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Moving to the middle

Isaac Mizrahi helped invent cheap chic. Now he's ready to conquer fresh territory with a book on style and a new job at Liz Claiborne.

October 19, 2008|Booth Moore | Times Fashion Critic

ISAAC MIZRAHI is one of the easiest interviews in the fashion business. If ever you're struck mute, he can carry on a conversation with himself. He's fun like that, bouncing from his love of NPR ("Diane Rehm is a god-dess") to his love of Cobb salads during a chat last week in L.A., the latest stop on his book tour for "How to Have Style" (Gotham).

That title may sound presumptuous, but Mizrahi has earned it; his influence on style over the last decade is unparalleled. Runaway hit "Project Runway" exists in part because Mizrahi proved with his 1995 documentary "Unzipped" that viewers would be interested in going behind the scenes of the fashion world. Rachel Zoe and Tim Gunn are pop culture fixtures because Mizrahi paved the way for style personalities on TV with his talk show "Isaac," first on the Oxygen network and later on the Style network.

High-low dressing is the modern way because Mizrahi showed us how to mix sensibilities by designing for Target while simultaneously designing his upscale runway collection. And every store from Sears to H&M has collaborations with designers because Mizrahi proved that they sell.

What all that means for him now is that he's ready to move on. After five years of designing shirtdresses, pea coats, ballet flats and other classics for Target, he's taking over as creative director of Liz Claiborne in January. Now that he's done high and low, he's ready to conquer the middle.

His first Claiborne collection hits department stores in early February. And he's got quite a challenge ahead of him. Claiborne, who died last year, became a household name by designing coordinating separates in the 1980s. But women don't dress like that any more, and the company's sales figures have reflected that. Women mix and match, pairing a designer handbag with a cheap-chic blouse from Zara or Target. That has meant the middle -- the vast, poly-blend sea of Claiborne, Jones New York, Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein -- has been uncool for some time.

Mizrahi says that's exactly the point. He made the switch because the middle is uncool. "Now they are begging for fashion at Target. If they ask me for one more short jacket, I'm going to hurl," he says. "All I ever wanted to do was really great pantsuits that look chic. And that's what this tier needs."

Mizrahi predicts that the economic downturn will change shopping priorities. "I feel like in times of financial strife, Target isn't your destination for clothes anymore. You might go look at clothes there, but then you buy tires or cat food. At Macy's, you are going specifically for a solution to the problem of buying clothes to wear. The teeny bit more expensive the clothes are -- at Target, a skirt is $29.99 and at Liz, it's $59 or $69 -- the quality is exponentially better. Now, it's about value."

Mizrahi tried the middle with his Isaac line in the mid-1990s. I still have a sweater from that line; it's a classic Fair Isle, but in hot pink and black -- preppy with a twist, like so many of his designs.

His contract forbids him from discussing his clothes for Claiborne until Jan. 1. But he will say that he plans to stay true to his classic design values.

The real deal

His book, one of the better style manuals I've seen, has the same through line. Instead of buying into makeover mania, Mizrahi encourages women to accept that they look fine and then to discover their inner style inspiration.

"It was important to find stories that resonated," says the designer, who conducted a casting call to find the 12 female subjects he uses to demonstrate how to have style on a budget: when you're traveling on business, when you're petite, when you're bigger than a size 12 and by spending more on less.

The book begins with a questionnaire to help in assembling a personal style-inspiration board. There are questions about what paintings or photographs appeal, what you splurge on and what you wear frequently. Then, chapter by chapter, Mizrahi takes on style challenges, using real women's wardrobes and bodies to show how to create a tuxedo-like look, how to dress up denim. It ends with pages of closet staples -- riding boots, leopard pumps, a white shirt -- all things that Mizrahi has been reinventing throughout his 20-year career.

But it's not the actual clothes that are the problem for most American women, it's the fit, he says. "I don't want to pass judgment on sweat pants, but they have to fit better. If you are going to wear them, I can't see your panty line," he says. "If you are going to wear a suit, it's a good idea to take it to the tailor to have the sleeves taken up or let out."

So, it's about the little things.

"Really, if one could take the pressure off, if people didn't think they looked so horrible, style would be a much happier subject."

How true.


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