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So Young, So Restless : Dynamo Whiz Kid Isaac Mizrahi's Brash Designs Have Wowed Everyone From Chanel to Sandra Bernhard

February 02, 1992|MARY ROURKE | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

NEW YORK — "I ask myself when I design every collection, 'What will change style forever?' That's the task I've set: Expressing myself and influencing the world."

You have to be young to get away with a comment like that. Or you have to be Isaac Mizrahi, who is not only young but audacious and apparently on the verge of something big.

Some people know him as the whiz kid who turned a tooled Western saddle into a leather bustier. Others think of him as the hipster who dresses Spike, Liza and Sandra Bernhard.

Either way, when the 30-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y., is honored here Monday night by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the industry will officially condone his flashy, brashy style.

More than condone it, they will applaud it, and him, as the hope of American fashion. And they have their reasons.

He is one of the few home-grown talents to crack Europe's crusty inner circle. His clothes have popped off the pages of British Vogue and sold in tony shops from England to Italy.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art here has been collecting his work since his first runway show four years ago. His label squeezes in among the most coveted in fashion history: Madame Worth, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent.

But for sheer snob appeal, the coup de grace came about a year ago when Chanel, Paris, gave Mizrahi its blessing and its bucks. The French luxury company is now an investor. With so much going so right, why is this man chain-smoking?

At a desk the size of a dining table, with a view of gritty Wooster Street outside his SoHo window, the young maestro can hardly sit still. Eyes like coals, lips as elastic as a cartoon character's, hair a dark shock of curls, you would notice him in any crowd. Besides, he's over 6 feet tall and no string bean.

"An astrologer told me I'd have a fashion house, and it would be very important to women," he begins. No need for panic so far.

But then: "My muses get very upset with me if I worry about money. They say it's counterproductive." Wherever those two thoughts meet, there must be a hefty stack of bills waiting. But no one ever said success comes cheap.

In this case, however, it did come early. People who don't give a fig about fashion may recognize Mizrahi from his first incarnation as an actor. In "Fame," he played an auditioning student. The movie mirrored his own life at the time; he was studying acting at New York's High School of Performing Arts. If nothing else, that set his sights on the stars, the spotlight and center stage. Today he can hardly mention his friends, or tell a story, without including someone famous.

Take Sandra Bernhard. She called him after he said she was beautiful on "Attitudes," a fashion-for-TV show. "I wanted to see about wearing something of his," she says. And she did wear a pair of his hot pants for an MTV special. Now they're friends, and he's designing her costumes for a Broadway show she hopes to open this spring.

Bernhard says they're two of a kind: "He draws from the culture, as I do. His twist on classical is right for me. He has a modern point of view. And he's a family man, he's old-fashioned, as I am." Last year, they spent Hanukkah at his mother's house in Brooklyn.

Bernhard has attended Mizrahi's fashion shows. He says he can hear her from backstage, screaming every time she likes what comes down the runway. Spike Lee has been there too. Mizrahi supplied some of the costumes for "Jungle Fever." Madonna came once, although so far Mizrahi hasn't outfitted her for anything. And while Liza Minnelli rarely goes to his shows, she is a regular in his studio. He makes a lot of her stage clothes.

The celebrity counterculture action only enhances his daredevil image. "He is a bit on the edge, a little offbeat," says Rose Marie Bravo, I. Magnin's chief executive. "At our store his customers are the avant-garde women, more confident and original than some."

The first indication that his extreme ideas would earn a permanent place on the fashion map came in 1989 when Mizrahi hoisted a tartan-plaid kilt into a strapless minidress. A sequined evening parka from that same collection set a trend around the world. His sherbet-colored blazers and top coats filtered all the way through the food chain two years ago. And then there was that evening dress he showed with Hush Puppies. "W-a-a-y dressed down," as he says.

Mizrahi may have dreamed of Hollywood in high school, but he also dabbled in design. He and his neighbor, Sarah Haddad Cheney, a friend of his parents, started a fashion business, IS New York. He made women's clothes, she sold them to stores.

His parents weren't surprised. Mizrahi's father manufactured children's clothes. And when other boys were learning to dance like John Travolta, Mizrahi was asking for a sewing machine, a dress form and an airbrush to paint T-shirts. His parents let him have his way. "To give a child tools, to bring out the child's potential. That's the most important thing," says his mother, Sarah.

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