A fashion designer who founded his own company more than 30 years ago, Isaac Mizrahi recently penned "I.M.: A Memoir." His cabaret show “I&Me" is like a companion piece to “I.M.” — an autobiographical show about his life’s journey.
Isaac Mizrahi is on the phone, describing his current outfit. “I’m wearing some black narrow pants and a black shirt made of Pima cotton knit, from my collection at QVC,” he says. “And I’m actually wearing an old suit jacket that fits again — literally, that’s cause for major celebration, if not national celebration.”
A fashion designer who founded his own company more than 30 years ago, Mizrahi is fascinated by what people wear — and in his new book, “I.M.: A Memoir,” he frequently introduces people by describing their outfits. A vivid memory of his mother, in the early 1960s, has her wearing “a fawn-colored twill coat-suit with an azurine mink collar and a pale-grey satin pillbox hat.” On a trip to France as a teenager, he’s fascinated by “a lady who, in the middle of July, was dressed in dove-grey flannel, the tightest midcalf-length skirt I’d yet seen, seamed stockings, high-heeled gray suede shoes, and a small pigeon-colored hat with a pom-pom.” Lauren Bacall, dropping by the studio of Mizrahi’s early employer, designer Perry Ellis, was grumpy and wore “dark sunglasses, a trench coat, a bucket hat, and she had a Band-Aid on her face as though she’d cut herself shaving.”
“I.M.” is full of delicious descriptions like these; it’s a thoughtful, irresistible walk through the youth and middle age (Mizrahi is now 57) of an eventful and creative life. Born into a Syrian Jewish family in Brooklyn, he attended Manhattan’s famous High School for the Performing Arts (yes, the “Fame” school; he’s briefly in the movie) and the Parsons School of Design.
His two great loves — fashion design and performance — have intertwined throughout his life; turns out he’s a pretty gifted writer, too. All of these combine in his upcoming Seattle appearance, in which he’ll perform “I&Me,” his new cabaret evening of song and stories from his life, at the Neptune Theatre on Tuesday, March 19.
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Though Mizrahi has worn the author’s hat before — “I’d written scripts, stuff for me to perform on stage, a graphic novel, a how-to book, and a million articles for newspapers and magazines” — the idea of a memoir was something that came up suddenly, when a friend suggested it years ago. “The minute he gave me that idea, I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he said. “It was like taking an assignment almost, to write a longform thing that I knew I could write because I knew the story so well — it’s my story.”
Writing “I.M.” took him seven years, using his own journals (he’s been writing a diary since 1996) and memories. “It wasn’t like I had loads of research to do,” he said. “Just finding out the dates of things, the veracity of certain thoughts and ideas, from family. I didn’t have to travel to Bombay to research, you know, the crown jewels of the Maharajah. Which I would love to do.”
Several favorite memoirs inspired him: Sally Mann’s “Hold Still,” Russell Baker’s “Growing Up,” Moss Hart’s “Act One,” and most notably, J.R. Moehringer’s “The Tender Bar.” “Boy, was it influential,” he said of the latter. “He wasn’t just remembering black-and-white words and facts, but creating this beautiful, novel-like work.” Mizrahi read numerous memoirs before and during the writing of his own; some intimidatingly good (“I would read, and go “uh-oh”), others less so (“I’d think, ‘hurray for me, because it’s awful!’”).
Though “I.M.” is often irresistibly funny and gossipy (Liza Minnelli’s foundation garments make a cameo appearance), it’s also a poignant exploration of a man finding where he belongs. Mizrahi writes of coming out to his conservative family, his lifelong struggles with his weight, his rejection of his parents’ religion, finding his voice as a designer despite struggles in a very difficult business, and his complex relationship with his beloved mother, Sarah — still stylish at 90 — to whom the book is dedicated. (She’s read the book, he said, and loves it.)
And a thread throughout, right up to the book’s touchingly hopeful ending, is his love for performance, which dates back to his childhood. “I’ve been doing shows forever,” Mizrahi said; his one-man Off-Broadway show “Les MIZrahi” had a successful run in 2000, and he’s a fixture on the New York cabaret scene, at places like Joe’s Pub and the Carlyle Hotel (where, he proudly notes, he’s had three years of sold-out shows).
“I&Me,” which is essentially Mizrahi’s book tour, is like a companion piece to “I.M.”; it’s an autobiographical show about his life’s journey, accompanied by the Ben Waltzer Jazz Quartet. He’ll tell stories, he’ll hand out gifts to the audience, and he’ll sing, songs like “A Quiet Thing” (originally sung by Minnelli, in “Flora the Red Menace”), “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and “I Feel Pretty.”
“Of course there’s a joke in it, an irony to it,” he says, of the “West Side Story” song. “But I’m singing it for real, you know, like here I am, I do, I feel pretty — especially today, the [expletive] suit fits. Hello, I feel incredibly pretty!”
In a more reflective vein, he’s quietly proud of the book, and the work it took to bring it into the world. “In the process of writing it, I would say, am I dreaming this, did Liza Minnelli really walk into my office, take her clothes off, did this really happen? But it all is true, every single word of it. It’s my story, and I have it down.
“The bravery is in the writing of it, the bravery is in the presenting of it, giving it to my mother and saying, here’s who I am, I hope you approve but it doesn’t matter, here I am. I really recommend it as an exercise. I remember the day I literally handed in the final draft, after going through all the notes. I remember thinking, gosh, there is no past any more. It’s only future.”