Of all the New York-based designers who knew how to stage a fabulous show, few people would dispute Isaac Mizrahi did it best. His catwalk presentations – with their supermodel casting and celebrity guests – were some of the most buzz-worthy happenings of the eighties and nineties. The Brooklyn-born Mizrahi, who burst on the scene with his first collection in 1987, was immediately embraced for his modern, minimalist take on glamour. The 1995 documentary, Unzipped, in which he starred, endeared him to the masses even more with its unprecedented insider's look at the trials and tribulations of being a superstar designer during the supermodel era. In 2002, Mizrahi blazed new trails by being one of the first high-fashion designers to make his designs accessible through U.S. retail giant, Target. After a brief stint as creative director for Liz Claiborne, Mizrahi continues to direct myriad offshoots of his eponymous label, including Isaac Mizrahi New York. I recently caught up with the 53-year-old designer to talk about fashion that's relevant, aging well, and what's sexy now.
What have you relished most about the business?
The thing I prize is having come this far and having reached out to women and made my clothes and accessories very available to women. I relish the idea of having started at a certain point and having innovated a good deal in the industry, but then at some point it became very important to me, more important than anything, to reach out to women. I found that a very compelling thing.
There was a time when the theatricality of a fashion show was what we in the industry lived for, and whether or not the average women had access to that wasn't a concern. But there came a point when we realized fashion had to make sense for real women. Was there a turning point for you?
I was right in there, making these very theatrical productions for a long time and loving every minute of it. But as irrelevant as the presentation might have seemed, I felt that the clothes I was doing were always so relevant. With those big presentations, I think designers get carried away with the clothes and the clothes become irrelevant. To me, the perfect thing is when you have this giant, fun presentation and the clothes themselves are truly innovative. Sometimes what we see now coming out of fashion capitals like Paris, albeit incredibly beautiful – I see those things and I worship them, but I don't feel necessarily influenced by them as much as I feel influenced by things that are so much more common. For example, look at the technology at Nike; that influences me because that moves me forward. A corseted dress with thousands of layers is extremely beautiful to look at but in the end, it's great on one women somewhere in a picture. Though that picture is wonderful and important, and at one point in the nineteen fifties or the sixties, the people in those pictures were influential, I feel the opposite now is true because that the trickle-up thing is much more fun and important to me.
It was always important for you to think about the way a woman moves through her life, what is she's up to, and where is she going.
The great thing is not making a ball gown look like a ball gown. That's easy. Everyone from Charles James to Christian Dior to John Galliano have been really good at that. The thing that I find very exciting and fun is to make a ball gown look like a sneaker, because that actually works in someone's life.
Do women necessarily have to be sexy? Should they even try to be?
I don't think so. I think the worst thing is when women try to be sexy, or men for that matter. I find that trying to be sexy is such a buzz kill.
What is sexy to you, sartorially speaking?
I think that people who know their own sense of style, who know what they look good in and what they feel good in, is sexy. I watched a film about Winston Churchill, who should be the least sexy person in the world, but the way he put himself together with the little bowtie and these narrow shoulders and this kind of like big, frog-shaped body was so sexy to me.
What makes a woman a sexy dresser?
I don't find terribly high heels in an inappropriate situation to be very sexy. I find it sort of funny. And as a gay man, I find it weirdly funny that a woman would put herself in a precarious situation with giant shoes. I think a beautiful woman shouldn't impede herself that way. If she has confidence, she's not going to be trapped in these high-heeled shoes all day. I believe in women getting in and out of taxis, going in and out of the subway, being busy, and being so considered that they wake up in the morning and they don't have to think about it.
What do you think aging does to a woman's aura of sexiness?
I'm dealing with that myself! I'm aging and when I take my clothes off I go, "Ahh!" But it takes me a minute, and I want to believe that what's prettier and sexier than anything is the truth, right? So when I see all this face work and filler and all that stuff that people do, I feel like it's not truthful. I like people who do it to look not different, but just a little fresher here and there; the minute it takes over is so sad. It makes me very sad that a person would feel that way about getting old because it's so inevitable. We have to be able to move past that.
But what about what we put on our bodies as we grow happily, confidently older? How should that change or does it necessarily have to?
Of course it has to. I mean each woman is different, woman by woman, but you know of all the ladies I know – you included – all these fashion editors, they kind of get it. They get how to put it together. Like, 'Okay I'm not going to be wearing a corset today because I'm working all day long, so I'm going to wear a little black top with some jeans and a little wedge shoe, because it's easy, I get the height but I can move around.' But then you think about [late fashion editor] Polly Mellen…. I met her when she was probably in her late forties, and she used to run around in mini-dresses with tights and little flat shoes. She was crazy.
This interview has been condensed and edited.