At best, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi is a reluctant traveler. Like a home dog, he can be coaxed around the block but his favorite arrival is back on his own doorstep in New York. Still, suggest London as a destination, and faster than he can say "Must do," he has tossed a black jacket of his own design, black jeans, and a handful of T-shirts into a duffel. "I don't need much; if there's one place a man can really shop," he says happily, "it's London."
This past year, between seven all-consuming collections, Mizrahi opened shops in Japan, read mounds of scripts (ever since his featured role in the documentary film Unzipped, he's become a hot commodity as an actor), and let his fantasies rip in designing wild costumes for Mark Morris's staging of Platée, Rameau's 18th-century comédie lyrique. A production of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Platée premiered at the Edinburgh Festival this summer and will debut in America at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the spring of 1999. The project brought Mizrahi to his favorite town out of town at least half a dozen times. Which means he touched down often enough to slip into his favorite Brit expressions ("Only my second day here, I found myself jotting 'submit laundry' on my list of things to do. I mean, 'submit'—can you believe it?"), brush up on his bridge game with London friends ("In other words, they figure out how to play down to my level"), take tea instead of meetings, and squeeze in the proper number of fittings for a suit, a jacket, and a tuxedo.
"if they could just do away with Heathrow, which is so unbearably huge and drab . . ." Mizrahi muses about the one thing he loathes in a country he loves. But he doesn't dwell. "Once I get into town, I feel so at home." Until recently, the designer had no particular allegiance to any hotel. "The Portobello is cool—or at least I thought so at eighteen, when all I cared about was that it was good and cheap and full of rock stars, none of whom I could identify of course." Then it was Blakes: "eccentric in an updated way, though not always convenient."
During his latest round of stays, Mizrahi contemplated the Hempel and tried the Metropolitan. Both hotels have been all the buzz among high-style bees because they are new—as in not old—and new as in, good Lord, minimalist modern. But like a sleek coif, their uncompromising aesthetic can be hard to live in or up to: one hair out of place, and it's ruined. "Maybe for some people built-ins and mystery switches are the height of chic," says Mizrahi. "Not for me."
His idea of luxury is the smallish (50 rooms) and newish Covent Garden Hotel. "There is nothing more comforting than having a room that feels like a cozy apartment, a bathroom with a window, and a staff that is not over-solicitous but genuinely charming," he declares. Plus, all the West End is at his feet. From the Covent Garden, Mizrahi can window-shop on his way to costume fittings at the Royal Opera. "Just yesterday, I found this great striped canvas across the road in Russell & Chapple, an art supply store," he relates. Best of all, when it's 11 p.m. and taxis are scarce, he can walk home from the theater, which he attends nearly every night, or from a late dinner at the Ivy, one of his long-standing favorites. "It's the '21' Club of All About Eve. I've forsworn dessert except for their toffee pudding, which is fantastically sticky and scrumptious. Good thing I do walk home."
At the Covent Garden Hotel, decorated by owner Kit Kemp, flowered prints have been raked away in favor of texture: crewel-worked fabrics, wrought-iron sconces, a curvaceous stone staircase luring guests up to the drawing room and library. "Sometimes I'll come across something that seems a little funny, like, 'Oy, that shouldn't be there,' " says Mizrahi. "But that's what I love about the place. Being correct without being perfect is so distinctly English."
Though Mizrahi finds london street fashion fun, it has never influenced him. "It's eighteen-year-olds expressing themselves. The frumpy aspect of dressing, especially for women, is what really appeals to me. There's nothing more fabulous than a beautiful girl in those dowdy clothes—you know, the hemline bang at the knee, and low-heeled shoes like the ones the queen wears." Variations on kilts, dress-and-coat ensembles, and cashmere sweater sets turn up regularly in his women's collections.
When it comes to shopping, Mizrahi admits that London is a male mall. "It seems as if the men live here, and the women are guests. I love the way Englishmen look: they're so sure about how they dress. It makes me feel safe and sure myself. And as a designer, it's satisfying to be in a place where the difference between a district check and a Prince of Wales plaid is not arcane knowledge."
Of course, there is no more secure a blanket than a bespoke suit. Mizrahi's fittings at Anderson & Sheppard, whose corner shop on Savile Row has been there for 91 years and looks it, are effortless simply because there are no decisions to be made. Custom-cut à la A&S means the suit is made to fit you according to their idea of a suit, not yours. Right next door, the shop Richard James is as spirited and bright as Anderson & Sheppard is staid and dim. Contemporary paintings ringing the sunny white room change every few months, but the row of brilliant optical ties on the Jacobean table is a constant—and a rush on uptight Savile Row. Equally irresistible are off-the-peg shirts in bold hues and weaves, the perfect accompaniment to the turquoise tweed jacket that James himself is crafting for Mizrahi.
Having set up shop in Spitalfields near Liverpool Station, bespoke tailor Timothy Everest is a bit off the path, but not only did Mizrahi manage to find him, he found two ready-made suits that fit like bespoke. Without going into body details, he declares the occasion "perfectly amazing," as is Everest's keen little row house. On the ground floor, suits and erotic woodcuts are displayed in a saffron yellow room, while one flight up pale English boys with big scissors snip away at a brass-colored flannel suit and a tuxedo for Mizrahi. In the basement, shoemaker Jason Amesbury labors over lasts for men and women (a single pair of shoes takes three to four months) though not for Mizrahi, who wears Belgian slippers almost exclusively.
For other accoutrements, Mizrahi sticks to St. James's and Mayfair. At Hackett, one of the newer generation of men's furnishings stores, he is assisted by a thin young man sporting khakis, a white button-down shirt open at the collar, and, lest he be mistaken for the help at the Gap, an ascot. Mizrahi breezes past a cabinet arrayed with colorful socks. "The first time here, I bought every stripe, and I've never worn any of them," he confesses. This time, he is enticed by white pajamas with French blue trim and the nine-color range of corduroy pants.
Mad for Color
"I love the way the English never just play it straight, especially when it comes to color," says Mizrahi, who's passionate about the subject. "Anything really beautiful is slightly hysterically funny. Take these lavender corduroys, are they brilliant! Boy, in these, you can be a real screaming Nellie." In the end, he comes away with one of his regulars, a Hackett polo shirt with the numeral one, two, three, or four on the front and the sleeve. "It's a gutsy knit, I love the big number, and no one back home recognizes the name," he explains.
Past a similar store named Pink ("Great name, great bag, great label, but the polo shirt doesn't compare"), Mizrahi turns into Turnbull & Asser. No doubt Prince Charles and his ilk are reassured by all the varnished cabinetry and gold-leafed labeling of the haberdashery. Mizrahi, however, finds the cases marked linen hanks and under-shorts "a bit ye olde—a little goes a long way." Never mind, it's the contents he's after.
Downstairs, he stands back from a wall of shirts stacked in cubicles and instantly targets two: an orange gingham and a lavender-and-turquoise stripe. To the salesman proffering a blue herringbone he returns a polite no, accompanied under his breath by "It's a little Ari Onassis, don't you think?" Back upstairs, he sets aside a scarf, gray dots on navy silk. "By thirty-five, you know what suits you. I go through periods where I have to wear a scarf; by now I must have a million polka dots."
And quite a few cashmere sweaters, though he needs all new ones, having lost 30 pounds. (His method?"Starvation!" Not to mention swimming thousands of laps. Next trip he may check into the Berkeley Hotel, which has a London rarity: a penthouse-level pool whose roof opens to the sky.) At Berk, a tiny Fort Knox of cashmere and wool in Burlington Arcade, he savors the more than 40 hues, from quiet heathery oatmeal to loud New York taxi yellow. Each sparks an idea, a story, a person. "This sweater in lovett green," he says, pulling it from a cubicle, "together with Black Watch plaid pants and you're Diana Vreeland. Or that one [a dusky shade of blue]—and you're Reed Vreeland." For himself, he settles on the basics, the vanilla, chocolate, and coffee of all the flavors: ivory, black, and pale gray cardigans.
Across the arcade at Penhaligon's, where the labels are as classicly appealing as the scents, Mizrahi replenishes his supply of eau de toilette: Lords for fall and spring, fresh Limes for summer, and Hammam Bouquet, which is "grandfatherly, perfect for the dead of winter." Equally steeped in Mayfair tradition is the stationer Smythsons, where he picks up a tidy box of short pencils, for the bridge table and the daily New York Times crossword, then goes back for another, explaining, "The combination of delphinium blue [the boxes] and geranium red [the pencils] is my all-time favorite." On impulse, he buys a black leather tray for keys and change, the traveling kind that packs flat when you unsnap the sides. "Am I crazy?" he asks. By the next day, he has answered his own question. "God, I love it. It's one of the best things I've ever bought."