Let’s be real: Designer Isaac Mizrahi doesn’t come to St. Louis for fashion inspiration.
But opera, sure. Arch-induced claustrophobia, check. And now add book festival kickoff.
As keynote speaker for the 41st St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, Mizrahi brings a million personal stories from his memoir.
“I.M.” begins with his childhood longing for that classic fashionista, Barbie, and ends after he dressed women from Liza Minnelli to Michelle Obama to become a household name with a line for Target.
The book leaves out, however, “the first place I ever traveled to in my entire life,” he admits in a phone interview.
At 8 or so, Mizrahi, now 58, won a poster contest by drawing a picture related to his Jewish heritage. The prize was a trip to St. Louis.
“I remember going up in the Arch,” Mizrahi says. “It was a formative experience — I was so claustrophobic. It’s such a funny, funny memory of St. Louis.”
But his memories of growing up in an insular Syrian-Jewish community in Brooklyn were not so funny.
“I stuck out like a chubby gay thumb,” he writes. “There wasn’t a moment when I didn’t feel claustrophobic looking at my prospects there, and yet for those who were suited to it — like my sisters and some of my cousins — it was a mecca, its own little holy paradise closed off to the rest of the world.”
When he speaks at Jewish Community Centers (something he never expected to do), he talks “very honestly and very candidly,” he says. “Usually the Jews I’m talking to seem to agree with me.”
The yeshiva he attended as a young student was very observant, he says. “Even the English teachers were rabbis.”
But at home, although religion was part of his parents’ lives, he notes that “they weren’t nuts about the Sabbath.” Mizrahi’s mother would often stress traditional ideas, yet she also became his best friend, talking to him about books, style and culture.
He recalls in his memoir how she emulated Jackie Kennedy, disdained “vul-gah” platform shoes and held ruffles to a “nearly impossible standard.”
“I didn’t know it at the time, but these were the blocks with which my design philosophy was built,” he writes. “The best collections I ever did were inspired by the memories of how my mother looked in clothes.”
And after she took him at age 9 to see Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” it inspired more creativity, including a full-scale puppet revue with the same name. Young Isaac wrote the production, made the costumes, and created the characters. His parents weren’t thrilled with his puppet fixation.
After a doctor gave his mom a book about “the gifted child,” the boy started realizing that he was able to live a “less-boring life” by pursuing beauty and creativity.
He writes that he started letting go of the past when he got accepted into New York’s “Fame!” performing arts high school. After graduation, he made his name as a fashion designer.
As a designer, he met and made clothes for huge stars. Robert De Niro and Madonna came to his shows. He fitted Oprah at a glamorous hotel. A documentary about Mizrahi, “Unzipped,” played at the Sundance Film Festival.
Roger Ebert gave the movie three stars, saying of the designer: “He is a charming subject for a film because he has the three requirements for great conversation: He is smart, funny and a little crazy.”
But although Mizrahi was in business with Chanel during the 1990s, losses meant his company closed in 1998.
Now he promotes on QVC a brand with his name (he sold a previous business for a reported $30 million). He says the QVC clothes are “incredible basics.” But he’s seguing more into show business.
A decade ago, James Robinson, artistic director of Opera Theatre St. Louis, left a message for Mizrahi about doing an opera.
“I thought he meant direct an opera,” Mizrahi says. “I think he may have meant design an opera.”
He called Robinson back and said, “’Oh my god, Jim, I would love to direct an opera.’ I think he was too gentlemanly or embarrassed to correct me.”
He actually asked Mizrahi to both direct and design, Robinson confirmed this week. So in 2010, Mizrahi came to St. Louis to direct “A Little Night Music,” and returned in 2014 to direct his second opera, “The Magic Flute.”
He loves Opera Theatre’s festival, he says. “It’s incredible.”
Mizrahi’s plans include more productions (“none concrete enough to speak about”) and in January a cabaret show he performs at Café Carlyle in New York.
But performing can be more stressful than fashion shows, he says.
“If you don’t sell clothes, you put them on sale and they sell.”
But if someone criticizes a performance, “it’s very personal.”
No matter how cheap the tickets are, people won’t show up for a bad show, he says.
Mizrahi is still close to his mother, who is 90. She wishes he and his husband would have a child. But he rarely sees his two sisters, who became even more religious as adults.
“They know I’m a homosexual and they quote-unquote ‘love me anyway.’ I do hate being ‘loved anyway.’”
Candid and honest.
When • 7 p.m. Sunday
Where • Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
How much • $45, or included in Premier Pass ($110, includes every author event at the JCC during the year); free for students with ID
More info • 314-442-3299; jccstl.com
Whether book lovers are interested in Audrey Hepburn or Robin Williams, women in film or World War II, there is likely a topic of interest at the annual St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. Most events require a ticket, usually in the $20 range. For book lovers, the premier pass, at $110, includes not just the keynote event ($45 by itself) but every other author event during the festival proper and “bookend” events before and afterward. All events take place at Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive.
For more details about authors and titles, go to stljewishbookfestival.org or call 314-442-3299.
Isaac Mizrahi • “I.M.” (7 p.m.)
Susan Angel Miller • “Permission to Thrive” (10:30 a.m.)
Pam Jenoff • “The Lost Girls of Paris” (1 p.m.)
Marra B. Gad • “The Color of Love” (7 p.m.)
Dawn Raffel • “The Strange Case of Dr. Couney” (10:30 a.m.)
Yousef Bashir • “The Words of My Father” (7 p.m.)
Sports Night with Art Shamsky • “After the Miracle” (7 p.m.; RSVP requested)
Jack J. Hersch • “Death March Escape” (10:30 a.m.)
Margalit Fox • “Conan Doyle for the Defense” (1 p.m.)
Women’s Night with Elizabeth Weitzman • “Renegade Women in Film & TV” (7 p.m.; RSVP requested)
Elana Horwich • “Meal and a Spiel” (10:30 a.m.)
Sarah Hurwitz • “Here All Along” (1 p.m.)
Dave Itzkoff • “Robin” (7 p.m.)
Alana Newhouse, “The 100 Most Jewish Foods” (10:30 a.m. with bagel breakfast at the JCC campus’ Mirowitz Center at Covenant Place; RSVP requested)
Todd S. Purdum • “Something Wonderful” (7 p.m.)
Josh Samuel Frank • “Giraffes on Horseback Salad” (1 p.m.)
Dr. Michael Roizen • “What to Eat When” (7 p.m.)
Missouri’s Own • Michael A. Kahn, “The Art of Conflict”; Beth Koritz, “Resilience Road”; Joe Regenbogen, “Making a Difference”; other local authors will join book signing after presentation (1 p.m.)
Michael J. Coles • “Time to Get Tough” (7 p.m.)
Robert Matzen • “Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II” (10:30 a.m.)
Julie Satow • “The Plaza” (1 p.m.)
Lori Gottlieb • “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone” (7 p.m.)
William H. Groner and Tom Teicholz • “9/12: The Epic Battle of the Ground Zero Responders” (10:30 a.m.)
Kirsten Fermaglich • “A Rosenberg by Any Other Name” (1 p.m.)
Kristallnacht Program with Jack Fairweather • “The Volunteer” (7 p.m.)
Barbara J. Ostfeld • “Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim” (10:30 a.m.)
Post-festival events included with Premier Pass include Taylor Lustig, “Yes She Can,” on Nov. 24; Stephanie Butnick and Liel Leibovitz, “The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia,” Dec. 19; and Louise Aronson, “Elderhood,” March 25.