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Isaac Mizrahi Does London

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."

Fashion Finds
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.


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