“Today I was talking about my favorite look, especially right this minute,” said Isaac Mizrahi, the new designer for Liz Claiborne, on Tuesday, July 15. “If I was so thin, I would wear only oversized men’s clothes with the shirts all buttoned up, and a big belt, you know? And big pleated pants, maybe a little short … with some kind of flat, probably, or if I was a girl, some giant shoe. This is what I would wear, with little round glasses or something. And I can’t wear that. I’m too fat for, like, a belt. I can’t wear an ironic cinched belt, I can’t! I’m too fat. It’s so sad. Like, if I could, I would look just like Annie Hall right now. But I’m too fat! I’m too fat. I am. Yes, I am! I’m so fat, I’m so fat, I’m so huge; if you saw me without clothes, you’d be like, ‘Wow, he is fat.’”
Mr. Mizrahi, whose first collection for Claiborne is scheduled for spring 2009, delivered this speech from behind a round, shiny black table in his petite, uncluttered personal office on 10th Avenue, near an arrangement of pastel roses from Miho, his favorite florist. Wearing a white polo shirt worn collar up, under a black blazer with neon yellow lining (“Deceptive dressing!” he trilled) he appeared, at age 46, a glossier, more subdued version of the flamboyant, frizzy-haired self that was documented in the 1995 documentary Unzipped; dissected on the front page of The New York Times when Chanel stripped his eponymous label of financial backing in 1998; and displayed on two different talk shows in this decade.
Not that Mr. Mizrahi has abandoned his larger-than-life persona; like so many others, he is now posting it on his Web site. There are structured interview segments (recent guest: Oprah’s BFF Gayle King) complemented by a stream-of-consciousness video blog during which he dons his signature head bandana and philosophizes about his struggles: jury duty, poor lighting, Weight Watchers. “It’s this strange, insatiable desire to keep going on and on and on, to keep expressing yourself, you know?” he said.
Mr. Mizrahi had been contractually muzzled from discussing Liz Claiborne and, to a lesser extent, his recently ended gig at Target, where in 2003 he all but invented the now ubiquitous concept of “masstige: high-end designers making affordable collections in chain stores (he was followed by Karl Lagerfeld and Roberto Cavalli at H&M, and Vera Wang at Kohl’s). The collaboration has earned the store a reported estimated $300 million per year, and he will not talk about why it is ending.
“What else can I tell you about?” he said with a sigh. “Last week I taped two episodes of Iron Chef.”
Outside the glass doors leading to Mr. Mizrahi’s office lay a loft space lined with rows of neat, white cubicles bathed in natural light and occupied by deputy designers of his namesake “semi-couture” line (gowns up to $30,000), introduced around the same time as the Target one, and sold at places like Bergdorf Goodman and Saks. Also some for Claiborne, which he refers to as “the other designers whose name I can’t mention.” Their overlord’s insouciant tendency to overshare and catalog his neuroses for our entertainment belies a strong desire for order, control and routine. All his various projects, from fashion to television, are housed in this two-year-old space on 10th Avenue, which has its own test kitchen for cooking segments.
“He loves for things to stay the same,” said his longtime friend, the model Veronica Webb. “He likes his studio to be in the same place—that’s why Liz Claiborne had to come to him, that’s why Target had to come to him. He’s one of those designers who’s really stubborn, who controls the process from beginning to end. … Isaac is not the best delegator.”
Nor is he willing to remain behind the seams, indulging his performative instincts over the years with cameos on Fame, Sex and the City, The Apprentice, Celebrity Jeopardy, Oprah, and The Martha Stewart Show. Then there was that rather over-exuberant groping of the actress Scarlett Johansson during a gig as style commentator on E! And a book, How to Have Style, out from Gotham in October.
“Isaac was born a ‘brand,’” said Linda Fargo, senior vice president at Bergdorf. “He was probably talking, and talking fast, at 6 months.”
Right now, Mr. Mizrahi was talking fast, if obliquely, about more plans for Hollywood, including a pitch he was flying to L.A. to make. “What’s interesting is, I have like two series I’m working on that have to do with scripts,” he said. “And one is based on this script that I wrote, actually a series based on a script I wrote, which we’ll see about.” Asked whether he himself would be acting in these series, he said, coyly, “Maybe.”
“I was thinking, between me and Mo Rocca, who is more Charles Nelson Reilly than the other?” he continued. “And I feel like I am winning the Charles Nelson Reilly contest between me and Mo Rocca. I was actually talking about directing an opera soon, and if I direct an opera, then I will be Charles Nelson Reilly; there will be no stopping me!”
‘LAST-DITCH’ FOR LIZ
Twenty years ago, Mr. Mizrahi inhabited a more rarefied, if decidedly less profitable, position in the fashion world, having accumulated early nearly everything an aspiring fashion design star could want: his own label, started with a business partner after stints at Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein; four CFDA Awards; five Vogue covers featuring his clothes; and Demi Moore pregnant in Vanity Fair, draped in a green sheath of his design.
“I used to scream at his fashion shows; they were like a rock concert,” said longtime friend and Paper editor Kim Hastreiter, citing his brilliance as a colorist and “culture vulture” with a flair for the dramatic.
Since signing on with Target, Mr. Mizrahi has reinvented himself as fashion’s fabulously gay American everyman. In contrast to aloof, whippet-thin Europeans like Hedi Slimane (formerly of Dior Homme) or Christopher Bailey (Burberry), Mr. Mizrahi is a Jew from Brooklyn who tells you all his foibles before you have the chance to notice them; has a complicated relationship with ice cream; and measures success in terms of how many people are wearing his clothes.