Mizrahi said. “I loved it. It was a form of escape for me.”
Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s, much of his childhood felt insular, he said, rife with dichotomies and contradictions. The second-generation American — whose grandparents had immigrated from Syria — began his education at an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva, where he was bullied for his weight and effeminate nature. Simultaneously, the family attended a Sephardic synagogue, where women visited the temple wearing short skirts, high heels, and loads of makeup.
Even still, Mizrahi found himself on the outskirts of his community — all because he was gay.
“So I would just go into that garage and create this world. That’s the way I look at it. It was a wonderful thing for me,” he said. “It was either that or, really, depression. I was a very depressed kid otherwise.”
His life changed after persuading his parents to allow him to attend New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, all the while considering what he would like to do for a living. He found himself drawn to different fabrics and materials, and the women who wore them — the language they speak when put together, and the stories they tell.
In particular, Mizrahi would watch his mother, who was obsessed with clothes, dress his two older sisters to the nines, in an attempt to attract appropriate suitors for them.
“You really feel for these young women and they’re really just around so they can marry well — and it’s so awful,” he said. “And yet, there’s a thrill to all these really great clothes. That’s the upside. It’s very, very deep and layered and f—-d up in this way.
“That’s what drew me to the subject. It’s a social experiment, what clothes mean socially,” he continued. “And also, by the way, it’s a great imaginative pursuit — how a sleeve goes in, how a hem gets finished. Eventually, it just became a part of my life, and a very inspired, fun part of my life.”
While many of his friends studied theater after high school, Mizrahi attended Parsons School of Design, describing fashion as a “rigorous form of applied art.” After cutting his teeth at Perry Ellis, Mizrahi showed his own designs for the first time at age 26, catapulting him into fashion fame. Seven years later, “Unzipped” elevated the designer to celebrity status.
But revisiting the circa-1995 documentary often feels like a “catch 22,” Mizrahi said.
“To some extent, what’s a little irritating is people think that it’s probably the most important thing in my entire life — and it might be,” he said. “When my obit is written, that might be what it’s all about, because it has become a very, very important documentary about a certain time in the ’90s, and a certain part of New York City, with a certain population of supermodels.”
The film centers on the production, and mayhem, surrounding Mizrahi’s Fall 1994 collection and fashion show, which features icons like Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Kate Moss, as well as seminal figures in the fashion industry. The deadline pressure and anxious moments in the documentary intermix with levity and freedom — offering a real snapshot of the era.
“The one thing that I love about ‘Unzipped’ is people tell me all the time, ‘Oh you know, when I first realized I was gay, I saw that movie and it really helped,’ or, ‘I was an artist and I didn’t know what to do, and I watched “Unzipped” and you were so strong and it really inspired me,’” Mizrahi said. “I hear that a lot and, to me, that’s the great part of that. That’s the real reward of it. You hope that you can inspire something in somebody.”
If Mizrahi had it his way, he would be remembered for his place in show business, he said, his first love that he revisits every time he steps on stage — this time without the puppets. Instead, his cabaret show, which he often performs at the Café Carlyle in New York, includes his favorite songs by musicians like Billie Holiday, Barbra Streisand, Cole Porter and Madonna, which is not a far cry from the impersonations he would do as a young boy for anyone who would listen, he said.
“Crowds would draw and it was a source of mortification for the family — like, ‘Oh no, is he really doing that?’” he recalled. “You’re talking about in the 1970s and there was no way to justify this little boy doing Streisand and Shirley Bassey in the middle of the beach club, right? There was no way to justify that. So it was always this source of shame.
“I guess I kind of transferred that,” he said, “and maybe that’s part of the stage fright.”
Combatting his nerves, Mizrahi intersperses the classic songs with his musings on everyday life, from the culturally relevant to the taboo, all with the “cult of personality, the cult of humor” at their core.
“This applies to everything — to my approach to clothes and my approach to how I perform on stage,” he said, adding, “I’ve always thought I would write a play, or star in a movie, or something — and there’s still time, darling. There’s still time.”