You could say Isaac Mizrahi’s path to becoming one of the United States’ most influential Jewish fashion designers was a very long time coming — generations in the making, in fact. In the early 20th century, when Isaac’s grandparents emigrated from Syria to escape persecution, they readily entered Brooklyn’s Sephardic Jewish community, which was deeply embedded in New York’s booming garment industry. Back then, 90% of New York clothing factories were Jewish-owned and about 60% of the city’s Jewish population worked in the apparel field. So when it came time to find a trade, Isaac’s father turned to the garment industry, and soon started his own company of children’s coats and suits.
Though as a boy Isaac was disinterested in his father’s business, he fell in love with the sewing machines and fabric. He may have loved them too much, according to many of his teachers at his Orthodox yeshiva: They often discovered clothing sketches scribbled in the margins of Isaac’s prayer books. And it was at the Sephardic synagogue his family attended that Isaac first encountered the mixture of high-and-low fashion that he would later make central to his iconic brand. However, as an outgoing young homosexual, Isaac felt like an outcast. Luckily, one of his teachers realized Isaac’s artistic talent and encouraged him to transfer to Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts. Around the same time, Isaac received a sewing machine as a gift from his father. The first garment he ever sewed was a wool skirt for his mother to wear for the High Holidays.
After high school, Isaac enrolled in Parsons School of Design, followed by an internship with acclaimed designer Perry Ellis. In 1988, at age 26, Isaac held his first fashion show featuring his own designs, which launched him into the world of high fashion. Known for his vibrant designs, nontraditional materials and surprising pairings of fabric, he was also fond of using unexpected symbols, such as the Star of David. “If crosses are everywhere, why not make the Star of David ubiquitous too?” Isaac has asked more than once. Today, he is acclaimed for helping to pave the way for the recent trend in fast fashion through his partnerships with Target and QVC, which have made his avant-garde sensibility and colorful patterns accessible for everyone. A far cry from the bullied boy in Brooklyn, Isaac still wants to see a world in which everyone is able to express themselves. His clothing helps each of us do just that.