The Democratization of Style

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by Steve Desroches

From a business perspective Isaac Mizrahi is a brand. From an artistic point of view Isaac Mizrahi is a force. Launching his own fashion label at just 15 years old, he would go on to become one of the best-known American designers for not only his designs, but his commitment to the democratization of style. His expansiveness of thought proved to be too large for one art form, however, and now Mizrahi excels in his work on television as well as on the stage in his highly regarded cabaret shows and as a writer.

Photo: Jason Frank Rothenberg

When Mizrahi speaks, he reveals that, despite his high-energy persona, he’s also pensive and self-aware. With calm pacing he can articulate a deep thought about the importance of aesthetics in daily life followed by a quick joke to bring the discussion back to Earth.  And he’s able to sew together—pun intended—the seemingly disparate forms he works in to show that when it comes to artistry, there is no need to limit oneself to a singular definition, other than perhaps just identifying as an artist. And then you get to work.

“To me there isn’t much difference,” says Mizrahi regarding his work on stage and as a fashion designer. “It’s the same creative brain.” He speaks with the same elegance and vigor that’s present in his designs. And on his very first trip to Provincetown, he’ll speak with Tony Award-winner Alan Cumming in a conversation at the Hawthorne Barn as part of the annual 20 Summers programming this Saturday in what will be undoubtedly as fun as it will be compelling for this modern-day renaissance man.

Mizrahi’s mind seems a perfect fit for Provincetown’s culture of encouraging reinvention and exploration of one’s imagination. While most may know him for his work in fashion, and for appearing on shows about it, for the past 20 years Mizrahi has also been a cabaret star, bringing his penchant for storytelling and connecting with an audience to such New York City venues at Café Carlyle and Joe’s Pub. While he won’t be performing here, the event is a unique opportunity. Twenty Summers, now in its fifth year, continually brings enchanting events like this to Provincetown, taking full advantage of the magic inherent in the historic Hawthorne Barn, built in 1907 by Charles Webster Hawthorne, the founder of the Cape Cod School of Art. The simplistic beauty of the Hawthorne Barn is a perfect setting for Cumming, no stranger to Provincetown, to lead this conversation with Mizrahi.

Photo: Jason Frank Rothenberg

Mizrahi is quick to eschew the snobbery and elitism that often seems to define the fashion industry. Yes, craftsmanship and the quality of materials can be definitive differences in couture and off-the-rack. But for something to be pretty and pleasing it does not have to be expensive or fancy, he says. Don’t be hoodwinked by the vacant phrases “high-end” or “exclusive.”  What’s “good is good and what is crap is crap,” regardless of the price tag, he adds. His commitment to beauty in the everyday shook both the fashion and retail world when he began his relationship with the discount chain Target in 2003 and then the home shopping channel QVC in 2009. In doing so, Mizrahi puts forth the question, if everyone needs a toaster or a toilet brush, why can’t they have one that is both functional and beautiful?

Mizrahi was one of the leaders in the Age of Aesthetics, taking a European concept and adjusting it for American culture as well as keeping it affordable.  He’s clear, its not shopping itself that should make you feel better, but creating a space that you appreciate and admire. And in turn it elevates the mood.

“The beauty of everyday objects is the relief of strife,” says Mizrahi. “I know when I’m at my lowest – I’m very moody –I’ll go out, get some fresh air, some exercise. But if you go back to a dark room, it would take you further into a downward spiral. But coming back to a bright room that smells good surrounded by things you appreciate for their beauty, you will feel so much better. I’m not talking about deep depression of course, but it does help. It’s an illusion, but it’s a very potent illusion. It’s a drug-free solution.”

Fashion designers are artists, says Mizrahi. Musicians, actors, and writers may cross over into a new art form with relative societal support; fashion designers can often face obstacles when they try to do the same. But Mizrahi has helped to knock down those walls as he is at work on a new cabaret show as well as finishing up a memoir that’s been 10 years in the making. There should be no denying that for all of his successes their have also been failures. Any artistic life has its highs and lows. But the real talent lies in knowing how to ride each one out.

“It’s so great having written it. It felt very right,” says Mizrahi. “Now the past is the past and the future is the future. It feels good to let it all go. It just tells my story.”

Twenty Summers presents Isaac Mizrahi and Alan Cumming in Conversation on Saturday, May 19 at 5 p.m. at the Hawthorne Barn, 29 Miller Hill Rd., Provincetown. Tickets are $40 and are available online at 20summers.org. For more information call 508.812.0278.