Isaac’s New Insides: Make No Miz-take! Mr. Unzipped Takes His Design Instincts to Corporate Stratospheres

When Chanel Inc. withdrew as the backer of Isaac Mizrahi’s

ready-to-wear line in October 1998, it seemed like an apocalypse for a

generation of fashion designers. A plucky downtowner with an outsize

personality, and the son of a New York

garment wholesaler, Mr. Mizrahi, 39,  was part of a cadré of designers

attempting to translate lower Manhattan street

style for the Madison Avenue lady. He was a creature of 1990’s marketing whose

name became a household word with the 1995 documentary, Unzipped . Then he lost his patron, and a month later his comrade,

Todd Oldham, announced that he, too, was closing up shop.

Mr. Mizrahi is still reeling from those bad times. He’s

pursuing a year-old $30 million lawsuit against Chanel and its subsidiary,

American Fragrances Inc. (he charges breach of contract and wants the rights to

his name back), and he has publicly licked his wounds in an autobiographical

off-Broadway one-man show and cabaret act, LES

MIZrahi .

But for the last two years, Mr. Mizrahi-an invention of the

fashion world-has been doggedly trying to reinvent himself.

This fall, his talk show will debut on the Oxygen TV network. And, with

architect H. Thomas O’Hara, who has collaborated with Robert A.M. Stern, Mr.

Mizrahi is helping to design “superluxury” pieds-à-terres

on West 42nd Street, just

down the street from Bryant Park, where he used to romp on the runway.

“I don’t know why, but this project just really appeals to

me, because I can do it and say to the world that I did it on my own,” said Mr.

Mizrahi on Aug. 2. “My show on Oxygen is just another example of doing exactly

what I please. That’s the only way I can live my life is to do exactly as I

please. And opportunities arise and I have to take them.”

But Isaac Mizrahi, Act II, causes him a certain level of

anxiety nonetheless. “I always say, ‘How does a woman get pregnant for the

second or third time?’ Somehow God endowed her with this forgetful nature, so

she forgets how hard it is. In fact, I keep taking these projects on, and I am

able to just forget how horrible it is until the last second. And sometimes

they’re beautiful children, or sometimes they’re horrible drug-addict children

who assault their parents.”

For his new baby, Mr. Mizrahi sees “a beautiful prewar

limestone-a little bit of the Plaza on 42nd Street

… a beautiful sort of limestone residence building on the Park

Avenue of the future. It’ll have all those luxury proportions of

prewar, so I’m kind of enthralled with the whole thing.”

Then he draws back a little: “That’s what it looks like in

my head.”

Actually, the  red-brick exterior of the 1927

building at 113 West 42nd Street,

between Sixth Avenue and

Broadway, will remain intact. Mr. Mizrahi is charged with making over the

inside into 26 small studio and one-bedroom apartments, two per floor, and just

for fun-and lots of money-a triplex penthouse. This includes designing the

architectural finishes: appliances, hardware, windows, floors and lighting. The

total budget on the renovation is about $8 million. The developer, Mitchel

Maidman, will be charging from $700,000 for a 900-square-foot studio to $8

million for the triplex-that is, once he settles a bitchy 30-year-old battle

with the Durst family over ownership of the building.

But the Durst situation

is Mr. Maidman’s challenge. Mr. Mizrahi’s challenge is more personal. “I’m not

approaching this different from the way I’ve always approached designing anything,”

said Mr. Mizrahi. “Whether it’s a dress or a stage set, it’s all the same

thing-it’s very classic thinking and problem-solving …. It’s like I’ve trained

myself in a certain way. I don’t claim to be designing this building; I claim

to be solving the problem of the building.

“This building, for instance, is small. It’s a piqued kind

of a situation, and everything I do I get slapped with more fire codes, so at

one point I decided all the walls will be glass in the lobby,” he said. “It’s a

playful scene; it’s kind of like walking into a light box! And you’ll see

through the walls.”

Also in the lobby, he said, “I’m sort of struggling with the

idea of a terrazzo floor. I sort of can’t do without that-it’s so the luxurious way, and in the middle

of the century it was everywhere.”

The upstairs is petite also. There, Mr. Mizrahi set out to

create “two little, tiny places [per floor] that should be extremely

luxurious.” But here, he had a muse to work from: the pied-à-terre buyer, “businessmen coming

into town every couple of weeks.”

There were also light issues. “I think the most luxurious

thing about the apartments is the modern way they’re being laid out. It’s all

in the math. In the end, it’s all in the math.” For instance, “there are three

front windows and four back windows and you’re thinking, ‘How can we get a

bedroom with light in it?’ And that’s all I think design is, because I’m not

Parish.”

Mr. Mizrahi will refit those windows with single frames and

no moldings. “That’s not design-that’s just the kind I like best.”

Good light makes a good-looking room, and so on, said Mr.

Mizrahi. “They have depression problems in Sweden.

They design all this beautiful furniture, and they sit

around in it depressed because there’s no light …. I think like in the 1930’s, people

looked so good because in a room people were the important thing, and they were

more important than the furniture. Look at [the restaurant] La Grenouille. The

best thing about that place is that everybody looks so beautiful in that

restaurant, because the lighting is considered.

“This is a residence. You’ll want to look really cute before

you go to work and really good when you come home and look a mess from a long

day. If you want to call that design, then go ahead.”

Because he will also get to furnish some of the apartments,

Mr. Mizrahi gets to shop, too. He’s using a different palette for each

apartment-depending, of course, on the kind of light it gets. In any event, the

furniture will always be Knoll. Mr. Mizrahi has been smitten with the mid-century

modern staple since he inherited some pieces from his “crazy Uncle Sam.”

His inheritance now furnishes Mr. Mizrahi’s own “small,

one-bedroom” apartment in a Bing and Bing–designed building on West

12th Street. “I bought the apartment, and I was a

little worried because it wasn’t enormous,” he said. “It had southwest

exposures. I was very nervous.” So he hired apartment architect Ross Anderson,

who also designed Mr. Mizrahi’s studio, and learned a lot in the process. “You

have a small place, and all you have to do is make the bed and load the

dishwasher and it looks great,” he said.

In the end, Mr. Mizrahi can’t explain his style as an

interior designer. “The design personality that comes through is really just

the skewed way that I think,” he said. “I tend to have a very lopsided vision.

People sometimes don’t like what I do, but I’m not that scared of critics. I

like to be liked, but it’s more important for me to do what I want than to be

favorably reviewed.

But he obviously enjoys trying on lots of new hats. “There

are people who do jobs for praise and money,” Mr. Mizrahi said. “Check my bank

account, darling-I don’t do these things for money.”