Isaac Mizrahi: One-Man Brand

On the eve of the "Radical Craft" conference in California, the fashion designer talks about art, beauty, design, and Target

Isaac Mizrahi's office reflects the high-low nature of his brand, which includes a mass-market line of clothing and accessories for Target (TGT) as well as an ultra-luxe fashion label for Bergdorf Goodman. The fashion designer works in a residential building in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, the once-bohemian, now-chic neighborhood. Neighbors walk in and out of the lobby wearing sweatpants, carrying groceries. And Harry, the designer's friendly dog, greets guests to Mizrahi's open-door office.

Although Mizrahi's workplace seems more like a comfy den than a beehive of industry, the phone keeps ringing with questions about the TV show that he (and Harry) host on the Style Network or about the soon-to-launch men's collection for Bergdorf. He's also still working out the details on a mid-range brand of accessories, an extension of his earlier Isaac line of moderately priced shoes. Not to mention that the Target line, now in its third year, is still a popular presence in all 1,300-plus "Targé"stores.

Mizrahi's career trajectory offers valuable insight into the challenges and opportunities of a one-man brand. He launched his own fashion house in 1988, let Parisian mega-brand Chanel invest in the company in 1994, and was featured in the 1995 fashion-world documentary film Unzipped. But in 1998, Chanel backed out after disappointing sales, and Mizrahi was out of business.

A trained actor -- he attended New York's School of the Performing Arts -- Mizrahi staged a one-man play to keep his creative juices alive. Out of the blue, a childhood acquaintance called Mizrahi, proposing that the designer join forces with Target. Because he was a Targéshopper himself and an admirer of the mass retailer's awareness of high-design (by the time of Mizrahi's Target negotiations, the retailer was selling objects designed by respected architect Michael Graves), Mizrahi accepted a licensing agreement in 2002.

This week, Mizrahi will be speaking at Stories from the Source: Radical Craft, the biannual conference at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Before he left for California, BusinessWeek Online's Reena Jana sat down with Mizrahi in New York to discuss the fashion craft, his cycles of brand reinvention, how to bridge high and low, and the ever-expanding roles of designers in today's marketplace. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow.

You work in so many different media -- from clothing design to television. Do you think that designers today need to play across channels to build a brand?

I actually didn't have a master plan. My brand is about who I am and who I've always been. Here's an example: I went to the School for the Performing Arts in New York, then Parsons for design school. My teachers always told me I had to choose -- was it going to be acting? Piano? Design? I refused to make a choice. What remains constant, and a guiding force, is that I don't take a job unless it's inspiring.

That inspired you to join forces with Target?

A childhood friend kept calling me with the idea. My business partner, Marisa Gardini, advised me to consider it. I listened, and realized that no other retailer has the light touch or humor or playfulness as Target. What mattered was that I love Target! I buy stuff from there, and I just love it.

It didn't feel too low-brow?

I wanted to reach out, not sell out. Target gets design. It was a good fit for me -- my ideas didn't fit with any other mass retailer.

But I believe that mass-culture and high-design can naturally cross over. What came first, Nike's (NKE) high-performance sports gear or Prada's? In my lifetime, I've seen the fashion designer Azzedine Alaia transform how people wear stretch clothing. Before he made body-hugging dresses from stretchy textiles [in the 1980s], bike messengers didn't wear stretch pants. And then leggings happened, after Alaia's designs. Good design, I believe, is all born of one mind. It translates. Design is democratic -- my dual lines illustrate that, too.

Are there advantages to having two radically different lines, beyond the obvious potential for increased revenue sources?

I no longer have to deal with quality issues. If people don't like the crazy-expensive couture, they don't have to buy it. And same with Target. If consumers don't feel like it's right for them, they don't buy it. They can choose how to define quality and value and what is worth the purchase. Or not.

Do you start by designing for the high end or the low end?

I did a high-end women's line before I developed the one for Target. That's just how it happened. I'm launching a high-end men's line for fall 2006. Men's clothes are based on tailoring. There isn't the equivalent of a basic woman's tulle skirt that can translate from high to low easily. But after the Bergdorf men's line, I might consider doing one for Target. I believe that a $1,500 white shirt can be just as valid as a $17 white shirt.

The structure of your business has evolved over the years-adapting to expansion as well as downsizing. How have these changes affected your design process?

Right now, my small couture workroom has only six employees. My total office staff is about 10. It's a skeleton crew. Everything else is licensing. There's a brand manager and ancillary staff.

When I had to shut down my larger company [in 1998], I called Steven Spielberg, for whom I was developing a comic book that was optioned to be made into a movie for Dreamworks at the time. He gave me really valuable advice. He said that I'd feel free and light when I lost my company's infrastructure, and be more creative. Tibor Kalman, the late graphic designer, told me the same thing. But Tibor also gave me valuable design advice when I was experiencing changes in my company. He said, look at design culturally and not just physically.

What do you mean by looking at design culturally?

I've focused on the weight or finish of something, really physical attributes. But the idea of an object, or anything that is designed, from a choreographed stage performance to a handbag, has to be right. A great idea comes first, before great design can be accomplished. It's not just physical. A handbag is beautiful because it started from a beautiful idea, then it's designed, then crafted into something beautiful, based on the original idea.

There seems to be a lot of emphasis on the idea of "craft" in fashion and in design these days. How do you define "craft"?

Craft, to me, is an expression of personality. I mean, anyone and everyone can knit a sweater. Give the same yarn and instructions to seven different people, and you'll get seven different sweaters. The individual result is "craft."

How would you advise businesses in terms of looking out for new design trends these days?

I believe that businesses should take a look at what artists -- painters, poets, dancers, actors, sculptors -- are doing. John Fairchild, who ran Women's Wear Daily, once said that fashion and art were completely separate worlds. But today designers are tapping into art more and more.

An early example is jewelry designer Elsa Peretti. She did so when she was designing for Halston in the 1970s. She looked at sculptures by Constantin Brancusi and Isamu Noguchi for inspiration. She is one of the most influential designers of my lifetime. And I think that designers -- from fashion to industrial designers -- will increasingly borrow from poetry. To me, the choreographer George Balanchine is one of the best designers that ever lived. And Bach. They both solved design problems beautifully.

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