Isaac Mizrahi

Isaac Mizrahi talks about his retrospective at the Jewish Museum

View of “Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History,” 2016. Photo: Will Ragozzino.

During Hollywood’s early days, actors didn’t just act—they also sang, danced, and played instruments. These people were, in the truest sense of the word, entertainers. The designer Isaac Mizrahi is similar—an old-school charmer who’d never settle on doing just one thing forever. This is abundantly evident in the exhibition “Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History,” put together by Kelly Taxter and Chee Pearlman, which opens at the Jewish Museum on March 18 and runs through August 7, 2016, the midcareer survey that explores Mizrahi’s life in fashion, theater, film, and television. Unzipped (1995), Douglas Keeve’s documentary on the making of the designer’s 1994 fall collection, will also be playing at Film Forum on March 22 and 26 and April 10. Here, Mizrahi talks about his show, fashion, and the horrors of boredom.

I NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT HAVING A RETROSPECTIVE. I didn’t want to be someone whose work could be amassed in that way—like relics on display. I didn’t think I was old enough for a retrospective, either! But one day, about three years ago, Claudia Gould called me and proposed the idea. I wasn’t really sure about it at first. It took me a few months to assure myself and realize that it might just work, that it could be interesting.

Years ago, when people asked if I considered myself an artist, I’d say no. I’m a fashion designer, and art and fashion, at least to my mind, operated in two different spheres. Art is made for its own sake, and fashion is made for the marketplace. Now, because I’m older, I can own it—I can call myself an artist. In my heart of hearts, I always knew I was an artist. I usually like the plainest thing or the plainest of ideas, and go from there. I’m really a problem solver. I bring something that only I can bring, and sometimes I end up really surprising myself. But I try not to go out and purposefully make art. Anytime I do, it just ends up being terrible.

Isaac Mizrahi discusses his show at the Jewish Museum

In my fashion career, I got a lot of criticism for not being “consistent.” Let’s take Coco Chanel—she made all these suits with the corsage on them. That’s what she did, and we know her for that. And Karl Lagerfeld’s still doing the timeless braided chain and quilted bag at Chanel, and of course we all know what that is too. But I just never cared about doing the same thing over and over again or having an identifiable style, and I got a lot of flak for it. The people who knew me and understood me got that I wanted something else—doing a Mizrahi “thing” was never going to be my thing. I believe in fingerprints and the hand, but I don’t believe in signatures. I remember after my first collection, I had all these ideas about parkas: gowns that were inspired by them, jumpsuits that were parkas, or parkas that weren’t even parkas. Then Ellin Saltzman, who at the time was the fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, came in and was like, “Where are all the parkas?” Are you kidding me!? I did as much as I could with it, I’ve moved on—the parka’s dull, done. So boring. Maybe if I had a huge design firm, I’d let them keep making parkas while I went ahead to the next thing. I think a lot of designers do that—they let the concerns of the marketplace run them.

I hate making the same joke twice. I once did a one-man show on Broadway for about a year, and I didn’t like it. I had to keep telling the same joke in very much the same way every night—it became unbearable. But I’ve done a lot of cabaret, too. And I love it because it can be really unpredictable—you can follow your own path and go where your imagination or the room takes you, and you don’t need to line up a punch line with a lighting cue or something. You say “Okay boys, let’s do this number now,” and they start playing and you make it up as you go along—it’s great. I do want to write a play though—that’s where I’m going now. I have the rights to Ingmar Bergman’s The Devil’s Eye (1960). I’m trying to make into a musical. And it’s insane because the odds of it actually happening are very, very, very not quite good. But I feel energetic about it, regardless. I don’t know where any of this is going to end up but what can I do? I just love the idea, and I want to write.

A lot of creative people want to be a master at painting, photography, fashion, whatever. I don’t want that—not at all. I want to be the opposite of that. I guess it’s kind of heartbreaking because every artist wants to be a master of something, right? But I don’t know—isn’t that kind of boring?