You Don’t Have to Be Rich to Beat the Kardashians at Style
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Fashion gurus Christian Siriano and Isaac Mizrahi discuss trends in modern design.
Designer gear comes at a premium. So it would stand to reason that millionaires — with their stylists, buyers and fancy boutiques — would be more stylish than the rest of us, right? According to designer Isaac Mizrahi, that’s simply not so.
“People without money are much more stylish than people with money because they don’t have stylists putting them together,” he says. “Those are the people I look at for inspiration.”
Mizrahi was raised in an upper-middle-class family, and he observed his mother’s frustration at not being able to afford the lavish clothes that her rich friends wore. But her influence instilled a DIY attitude in Mizrahi — one he describes as a kind of education. “When I was in high school, I had no money. The clothes I wore were the clothes I made,” he says. “They happened because they had to happen.”
The TV presenter and chief designer of the Isaac Mizrahi brand sat down recently with fellow designer and Project Runway winner Christian Siriano at OZY Fest to talk about the future of fashion. The panel, moderated by CNN Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash, has been edited for length and clarity.
Dana Bash: Isaac, remember when you started your line at Target? I thought, Wow, this is such a cool idea, but risky. And you led the way.
Isaac Mizrahi: Ours wasn’t the first, but it was the first that worked. Halston tried to do it with J.C. Penney in the ’80s and it was a big disaster. But I didn’t think of it as doing something additional. It was my main focus at the time. … They kind of approached me, and I was like, “Oh, you know, sure, let’s give this a try.” If there was ever one retailer who I thought could do it, it was Target.
I remember being at some restaurant uptown, looking out the window, and I saw the Miller sisters — they’re socialites — coming out of a Ford SUV. I thought, Wow, these are girls who would not have been seen in anything less than a Mercedes limousine, and they’re getting out of a Ford SUV. They might have the cheek to buy something at Target if it was the right thing. So that’s what literally was the touchstone for it. And the couture [collection] was relaunched with Bergdorf as a result of having that thing with Target. I thought, This is not really democracy if you can’t have really expensive things too. No kidding. And that was my attitude — sorry, rich people, here are some ugly dresses for you that cost $7,000.
And you, Christian, with Payless?
Christian Siriano: For me, it was definitely more of a challenge because it was a make-or-break situation. We were going to go out of business if I couldn’t collaborate. I’ve been working with Payless almost 11 years now, and it’s been amazing. I can’t imagine not having that. Millions of people, all over the world, have gotten the right shoe or bag at a great price. And I like pairing a $20 shoe with a $4,000 dress. I think that’s what style is. I think that’s people who are actually cool at putting a look together.
What we’re really talking about is fashion becoming more accessible, and you two led the way. I can see your looks and styles on the internet. How has having that accessibility changed the game?
Siriano: There was no social media when I started in the business. Twitter had just launched in 2008, and that’s when I started. There was no Instagram; there were no [shopping] apps. Come on, give me some credit up in here. But let me tell you, I can sell a $30,000 gown on Instagram, and I’m very proud of that.
Mizrahi: I do a collection for Lord & Taylor, and I’m sure that’s mostly done online. Because once you establish that kind of ease and convenience with shopping, I think things have just exploded. It’s almost like, what do you do when the idea of exclusivity is completely blown to smithereens?
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Mizrahi: I think both. It’s good for obvious reasons. But then where are the surprises? What is special and beautiful? It would be so cool for somebody to do a collection and not show anyone anything before the actual collection happened.
Siriano: That would sell nothing. Or it would be a hit. But it’s such a risk. That’s what’s so frustrating about it now. The consumer is interested, she’s invested, she went through your process. I show my process of the collection because I want to get the customer interested. But it’s hard to balance.
Let’s talk about body image, and how that’s changed. Christian, you had a cultural touchstone moment with Leslie Jones. Now if you look at your runway shows, you have people of all shapes and sizes.
Siriano: It’s about where the customer is. Our customers are diverse people. They’re people of all shapes and sizes. So it was very hard sometimes for some women to visualize themselves in things. Leslie was a great example, because why not dress someone like her? I’m a huge fan of hers — if you watch her on SNL, she’s hilarious. Who wouldn’t want to be in a room with her? People are visual creatures, and sometimes you have to put it in front of people’s faces [for them] to know that it exists. We’ve been doing all sizes from day one, but people didn’t know. So I had to put that out there.
Mizrahi: But I have to say, times have really changed. I remember in the ’90s, back when I tried to get bigger girls. You literally could feel the editors cringing. You could just hear their notebooks closing.
Siriano: There was so much of that for so long. That’s what’s great about what’s happening right now in our world — you can kind of be anything and anyone.