Sew Crazy For Women

Veteran Designer Creates Fun, Mass-Market Clothing Line

For many of us, the best part about watching any awards show on TV is checking out what the stars are wearing.

Designer Isaac Mizrahi has dressed a lot of the women on the red carpet, including Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts and Sarah Jessica Parker.

But he's not just a behind-the-scenes dressmaker. As Correspondent Vicki Mabrey first reported last spring, he's a star in his own right -- a performer with an exuberant view of life that outshines his most glittering gown.

Wearing an Isaac Mizrahi usually means you're gorgeous, rich, famous, or all of the above.

"I love women, you know. Women are very inspiring to me. Even bitchy, bitchy, horrible women are very inspiring to me in some way, because I think of them as characters or something," says Mizrahi. "Or because I want to be a woman. I don't know what it is, honestly."

Mizrahi works hard for women, and he papers the walls in his Greenwich Village studio with designs -- inspirations that translate into works of wearable art.

His new "IM to Order" line features custom-made, one-of-a-kind pieces for rising stars and ladies who lunch. One example: a 10-pound Swarovski crystal mini-dress that will lighten your wallet by $25,000. "When you get that on, it feels like someone's touching you everywhere," says Mizrahi.

But now, he's trying something new on for size – a line of bright, fun, mass-market clothes. And the fashion house where he's selling them? The discount chain, Target, where you can buy an Isaac Mizrahi original for just $21.99.

"For years, I would identify with these women who would stop me on the street and say, 'God, I wish I could afford your clothes, you know,'" says Mizrahi. "I would identify more with those ladies than ladies who could afford my clothes, and who were sort of shopping most of their day."

Make no mistake, however, it's not just for love, it's also for money. With his clothes for Target, Mizrahi is now part of a trend of designers improving the bottom line of their high-end business -- by going low-end.

"I do everything with the same amount of conviction and love ... Who cares about a bunch of expensive clothes that three people are going to wear," adds Mizrahi.

"Isn't it more fun to think of, like, this thing that you're actually making and of a contribution to a woman's life? You're giving her a cute suit that costs $50, you know, or an amazing shirt that costs $17. Isn't that the thing that you really want to live for, ultimately?"

Mizrahi launched his newest venture in New York last fall, kicking it off with a private show for fashion writers – everything from shoes to sunglasses, to dresses and suits. And the latest styles are just $3.99 to under $100.

Mizrahi took his show on the road, too, rolling across the country, where Target has stores in just about every state. His tour bus stopped at the Iowa State Fair to pitch his new clothes to the women of Middle America.

"All these years, I've been working with supermodels who are a size 2 and 6 feet tall. You could put a sack on that girl and she'll look so incredibly chic," says Mizrahi. "But I have to say, I love flesh. I love anatomy, and so all these years, I've sort of been starved for it. And now, I'm actually sort of faced with it on a regular basis. And it's very, very pleasing to me."

Like all of his experiences, Mizrahi says that everything about the Iowa State Fair inspired him.

"Oh my God, it was so fantastic. Because you just get such a sense of who we are, America, you know, from a butter sculpture of a life-sized Harley Davidson," says Mizrahi. "I wonder where you get idea to sculpt butter in such quantities ... That's who we are. And you have to embrace that. It's important to love that."

Apparently, Target's average shopper – 44 years old, and a size 4-16 -- feels the same way about Mizrahi. Target executives won't release hard numbers, but say sales are beating expectations.

By contrast, his fledgling high-end clientele is exclusively small, and includes friends, celebrities, or in the case of Sarah Jessica Parker, both. In "Sex In the City," Mizrahi was hip enough to rate a special guest appearance.

Mizrahi, in turn, devoted a whole segment of his talk show on the cable network "Oxygen" to designing a dress for Parker.

"There's a running theme with Isaac," says Parker. "And that is, he loves women. He loves them."

Parker asked Mizrahi to make her a special dress to wear to the opening of the Broadway show, "The Producers," starring her husband Matthew Broderick. It was a favor, but with the free publicity, Mizrahi reaps as much as he sews.

But what Parker got from Mizrahi, she says, isn't just a beautiful dress. It's also his spirit and zest for life: "He wrings every ounce out of an experience. He's just endlessly mining. He loves life."

Mizrahi, however, has had a life to love. For 10 years, he was the darling of the American fashion world, winning "Designer of the Year" three times with his line of high-end clothes selling from Saks to Barneys to Bergdorf.

But in 1998, after years in the red, his backer, Chanel, pulled the plug. The New York Times carried it on the front page: "Designer Most Likely To Succeed Doesn't."

It was public and painful, but Mizrahi says it's the bad times that make you appreciate the good: "You know, when you have a tooth pulled or something, and someone says, 'Here's a painkiller.' And you say, 'No, I don't need a painkiller, I'm just going to do it.' If I don't live through this pain, I won't know what it's like when it feels better or something, you know."

That's the lesson that young Isaac learned while growing up in Brooklyn. Awkward and overweight, he was trapped in leg braces for years by a near-fatal case of spinal meningitis. He went to a strict orthodox Jewish school, where his antics and love of the arts bordered on the sacrilegious.

"You can imagine at 8 or 9 years old what you go through when someone tells you your most natural instincts are all to be a sinner. Also, a homosexual is, you know, being gay is not accepted in this culture either," says Mizrahi.

"People say, 'Oh, you know, when did you discover you were gay? And I say, like, 'Well, when did you discover that you were human?'"

Mizrahi finally found his niche among the stage-struck teens at New York's Performing Arts High School, which inspired the movie "Fame."

Four years ago, he had a one-man off-Broadway show, called "Les Mizrahi," and he still performs occasionally around New York.

Mizrahi, however, revels in contrast. He lives in a modest apartment in expensive New York. He's Jewish, but his family comes from Syria. His look combines Gap and couture, and he believes true chic is mixing tastes and prices to make a style all your own.

Even his beloved, one-of-a-kind mutt, Harry, reflects his philosophy. "I like, really better, mutts. I love the way they look. That's couture to me, that dog, because no one else has that dog. I'm the only one," says Mizrahi.

And it's a philosophy that mixes a champagne lifestyle with ballpark franks.

"I mean, baseball is life, right," says Mizrahi, a Yankees fan. "Sometimes, there's just nothing you can do. You're just not gonna win the game. It's a very good, an important exercise, I think, for people to go through. It's like a good pitcher pitches 65 percent wins, and 35 percent losses. That's what you have to learn to deal with in your life – how you deal with loss."

Whatever the performance -- whether it be singing, designing or the bottom line, Mizrahi says he's not afraid to fail, and that's the only way to succeed.

"I think in the end, all art is, is being a big, fat fool. And a big flop. Because somebody's not gonna like what you do. Or somebody's gonna love what you do, no matter how bad or good it is," says Mizrahi.

"So, if you can continue getting out of bed in the morning, and functioning, and creating what you think is good, and what you think is good art, then that's all that matters. That's all that matters."

In June, Isaac Mizrahi held a runway show at the posh Manhattan restaurant, Cipriani, to show off a real one-of-a-kind look.

It was a mix and match of his "IM to Order" high-end line, paired with his Target collection: a $9.99 tank top on the same runway with a $50,000 ball gown.

By Mizrahi's definition, it's the ultimate in "true chic."