Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi opens his new memoir, I.M., in the toy aisle at the Avenue U Variety Store. It's the mid-1960s, and he desperately wants a deluxe Barbie set — which comes with a doll and three outfits. Unfortunately for 5-year-old Mizrahi, a Barbie was "the exact thing that would label a kid in those days as someone who was a freak," he says.
Growing up in a Syrian, Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, Mizrahi says he stood out like "a chubby, gay thumb." He did not get a deluxe Barbie that day. As a consolation prize, Mizrahi received a G.I. Joe for Hanukkah, but he hated the action figure's "dreary camouflage print."
Around his sixth birthday, Mizrahi's mother finally bought him the coveted doll (though she consented to the "starter" Barbie, not the deluxe set). "She kind of looked the other way — I really credit her with that," Mizrahi says.
The memoir chronicles Mizrahi's rise to fashion fame as well as his lifelong struggles with insomnia and depression. (Without therapy, "I would be a really, really dark individual," he says.)
He tells NPR about the education he got in the women's fitting room at Loehmann's, and what it was like to finally come out to his mother — "I don't think she was as distraught or as surprised as she claimed to be," he says.
On how being gay was "outside the realm of reality" in his religious, conservative community
It was kind of like this weird sort of social disease or something that didn't even have a name ... like they couldn't bring themselves to even think of the idea of being gay. Of course, there were slang words — terrible slang words — but ... when the bullies said those words, I don't even think they equated them with the actual idea of that sexuality. It was just so outside the realm of reality in those days, especially in that community.
On what made his mother different
She spoke to me as one would as an adult. I always noted that my friends ... they loved my mom because she never spoke down to them as kids. She always spoke to everyone in this kind of equal way. I always thought of her as the most incredibly fascinating person in the world because she brought me into all of these processes that — perhaps occasionally weren't exactly appropriate for someone my age — but in that relationship it was so, so, so nourishing.
On accompanying his mother into the women's fitting room at Loehmann's
I did get this ... sense of the psychology of the way women think about clothes — also what they look like in their undress. ... And so it was this crazy, crazy glimpse into that world. ... It was this big, communal dressing room, and people grabbed each other's clothes and it was quite competitive. And I noticed some pretty strong psychological ties between women's underclothes, and their clothes, and who they were.
On attending the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts
I somehow convinced my parents that I should be permitted to go to that school and I auditioned and I got in. At that time, it was not the easiest to thing to get to the city from Brooklyn — it was literally an hour each way on the subway — and it was arduous. ... For the first year I felt, like, nothing but culture shock and guilt. But once I was out of that sort of very, very repressive community, I never looked back.
On designing and selling clothes when he was in high school
I had this tiny collection with a friend of mine ... We made clothes and sold them to boutiques in New York City. I had this small atelier in my basement where I made sketches and sometimes I made first prototypes, and I did a lot of sewing down there.
On his decision to focus on fashion rather than show business
At some point I just got scared. ... I was so sure I was going to go into show business until I realized that all my classmates were pretty, and thin, and tall and easily castable. I was this crazy anomaly. I was a fat kid — which I will never, ever outgrow the feeling of. At that point, I decided to kind of try my hand at something which I perceived — I mean this is a joke — but I perceived fashion as a less treacherous field than show business. ... It wasn't about me, it was about the clothes I might think of. ... There's so much more to hide behind.
On the death of his father
I was out to most of my friends, and even my mom and my sisters. He didn't know and I was sort of guarding the secret a little bit from him. I just couldn't bring myself to tell him, you know? ... The minute he passed, I felt — as much as I would miss him, as much as I loved him — I felt liberated. I could not have fulfilled my agenda as an adult at all — my creative agenda, or my psychosexual agenda — if my father was with us. I would be guarding that still to this day.
On how his mother, now 91, taught him "learned optimism"
The other day she said this amazing thing — it was so inspiring. She said, "Oh, all this stuff about old age ... losing your sight, and losing your hearing, and you can't walk, and you have a walker, and you can't eat anything." She said, "I recommend it. I recommend it." And I was like, "What?"... She said, "... As opposed to not being here, it's fine. I recommend all of those things." ... There were moments that were very difficult for her in the past 10 years ... and she still recommends it, you know? And so as I get older I learn more and more optimism.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Isaac Mizrahi says that as he grew up in a Syrian, Jewish Orthodox family in Brooklyn, he often felt like a chubby, gay thumb. Today, of course, he's a fashion designer and celebrity, familiar from QVC and "Project Runway All Stars." He's written a memoir that details not only his rise to prominence but rising above some of the shame he was made to feel as a child, the losses of so many fashion figures from the ravages of AIDS and struggles with his own anxieties, insomnia and depression. Isaac Mizrahi's memoir is "I.M." He joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
ISAAC MIZRAHI: Oh, hello.
SIMON: The book opens with a signature moment in your life, and you're 5 years old. You're at the Avenue U variety store in Brooklyn.
MIZRAHI: That's right.
SIMON: And what did you want more than anything else?
MIZRAHI: Well, I wanted a Barbie doll, but a Barbie doll was kind of like the exact thing that would label a kid in those days as someone who was a freak, you know. And as I think the book talks about, you know, it was kind of like this weird sort of social disease or something that didn't even have a name, you know. Like, they couldn't bring themselves to even think of the idea of being gay. So - yeah, so the Barbie doll was like this emblem of something, I think.
SIMON: And eventually your mother did get you a Barbie doll.
MIZRAHI: Yes, she allowed me. She kind of looked the other way. I really credit her with that.
SIMON: You did kind of grow up in the women's fitting room at Loehmann's, didn't you?
MIZRAHI: (Laughter) I did, actually. I was always accompanying her there, and I did get this crazy kind of sense of the psychology of the way women think about clothes. And so it was this crazy, crazy glimpse into that world of the way those women - it was this big communal dressing room and people grabbed each other's clothes and it was quite competitive. And yeah - and I noticed some pretty strong psychological ties between women's underclothes and their clothes and who they were.
SIMON: Tell us about the atelier you had in your basement. When you were a high school student, you were all just - you were really a professional designer, too.
MIZRAHI: Yeah, it's a crazy thing. I had this tiny collection with a friend of mine called Sara (ph). We made clothes and sold them to boutiques in New York City. And I had this small atelier in my basement where I made sketches, and sometimes I made first prototypes, and I did a lot of sewing down there. I mean, it all started with my fascination with puppets. I started making puppets when I was, like, I would say, like, 8 years old. I went with my mom to see the original production of "Follies," which is this fabulous Stephen Sondheim musical, and I was absolutely like just...
SIMON: (Singing) But I'm here.
MIZRAHI: Exactly. I mean, there I was, right? And it really affected me, and I did this big puppet revue in my garage, and it was called "Follies." And I learned to sew making puppets, you know. And the first things I ever - the first, like, real foray into anything creative was the puppet shows and also this crazy female impersonation that I used to do. I suddenly discovered Streisand. You know, here's this orthodox kid going to see "Funny Girl" when I'm 8 and just going mad thinking, well, she's Jewish and she's so glamorous. And it kind of saved me in this way, you know. And so I started to imitate her. I could do her voice great. I did Liza, I did Judy Garland. I did these female impersonations, again, at a time when it wasn't exactly, like, smiled upon for an 8 or a 10-year-old kid to do that.
SIMON: How hard was it to tell your mother who you were?
MIZRAHI: You know, I have to say it was very hard and she said, you know, you really should never tell your father. But it was a big relief to me because I'm not sure my father would have been able to - I really don't know if he would have been able to deal with this, you know.
SIMON: Your father, we'll explain, is gone now.
MIZRAHI: Yes, my father is gone. And that was one of the more difficult things writing about in the book, this idea that as much as I loved him - you know, he went when I was about 20 years old. And I had come out in a kind of half way, right? I was out to most of my friends and even my mom and my sisters. He didn't know, and I was sort of guarding the secret a little bit from him. And I just couldn't bring myself to tell him, you know, and then he passed. And the minute he passed I felt - kind of as much as I would miss him, as much as I loved him, I felt liberated. I could not have fulfilled my agenda as an adult at all, my creative agenda or my psychosexual agenda, if my father was with us. I would be guarding that still to this day.
SIMON: For a lot of Americans, we're going through very bad times.
MIZRAHI: Yes, we are.
SIMON: And I wonder how you feel about that, if some of the progress made...
MIZRAHI: I am an optimist and I think it's learned optimism. I think it's learned. I mean, when I was a kid, you could barely talk about certain things. And now not only do we talk about them, but we literally act on them. And I think that's progress, you know? And the thing is, like, my mom said the other day - she said this amazing thing. It was so inspiring. You know, she said, oh, all this stuff about old age - you know, she's 91. And she said losing your sight and losing your hearing and you can't walk and you have a walker and you can't eat anything, and she said, I recommend it, you know.
MIZRAHI: I recommend it. And I was like what - I mean, she's brilliant, obviously brilliant. She said as opposed to not seeing stuff, as opposed to not being here, it's fine. Like, I recommend all of those things. And it's - and you see where I get it. You see where I get this sort of learned optimism because there were moments that were very difficult for her in the past 10 years. I mean, she fell, and she had shoulder surgery, and she had her hip replaced, et cetera, et cetera. And she still recommends it, you know.
And so, like, as I get older, I learn more and more optimism. And I look at where this country is now and I look at us and the political situation and I keep thinking it's really not about this moment. It's about the next moment and how we have that to look forward to, you know. And the progress that we've made, which is not - it's not a figment of our imagination. It might be in kind of genetic recess right now, but it's there, and it's definitely coming back.
You know, you can't tell me that all - that this generation, my generation who grew up, like, sort of watching "Sesame Street," OK, where everything was just integrated - right? - that's what we grew up with. War was wrong. Racism was wrong. OK. You cannot tell me that that is not going to prevail again in this country. It absolutely will.
SIMON: Isaac Mizrahi - his memoir, "I.M." - thanks so much for being with us.
MIZRAHI: Thank you.
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