Designer Isaac Mizrahi brightens fashion’s outlook

The Latest Liz Claiborne fashions from designer Isaac Mizrahi are styled keep up the comeback of his high-end, high-priced signature collection.

Even fashion’s good-time Isaac is feeling the weight of the economy.

Isaac Mizrahi has weathered tough times before — his signature collection was shuttered in the ’90s, then resurrected four years ago — so he’s approaching it this time with the smile on his face, skip in his step and sarcasm in his voice all intact.

If it all doesn’t work out, he says, he’ll devote himself to become a top-ranked online bridge player.

Mizrahi is entitled to a little fun, even if he’s also charged with breathing new life into the venerable, working-woman Liz Claiborne brand, which has been in decline for years.

“It’s not a good moment to launch,” Mizrahi says, knowing his earliest designs for Claiborne are now hanging in stores. “I don’t know what to expect.”

But he’s not afraid to tap into his clout and connections in the industry to make this work, capitalizing on his sense that it’s time for a comeback of classic American clothes. “I think people want it to succeed, and there’s a lot of goodwill to Liz Claiborne and to me.”

Mizrahi feels a bond to his customers, including those he gained through his yearslong partnership with Target that made him a household name for those who didn’t know him from the couture catwalk where he’d skip down the runway with supermodels or from the 1995 documentary “Unzipped.” That deal ended last year, as he accepted the position as Claiborne creative director.

Claiborne had been eyeing Mizrahi before the “retail calamity” of the downturn because he has a modern eye but a commitment to wearability, says Tim Gunn, the “Project Runway” adviser who now serves as chief creative officer for the Liz Claiborne portfolio of brands.

There’s tremendous pressure on Mizrahi, Gunn acknowledges, but he hopes there aren’t constant comparisons to the look of the late Liz Claiborne herself. “Isaac understands the DNA of the brand, but he gets it for now. There has to cultural context. She wouldn’t be doing what she did then now either.”

For him, clothes are a labor of love. “You can’t afford not to buy these clothes if you see what when into them,” he pledges.

Mizrahi’s enthusiasm for his clothes and fashion in general is contagious.

During New York Fashion Week, he previewed the styles of his own luxe label in a collection called “Smile,” with outfits given names such as Stressless Dress and Veltvita. Models came out with handbags on their heads, but it didn’t seem so much an avant-garde statement as a way of saying “let’s turn all this gloom and doom on its head.”

The editors, stylists and retailers in the audience approved, buzzing about it as the feel-good show of the season with its lively patchwork of orange, magenta, yellow, green, blue and metallics.

“The colors are rich and bright without being too much,” he says. “But to live without color, for me, is like being defeated.”

The new fall collection for Claiborne picks up on some of Mizrahi’s own signatures, including plaids, jackets and pleated skirts. There’s more than a hint that these are clothes to be worn on an idyllic New England autumn afternoon.

Pulling double duty has given Mizrahi more energy, he says, but, at age 47, he’s learned to parlay that into productivity instead of being the harried, frenzied guy of his youth.

If he had more free time, he’d probably be playing online bridge or cooking — “and then I’d be three times bigger than I am now.”

He squeezes in a daily swim to clear his mind, then shuttles between his gallerylike studio on Manhattan’s far west side and the Claiborne offices in the heart of the Garment District. He jokes that he’s going to change his name to “Lizrahi” or “Miz Claiborne” with all the back and forth.

It was actually in those offices that Mizrahi had his first fashion job, while still a student at Parsons School of Design. He worked for Perry Ellis at the time, then moved on to Jeffrey Banks and Calvin Klein before going out on his own. He has since received the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s best womenswear designer three times.

Growing up in a Brooklyn home with three strong-minded women — his mother and sisters — Mizrahi says he developed early on a sense of what women want: to look good and feel comfortable.

“I’m not a pre-op tranny, but sometimes I think of myself as a woman,” he says. He spun that connection into a flattering cut that is for real adult women, not the figure that a man thinks a woman should have or of a girl parading as a woman.

He fancies himself a trailblazer — and he’s right. He had an early presence on the Web (where now he blogs regularly), embraced his own fame to become a “celebrity designer” and balanced his appeal to both “mass and class” before it became de rigeur for fashion insiders. (He notes that “everyone” is doing these mass market deals, even Alexander McQueen.)

He’s not just satisfied sketching clothes and making a living, he says — he wants to leave a deeper imprint on the culture.

“I want to matter,” Mizrahi says.

Turning around a slumping Liz Claiborne — and the early signs are positive, the company reports — certainly would go a long way toward cementing his own fashion legend.