All That Glitters

I.M.: A Memoir BY Isaac Mizrahi. Flatiron Books. Hardcover, 384 pages. $28.

The cover of I.M.: A Memoir

here is a scene in Douglas Keeve’s 1995 documentary, Unzipped, in which Keeve films his then-lover, the American fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, getting a haircut. Mizrahi’s mane is wild, a crimpy bristle that forms a compact tangle over his forehead as single corkscrews try to escape the mass. Mizrahi, thirty-three at the time, is more or less oblivious to the snipping happening around his face. He’s too preoccupied with explaining his vision for a new fall runway collection, which he says came to him in a bolt of revelation before Christmas. “It has to be this kind of, like, you know, ’50s cheesecake meets, like, Eskimo, kind of, just crazy fake fur, very glamorous,” he says, in a rapid stream-of-consciousness spiel in his native Brooklyn accent. Like one of his idols, Barbra Streisand, whom he references more than once in the book as a shorthand for street toughness mixed with an overwhelming sense of stardust destiny, Mizrahi grew up in deep Brooklyn with Manhattan fantasies. In the mid-1970s, he transferred from a cloistered outer-borough yeshiva to Fiorello LaGuardia, or the “Fame school,” which granted him acceptance after he recited a maudlin monologue about a veteran soldier addicted to morphine.

By the time Unzipped begins, Mizrahi is a creature of downtown Manhattan in nearly every way: his raw-edged studio on Wooster Street, where he gussets and gabs with a constantly rotating herd of coltish supermodels; his waggish uniform of blousy, high-waisted pants and rolled bandanna; his single-minded obsessions, which could only spring from a mind that has built itself a thirty-block radius in which it feels completely free to roam. Mizrahi, when he has a new idea, is less like a dog with a bone and more like a wolf with an entire carcass; his jaws keep snapping. While getting shorn, he continues his digression on faux fur, pinpointing the spark of inspiration in a single scene from the 1935 film Call of the Wild, in which Loretta Young is abandoned in icy terrain for four days, and discovered by Clark Gable just as she is about to freeze to death. “And of course, when the close-up happens, the makeup is perfect,” Mizrahi gushes. “Dewy skin, perfect eye-brows, lip liner, the hair is perfection. And I’m thinking, ‘Well, if you must freeze on the tundra, this is the way to do it.’” To Mizrahi, that’s glamour, baby. It’s fixed in time: a woman on a velvet chaise, posing forever in a celluloid print. Even as his inspirations change from mood board to mood board, he has a very consistent idea of elegance: the put-together women, the grandes dames, the women who know how to wear a glove. Perhaps he gets this from his leonine mother, Sarah, who is still alive and lucid well into her nineties; as we learn throughout his new memoir, they are excessively close.

Isaac Mizrahi in Douglas Keeve’s Unzipped, 1995.
Isaac Mizrahi in Douglas Keeve’s Unzipped, 1995.

Reading the cleverly titled I.M. (how deliriously fortunate, to go through life with those initials!) feels like sitting with the designer while he is in a salon chair, unspooling. For some, it might seem tedious to be the ear he practically gnaws off as he ping-pongs between memories, dropping proper nouns all along the way (Liza Minnelli! Studio 54! Café Luxembourg! Princess Di! His close personal gal pal—well, for a time—Anna Wintour!). But for those readers who turn to celebrity memoir for exactly this sort of breathless dish, who love a gossip column with a central character, who want to be rocketed into inaccessible inner sanctums by a denizen telling tales out of school, I.M. will land not with a thud but with a satisfying squish, a gooey hunk of cake with more than enough frosting to go around.

Perhaps I am making this sound like Mizrahi is not a good writer, that the sole reason to pick up his book is the same voyeuristic impulse that led arthouse audiences to buy tickets for Unzipped two decades ago. But I.M. is a surprisingly literary work. The documentary showed some of this potential: Not only do kaleidoscopic adjectives fall from Mizrahi’s mouth in regular conversation, but he is also an intensely curious person; he constantly ingests books and obscure films and studies vintage ephemera. And fortunately, he has brought a great deal of that innate curiosity (as well as a bagful of those glittering modifiers) to the project of dissecting his own life. I.M. is a playful read, with just enough spumy effervescence to give it the texture of a bobbinet tutu. And yet there is a weight to it, a few heavy paillettes to keep the structure in place. He’s open, in these pages, about his darkness: his often crippling anxiety and depression, what it was like to be gay in 1980s Soho, why fitting in and feeling comfortable in a crowd seemed to be harder for him than for most people. Mizrahi used to have rage tantrums in elementary school (he attributes this to sticking out “like a chubby gay thumb”), to the point where his teachers demanded that his parents take him to a child psychologist; for years he saw a kindly shrink in an ancient Beaux Arts building around the corner from the Woolworth’s lunch counter on Third Avenue. “In my memory she looks like Eleanor Roosevelt—elegant in a rough-hewn, unselfconscious way,” he writes of Dr. Mossey, the woman he credits with salvaging his sanity while he rebelled against the strictures of his conservative Jewish community. He was soothed by this older woman’s half grin. “A curious smile for such a small mouth, was the thought that ran through my head, as if a bird is smiling.”

So many fashion memoirs toe the line between self-aggrandizement and a natty emphasis on craft; Mizrahi’s feels more like a plucky Hollywood story, especially in his early years. Boy (who is gay, but doesn’t have the words to express this yet) craves a Barbie in the supermarket. Boy’s mother finally caves and buys him the doll (which he then dutifully hides from his father). Boy starts making couture outfits for the doll (a “boatneck sheath with a fluted hem”). Boy shows his mother, who views it with a “distinctive whiff of misunderstanding,” but nevertheless starts slipping him her fashion tips over breakfast, including the warning that “brunettes look tired in pink lipstick.” His mother is quite clearly the love of his life and the reason he developed a working theory of personal style at such a young age. He describes her feet as “aristocratic,” like Jackie O’s, saying Sarah would never be caught dead in platform shoes, “claiming they were ‘vul-gah’ and made everyone look fat.” He also writes, in a turn of phrase that made me laugh out loud, that “she held ruffles to a nearly impossible standard of intellect.”

If Mizrahi’s memoir, which hews tight to his early years—it takes nearly two hundred pages to get to his first fashion internship—sags in places, it is because it clings, like a skirt to one’s nylons. Mizrahi’s set ideas of glamour seem to start and end with his mother, who is a domineering and dominating character throughout the book (though always proud, doting, understanding; no Mommie Dearest tension here); he sharply describes his world once he breaks free from his family and begins running a fashion empire out of an industrial loft, but the energy of the prose feels somewhat diminished once he leaves home. He perks up whenever he’s describing the eccentric women who swan in and out of his sartorial orbit as surrogate maternal figures—his brief, shining moment under Wintour’s wing as her pet designer, his visit to Oprah’s “pied-à-terre at a glamourous New York City hotel,” his years living in the same apartment complex as the whimsical illustrator Maira Kalman, who was an early collaborator. I particularly thrilled to the story about the kooky time Mizrahi spent dressing Minnelli, who also demanded that he become her social companion and was impossible to fit because she would continually break out into dances and fan kicks as he was measuring her. “I used to say fitting Liza was like fitting a goldfish,” he writes.

I.M. wraps up quickly. The last third of the book covers his heady years atop the fashion pile, when he was winning CFDA awards and dressing Nicole Kidman and Sarah Jessica Parker, when Chanel bought a stake in his company and almost steered him into financial ruin. He blows only the lightest of kisses to his later years, when he became a true celebrity: the Target “diffusion” collections, the Project Runway gig, the QVC partnership, his national visibility as a red-carpet correspondent, and his stint tossing out bons mots from a box seat on Hollywood Squares. This is the Mizrahi I grew up with, the one who had long since jumped ship from the high-fashion world right into staunch commercial success, the one people knew not for his stitching but for his one-liners, such as “if you get the shoes right, you get the whole thing right.” I was prepared to meet this Mizrahi in the book, and was pleasantly surprised to find a different character emerging, that laser-focused, irrepressible goofball from Unzipped, the kind of giddy autodidact who gets into fashion because it is the only medium that can accommodate a thousand ideas at once—in a single garment.

In the preface to I.M., Mizrahi bemoans the fact that his book had to have a story arc. Could it be just the details, the pearl buttons of a life? If it were up to him, he would have simply written down a list of unconnected thoughts, from his love of swimming to memories of his childhood dog Pom Pom, “an apricot standard poodle that my mother acquired sometime in the late sixties,” who inspired his 2008 collection of topiary fur coats. “I’m afraid some of these microscopic details were cut in favor of a propulsive, gripping story,” he writes. And he’s right—the book unfurls at a clip. But, as with fashion, I was most interested in the scraps on the floor. His book is all smooth seams, which can elicit a distinct pleasure. I do miss the ragged hems.

Rachel Syme lives in New York City. She currently writes the “On and Off the Avenue” fashion column for the New Yorker.