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."
Unlike fragrance, Mizrahi finds creams and lotions resistible though not their display at the Covent Garden shop Lush. Its front counter is piled high with wheels of soap sold by the slice and cakes of solid shampoo. Products like Wow Wow Face Mask and Strawberry and Ginger Posset (a body scrub) are made daily and sold, deli-style, from stainless steel bowls nesting in ice. It's enough to make you hungry.
Egg, another store having nothing to do with dairy products, has everything to do with Mizrahi's sensibility. Tucked away in a mews house behind Sloane Street, Maureen Doherty's all-white clothing and housewares shop is "inspired because it isn't trying to be everything in the world," explains Mizrahi. "Besides, Egg carries these caftany things, which are very close to my heart. I bought a burnoose and five pairs of Chinese sneakers."
Mizrahi came away empty-handed but with a headful of notions from Virginia, a vintage women's clothing store in Holland Park that the model Shalom Harlow "put me onto." A bazaar of ruched silk and hand-done lace and embroidery, the shop makes you feel like you're caught in the tulle of a ballerina's pink tutu. "The way Virginia puts those clothes together is just off enough to be crazy and ravishing," says Mizrahi. "For me, it's a real lesson, a reminder when I'm designing not to rein in but to play up to the tart. The looser you can be, the more fabulous things become." At the Notting Hill intersection of Ledbury Road and Westbourne Grove, a stylish X-marks-the-spot on the London map, Sosuke Oguri is only one of the shopkeepers with vision. At his namesake store, Oguri's clothing line mingles with Finnish glassware and Eames chairs. Mizrahi fingers an orange rubberized-cotton men's raincoat. Simon Heah's selection of clothing at Vent, across the way, is exclusively vintage. It's all the rage—and not only with Londoners, judging from the Japanese crew spied one day videotaping skinny young things as they strapped on platform shoes thicker than bricks. To Mizrahi, though, the shop is a chip off an East Village block in New York. It's open only Friday and Saturday.
Doing Up Your Flat
At Adam Bray antiques shop, Bray recognizes Mizrahi and the mutual admiration commences. The dealer compliments the designer on his style; Mizrahi counters with his high regard for Bray's eye. "Let's face it. Even in London, it's not often you find a chandelier made from bull horns and a Francis Bacon litho appreciated equally," says Mizrahi. As a parting treat, Bray invites the designer to the back of the shop to inspect one of his prizes, an all-white cotton coverlet with the Ten Commandments woven in nubby relief.
Around the corner, David Champion kits up his new interiors shop with objects both odd and suave—those he finds (a set of French leather dining chairs circa 1950, sophisticated South African ceramics by Hylton Nel) and those he produces himself. On his way out, Mizrahi asks for a card. "Don't you love how when they run out of business cards, they still have a 'With Compliments' slip to hand you?Now, that's civilized."
Before leaving Notting Hill, Mizrahi makes one last stop: Wild at Heart, an overblown flower stand next to a public washroom for which architect Piers Gough won an award (from the Royal Fine Arts Commission) in a new category, Jeu d'Esprit. As it happens, it's peony season, so the delicate scent dominates the traffic island on which both the flowers and the loo sit. The irony of a built-in air freshener is not lost on Mizrahi, nor is his passion for peonies diminished. He's just as fond of underdog flowers. "Carnations are so misunderstood," he laments.
Starters, Mains, and Puds
Mizrahi, ever watchful of his weight, finds traditional Brit food irresistible, meaning he's game for game, as well as bubble and squeak, fish-and-chips, eel and pie, pie and mash, bangers and mash, even food that doesn't sally forth in pairs. What could be a better wake-up call than the Ten Deadly Sins breakfast at Simpson's-in-the-Strand. Among the feast's transgressions: sausages, bacon, eggs, fried bread and baked beans, black pudding, lamb's kidneys, and calf's liver.
Lighter but no less . . . challenging, shall we say, is the house special—stewed or jellied eels—at Manze's. London's oldest pie shop (heads up, Americans, these pies have nothing to do with apples) is steeped in atmosphere. Young and old girls in green uniforms serve both marketers and mums in a room covered with tiles.
Closer to home, menu-wise, for native New Yorker Mizrahi are blini with smoked salmon, staples of the smorgasbord buffet that is the centerpiece at Claridge's Causerie, where royals and normals lunch. By trade a man of colors, the designer relishes slipping into the room's pale-green-and-pink "very Cecil Beaton" ensemble from the 1930's, just as much as the ladies delight in donning their small suits and big hats.
Ladies and gents mix with the steady tourist traffic at Fortnum & Mason's ground-floor Fountain restaurant, Mizrahi's favorite spot to nip into for lunch while on a Jermyn Street shopping spree. Welsh rarebit here is like the perfect grilled cheese, a delicate balance of crisp bread and sharp cheddar, with a choice of tomato, apples, bacon, or smoked haddock.
When it comes to new restaurants, Mizrahi often has more to say about the place than the food. "I am very, very, very affected by my surroundings," he states. For example:
Bluebird "As one would expect from Conran, king of concepts, the bluebird motif brands everything in his 'gastro-drome'; it's inescapable. Still, the design is light and clean. The food itself is good but not great."
Criterion "A dazzling space, stylish in a Byzantine way, all vast and glittery. The lighting is fantastic; imagine combining those Arabian Nights oil lamps on the tables with those floor lamps topped by giant cylindrical shades. The same standing Fortuny lamps that stick out everywhere else, work here."
Oxo Tower "Well, they've certainly come a long way from the gravy [bouillon] cube. It's great to be able to eat looking out over London, but frankly, that cigarette machine is as compelling as the view. Love that blue cap on the chef, too. Blue is actually a tricky color. The English do it well."
More Tea, Sir?
Lover of tea (especially jasmine) and nondrinker of alcohol that he is, Mizrahi is decidedly more salon swimmer than pub crawler. Around four in the afternoon, his internal tea bell chimes, and he drops what he's in the midst of and homes in on the nearest warm pot, preferably one that arrives with all the trimmings. From Savile Row, it's a quick walk to Brown's for a traditional piano-player-accompanied event. Mizrahi, a pianist himself, uh-ohs a missed note but, ever the gentleman, joins in the applause coming from other clusters of deep sofas and armchairs.
At Claridge's, the singing of strings from the Hungarian quartet, looking splendid in brass-buttoned green vests, overlays the cling-cling of silver spoons blending cream into Darjeeling and orange pekoe. If Brown's is grandma's parlor, Claridge's reading room, where tea is served, is the sophisticated aunt's salon. Walls glow in stripes of soft yellow, pier mirrors and chandeliers sparkle, the gold-rimmed bone china has the proper weight and elegance.
Traditional cream tea is served on starched tablecloths in St. James's restaurant, on the fourth floor of Fortnum & Mason. Tins of every type of leaf are sold on the ground floor. This institution on Piccadilly is steeped in the lore of tea. Send a sample of water from anywhere in the world to Fortnum's and its experts will advise on the best kind of tea to brew for that location.
Sights to Behold
With a schedule ever more compressed, Mizrahi takes in fewer sights each trip. Still, he pops into exhibitions at the National Gallery, the Tate, and the Serpentine Gallery whenever possible. If he has but one free slot, he saves it for Sir John Soane's Museum. Like Mary Poppins's black bag, the architect's house in Lincoln's Inn Fields runneth over with treasures (paintings by Hogarth, architectural drawings by Piranesi). But Soane's own work draws Mizrahi: "Soane was a magician with mirrors, mounting them on shutters; of course you have to use those shabby old mirrors, or it looks like a showroom."
That a contemporary original would find in a historic one a kindred spirit is no surprise, but for Mizrahi, the connection goes even deeper. "The first psychic I ever consulted," he recalls, "told me my life was about an invention in living and my biggest accomplishment would be a house. Let me tell you, it will be a crazy one."
Dennis Severs's house in Spitalfields surely fits the description. For 17 years, Severs has invited guests into his 1724 terrace house to, as he puts it, "pass through chambers from which, apparently, their 18th- and 19th-century inhabitants have only just withdrawn." Instructed by a fit Frenchman in shorts to wander the house in silence so as to better absorb the smells, sights, and sounds, Mizrahi pads from room to room, his raised eyebrows and small smiles speaking volumes.
For all the museums he's tapped, Mizrahi has never toured a royal attraction, though he has rumbled by Buckingham Palace many a time in a big black taxi. This time around, he squeezes in the Tower of London, home of the ultimate fashion accessories, the crown jewels. Mizrahi riffs on the ceremonial splendor ("People can be so silly and ridiculous, but here it's the point"), the elements ("I guess the coronation spoon is for an unexpected cough on the big day"), and the nature of stones ("Fake jewels are banal; when you get close to real ones, you realize people's obsession. Liz, we understand.")
Face-to-face with the crown jewels, Mizrahi is surprised and pleased by the crudeness of the workmanship. There's no slickness about them, unlike their display, updated in 1994 to include moving sidewalks. "I wish I'd seen them before the arrival of the video and conveyor belts," sighs Mizrahi. "This sort of packaging is new here. I always think of England as being America with all the dumb stuff knocked out of it."
Even after passing through the door and gates of the requisite thick steel vault, Mizrahi still has his doubts about the jewels' authenticity. "I'm sure the queen keeps all the real stuff at Balmoral, crammed in the back of an underwear drawer."
Above all, Mizrahi believes that the English, in spite of all the hissing and dissing, love the royal family. "It's a fragile part of them that secretly adores the pomp and circumstance," he says. A side of the Brits Mizrahi himself openly adores.
Berkeley Wilton Place; 44-171/235-6000, fax 44-171/873-0023; doubles from $450.
Blakes 33 Roland Gardens; 800/926-3173 or 44-171/370-6701, fax 44-171/373-0442; doubles from $288.
Claridge's Brook St.; 800/637-2869 or 44-171/629-8860, fax 44-171/499-2210; doubles from $457.
Covent Garden Hotel 10 Monmouth St.; 800/553-6674 or 44-171/806-1000, fax 44-171/806-1100; doubles from $305.
Hempel Hotel Craven Hill Gardens; 44-171/298-9000, fax 44-171/402-4666; doubles from $353.
The Metropolitan Old Park Lane; 800/272-3002 or 44-171/447-1047, fax 44-171/447-1147; doubles from $280.
Portobello Hotel 22 Stanley Gardens; 44-171/727-2777, fax 44-171/792-9641; doubles from $225.
Adam Bray 63 Ledbury Rd.; 44-171/221-5820.
Anderson & Sheppard 30 Savile Row; 44-171/731-1420.
Berk 4649 Burlington Arcade; 44-171/493-0028.
David Champion 199 Westbourne Grove; 44-171/727-6016.
Egg 36 Kinnerton St.; 44-171/235-9315.
Hackett 87 Jermyn St.; 44-171/930-1300.
Jason Amesbury 32 Elder St.; 44-171/377-2006.
Lush 7 The Piazza, Covent Garden; 44-171/379-5423.
Oguri 64 Ledbury Rd.; 44-171/792-3847.
Penhaligon's 16 Burlington Arcade; 44-171/629-1416.
Thomas Pink 8586 Jermyn St.; 44-171/930-6364.
Richard James 31 Savile Row; 44-171/434-0605.
Smythson 40 New Bond St.; 44-171/629-8558.
Timothy Everest 32 Elder St.; 44-171/377-5770.
Turnbull & Asser 7172 Jermyn St.; 44-171/930-0502.
Vent 178A Westbourne Grove; no phone.
Virginia 98 Portland Rd.; 44-171/727-9908.
Wild at Heart 222 Westbourne Grove; 44-171/727-3095.
Bluebird 350 King's Rd.; 44-171/559-1000; dinner for two $128.
Criterion 224 Piccadilly; 44-171/930-0488; dinner for two $96.
Fortnum & Mason 181 Piccadilly; 44-171/734-8040; lunch for two $60.
M. Manze's Pie & Eel 87 Tower Bridge Rd.; 44-171/407-2985; lunch for two $8.
Oxo Tower Barge House St., South Bank; 44-171/803-3888, lunch for two $80.
The Ivy 1 West St.; 44-171/836-4751; dinner for two $116.
Dennis Severs House 18 Folgate St., Spitalfields; 44-171/ 247-4013.
Geffrye Museum Kingsland Rd.; 44-171/739-9893.
National Gallery Trafalgar Square; 44-171/747-2885.
Serpentine Gallery Kensington Gardens; 44-171/402-6075; closed for renovations until November 27, 1997.
Sir John Soane's Museum 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields; 44-171/ 430-0175
Tate Gallery Millbank; 44-171/887-8000.