Isaac Mizrahi: Fashion and creativity
February 2, 2008
Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi spins through a dizzying array of inspirations -- from '50s pinups to a fleeting glimpse of a woman on the street who makes him shout "Stop the cab!" Inside this rambling talk are real clues to living a happy, creative life.Isaac Mizrahi
- Fashion designer
Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi mixes high fashion and the mass market, with a line of haute couture and a line for Target. Plus a talk show, a cabaret act, a movie, a new book ... Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I have, like, a thing about sleeping.
I don't sleep that much,
and I've come to this thing about, like, not sleeping much
as being a great virtue, after years of kind of
battling it as being a terrible detriment, or something.
And now I really like sort of sitting up, you know.
But for years I've been sitting up
and I think that, like, my creativity is greatly motivated by this kind of insomnia.
I lie awake. I think thoughts. I walk aimlessly.
Sometimes I used to walk more at night.
I walk during the day and I follow people who I think look interesting.
And sometimes -- actually, once it was on Page Six in the Post,
that I was cruising this guy, like, sort of, whatever,
but I was actually just following because he had these really great shoes on.
And so I was following this guy.
And I took a picture of his shoes,
and we thanked each other and just went on our way.
But I do that all the time.
As a matter of fact, I think a lot of my design ideas
come from mistakes and tricks of the eye.
Because I feel like, you know, there are so many images out there,
so many clothes out there.
And the only ones that look interesting to me
are the ones that look slightly mistaken, of course,
or very, very surprising.
And often, I'm driving in a taxi
and I see a hole in a shirt, or something
that looks very interesting or pretty or functional
in some way that I'd never seen happen before.
And so I'd make the car stop, and I'd get out of the car and walk,
and see that in fact there wasn't a hole, but it was a trick of my eye,
it was a shadow, you know.
Or if there was a hole I'd think like, oh damn,
there was actually someone thought of that thought already.
Someone made that mistake already so I can't do it anymore.
I don't know where inspiration comes from.
It does not come for me from research.
I don't get necessarily inspired by research.
As a matter of fact, one of the most fun things
I've ever, ever done in my whole life,
was this Christmas season at the Guggenheim in New York.
I read "Peter and the Wolf" with this beautiful band from Juilliard.
And I did like, you know, the narrator, and I read it.
And I saw this really smart critic who I love.
This woman, Joan Acocella, who's a friend of mine,
and she came backstage and she said,
oh, you know, Isaac, did you know that, talking about Stalinism
and talking about, you know, like the '30s in Russia.
And I said, how do I know about Stalinism?
I know about a wolf and a bird and, you know,
he ate the bird, and then in the end you hear, you know,
you hear the bird squeaking, or something, you know?
So I don't really know that. I don't really --
actually I do my own kind of research, you know.
If I'm commissioned to do the costumes for an 18th-century opera, or something like that,
I will do a lot of research, because it's interesting,
not because it's what I'm supposed to do.
I'm very, very, very inspired by movies.
The color of movies and the way light makes the colors,
light from behind the projection,
or light from the projection, makes the colors look so impossible.
And anyway, roll this little clip, I'll just show you.
I sit up at night and I watch movies
and I watch women in movies a lot.
And I think about, you know, their roles,
and about how you have to, like, watch what your daughters look at.
Because I look at the way women are portrayed all the time.
Whether they're kind of glorified in this way,
or whether they're kind of, you know, ironically glorified,
or whether they're, you know, sort of denigrated, or ironically denigrated.
I go back to color all the time.
Color is something that motivates me a lot.
It's rarely color that I find in nature,
although, you know, juxtaposed next to artificial color,
natural color is so beautiful.
So that's what I do. I study color a lot.
But for the most part, I think, like, how can I ever make anything
that is as beautiful as that image of Natalie Wood?
How can I ever make anything as beautiful as Greta Garbo?
I mean, that's just not possible, you know.
And so that's what makes me lie awake at night, I guess, you know.
I want to show you -- I'm also like a big --
I go to astrologers and tarot card readers often,
and that's another thing that motivates me a lot.
People say, oh, do that. An astrologer tells me to do something.
So I do it.
When I was about 21, an astrologer told me
that I was going to meet the man of my dreams,
and that his name was going to be Eric, right?
So, you know, for years I would go to bars
and, sort of, anyone I met whose name was Eric
I was humping immediately, or something.
And there were times when I was actually so desperate
I would just, you know, walk into a room and just go like, "Eric!"
And anybody who would turn around I would, sort of, make a beeline for.
And I had this really interesting tarot reading a long time ago.
The last card he pulled, which was representing my destiny
was this guy on like a straw boater with a cane
and you know, sort of spats and this, you know, a minstrel singer, right?
I want to show you this clip because I do this kind of crazy thing
where I do a cabaret act.
So actually, check this out.
(Video): Thank you. We can do anything you ask.
The name of the show is based on this story
that I have to tell you about my mother.
It's sort of an excerpt from a quote of hers.
I was dating this guy, right?
And this has to do with being happy, I swear.
I was dating this guy and it was going on for about a year, right.
And we were getting serious,
so we decided to invite them all to dinner, our parents.
And we, you know, sort of introduced them to each other.
My mother was, sort of, very sensitive to his mother,
who it seemed was a little bit skeptical about the whole alternative lifestyle thing.
You know, homosexuality, right?
So my mother was a little offended. She turned to her and she said,
"Are you kidding? They have the greatest life together.
They eat out, they see shows."
They eat out, they see shows.
That's the name of the show, they eat out, they --
that's on my tombstone when I die.
"He ate out, he saw shows," right?
So in editing these clips, I didn't have the audacity
to edit a clip of me singing at Joe's Pub.
So you'll have to, like, go check it out and come see me or something.
Because it's mortifying, and yet it feels ...
I don't know how to put this.
I feel as little comfort as possible is a good thing, you know.
And at least, you know, in my case,
because if I just do one thing all the time,
I don't know, I get very, very bored. I bore very easily.
And you know, I don't say that I do everything well,
I just say that I do a lot of things, that's all.
And I kind of try not to look back, you know.
Except, I guess, that's what staying up every night is about.
Like, looking back and thinking, what a fool you made of yourself, you know.
But I guess that's okay. Right?
Because if you do many things
you get to feel lousy about everything,
and not just one, you know.
You don't master feeling lousy about one thing.
I will show you this next thing,
speaking of costumes for operas.
I do work with different choreographers.
I work with Twyla Tharp a lot,
and I work with Mark Morris a lot,
who is one of my best friends.
And I designed three operas with him,
and the most recent one, "King Arthur."
I'd been very ingrained in the dance world
since I was a teenager.
I went to performing arts high school,
where I was an actor.
And many of my friends were ballet dancers.
Again, I don't know where inspiration comes from.
I don't know where it comes from.
I started making puppets when I was a kid.
Maybe that's where the whole inspiration thing started from, puppets, right.
And then performing arts high school.
There I was in high school,
meeting dancers and acting.
And somehow, from there, I got interested in design.
I went to Parsons School of Design
and then I began my career as a designer.
I don't really think of myself as a designer,
I don't really think of myself necessarily as a fashion designer.
And frankly, I don't really know what to call myself.
I think of myself as a ... I don't know what I think of myself as.
It's just that.
But I must say, this whole thing about being slightly bored all the time,
that is what -- I think that is a very important thing for a fashion designer.
You always have to be slightly bored with everything.
And if you're not, you have to pretend to be slightly bored with everything.
But I am really a little bored with everything.
I always say to my partner, Marisa Gardini, who books everything --
she books everything and she makes everything happen.
And she makes all the deals.
And I always tell her that I find myself
with a lot of time on the computer bridge program.
Too much time on computer bridge, which is, you know, like that's
so ... somehow, like, about ten years ago
I thought that the most unboring place in the world
would be like a T.V. studio,
like for a day show. Some kind of day talk show.
Because it's all of these things that I love
all kind of in one place.
And if you ever get bored you can look at another thing,
and do another thing and talk about it, right?
And so I had this T.V. show.
And that was a very, very, very big part of my process.
Actually, could you roll the clip, please?
This is one of my favorite clips of Rosie.
(Video) Isaac Mizrahi: We're back on the set.
Rosie O'Donnell: Hello, Ben.
IM: Look how cute she looks with this, just a slick back.
Man: Her grandmother says, "Delish!"
IM: Ah, wow, delish. All right. So now where should I position myself?
I want to stay out of the way.
I don't want to be -- okay. Here we go.
Do you get nervous, Ashleigh?
Ashleigh: Doing what?
ROD: Cutting hair.
A: Cutting hair? Never, never.
I don't think there was ever a day where I cut hair I was nervous.
IM: You look so cute already, by the way.
ROD: You like it? All right.
IM: Do you have a problem with looking cute? You want to look cute.
ROD: Of course I want to look cute.
IM: Just checking, because some people want to look, you know,
ROD: No, not me, no.
IM: You read about all these people who have a lot of money
and they have kids and the kids always end up somehow, like,
really messed up, you know what I mean?
And there's got to be some way to do that, Rosie.
Because just because if you're fabulously rich, and fabulously famous,
does that mean you shouldn't have kids,
because you know they're going to end up getting messed up?
ROD: No, but it means that your priority has to be
their well-being first, I think.
But you have to make the decision for yourself.
My kids are seven, who the hell knows.
They're going to be like 14 and in rehab.
And they're going to be playing this clip:
"I'm such a good mother."
My God, this is the shortest I've ever had.
IM: It looks good, yeah?
A: I was going to ask you, has your hair ever been --
ROD: No! It's all right -- go crazy.
IM: I feel like it needs to be a little closer down here.
A: Oh no, we're just staging,
ROD: We're just staging it.
IM: Are you freaking out? You look so cute.
ROD: No, I love it. It's the new me.
IM: Oh, it's so fabulous!
ROD: Flock of Rosie. Wooo!
IM: So by the way. Of all the most unboring things in the world, right.
I mean, like making someone who's already cute look terrible like that.
That is not boring. That is nothing if it's not boring.
Actually, I read this great quote the other day, which was,
"Style makes you feel great because it takes your mind off the fact that you're going to die."
Right? And then I realized, that was on my website,
and then it said, like, you know, the quote was attributed to me
and I thought, oh, I said something, you know, in an interview.
I forgot that I said that. But it's really true.
I want to show you this last clip because it's going to be my last goodbye.
I'll tell you that I cook a lot also. I love to cook.
And I often look at things as though they're food.
Like I say, oh, you know, would you serve a rotten chicken?
Then how could you serve, you know, a beat up old dress or something.
How could you show a beat up old dress?
I always relate things to kitchen-ry.
And so I think that's what it all boils down to.
Everything boils down to that.
So check this out.
This is what I've been doing because I think it's the most fun thing in the world.
It's, like, this website.
It's got a lot of different things on it.
It's a polymathematical website.
We actually shoot segments like T.V. show segments.
And it's kind of my favorite thing in the world.
And it just began like in the beginning of February. So who knows?
And again, I don't say it's good, I just think it's not boring, right?
And here is the last bit.
(Video) IM: I have to tell you, I make buttermilk pancakes or buttermilk waffles all the time.
Chef: Do you?
IM: Yeah, but I can never find buttermilk, ever.
IM: You can't find buttermilk at Citarella; you can't find buttermilk.
Chef: You can't?
IM: It's always low-fat buttermilk.
Chef: No, but that's all it is.
IM: Is that all it is?
Chef: Oh, you don't know? Let me tell you something.
Let me tell you something interesting.
IM: You know what? Stop laughing. It's not funny.
Just because I don't know that whole -- that there's no such thing as whole buttermilk.
Chef: Well, here's the deal. Let me tell you the deal.
In the old days when they used to make butter,
you know how you make butter?
Chef: For cream?
IM: Yeah, exactly.
Chef: So you take heavy, high-fat milk, which is cream,
and you churn it until it separates into these curds and water.
The liquid is actually that clear liquid.
If you've ever overbeaten your whipped cream,
it's actually buttermilk.
And that's what it was in the early days.
And that's what people used for baking and all sorts of things.
Now, the buttermilk that you get is actually low-fat or skim milk.
IM: Excuse me, I didn't know. All right?
Chef: The reason he thought that is because buttermilk is so wonderfully thick and delicious.
IM: Yeah, it is, exactly.
So who would think that it was low-fat?
Well, that's it. Thank you very much.
Happy TED. It's so wonderful here. I love it. I love it. I love it.
- Fashion designer
Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi mixes high fashion and the mass market, with a line of haute couture and a line for Target. Plus a talk show, a cabaret act, a movie, a new book ...Why you should listen
Design-wise, Isaac Mizrahi is best known for bridging the gap between high and low -- creating gorgeous couture confections for the likes of Eartha Kitt and others, as well as a hugely popular, groundbreakingly affordable line for Target.
His design mission comes wrapped in endless charisma. He's a talk-show host, he's performed his own one-man show Off-Broadway, he was the subject of the hilarious documentary Unzipped, and he does regular cabaret nights at Joe's Pub in New York City. His new book is called How to Have Style .
The original video is available on TED.com