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Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi poses wearing a tan tie and a yellow pocket square

What Makes a Supermodel?

Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. He's just written "The Adventures of Sandee the Supermodel" (Simon and Shuster), a collection of three giant comic books, illustrated by artist William Frawley. Mizrahi has been called a "creative visionary" in today's fashion industry. In 1995 the documentary "Unzipped" was made about Mizrahi and his life.


Other segments from the episode on December 3, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 3, 1997: Interview with Isaac Mizrahi; Interview with William Morrish.


Date: DECEMBER 03, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 120301NP.217
Head: Isaac Mizrahi
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi has said he likes his designs to be witty, not too serious. Now he's satirizing the whole fashion world in a new series of oversized comic books called "The Adventures of Sandee the Supermodel."

Mizrahi became an overnight sensation when he had his first show in 1988 at the age of 25. Since then, he's dressed Liza Minnelli and Sandra Bernhardt and has been the subject of a popular documentary called "Unzipped."

Since the heroine of his new comic is a supermodel, I asked Mizrahi the difference between a model and a supermodel.

ISAAC MIZRAHI, FASHION DESIGNER, AUTHOR, "THE ADVENTURES OF SANDEE THE SUPERMODEL": The funny thing is that in my mind, there really is no difference. You know, it's a good model versus not -- you know, a not-good model. There are many not-good models. There are many good models that I work with.

And you know, I'll tell you: That's another reason why I was obsessed with writing this book because I owe so much to models. You know, I always say that the most interesting part of my design work is not the dress, it's the woman, you know. In which case, the woman that I show the dress on is extremely important, and I think the ones I choose are really, really special, you know.

So in fact, you're recognizing the beauty of Naomi or Cindy or, you know, Veronica or whoever it is, and then secondly you're noticing what a pretty dress she's wearing. And you know, honestly, if you try to do that with an actress or with just a very beautiful woman that you meet on the street, it's difficult because the actress would tend to overpower the dress, so you don't even notice what she's wearing, you know.

And a woman that you meet on the street might not know what was going on, and she would just look sort of dead or vacant in the thing. You know what I mean?

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

MIZRAHI: ... if you were taking pictures or if you were showing it. These women -- these supermodels -- or just these good models that I'm talking about -- really know how to dominate the dress, but not overly -- not over-dominate the dress.

GROSS: In one of the episodes of your Sandee the Supermodel comics, Sandee puts on -- Ooh! -- six pounds.


GROSS: And so the ...

MIZRAHI: Well ...

GROSS: ... designer, and there has to design -- you know, has a brilliant idea -- design clothes for woman who aren't emaciated.


GROSS: Of course, she's still pretty -- pretty darn thin anyways.

MIZRAHI: I know, I know. That's kind of the joke ...

GROSS: Yeah.

MIZRAHI: ... that's kind of a joke in the book. You don't -- you can't really notice the weight ...

GROSS: Exactly.

MIZRAHI: ... you know, right.

GROSS: Exactly. But anyways, I know you used to be chubby as a kid.


GROSS: Have you ever thought of truly designing clothes for women who aren't really thin?

MIZRAHI: Well, I'll tell you something. I was chubby three years ago. I just lost about 30 pounds


MIZRAHI: ... on this really fabulous program that I was on. But you know, I get asked that question a lot, and I've dabbled here and there with models with bigger women, you know, who are models, and it doesn't seem to work. The clothes I design I don't design for emaciated women. I happen to show them on very thin women because they look great on them. You know what I mean?

And also because I'm not just an island. I'm part of a world of fashion that exists and you know, when you're speaking to fashion editors or showing them things -- you know, editors and buyers and customers -- especially customers -- really, it all boils down to the customer, you know.

They look at the whole image as something that they aspire to; they dream of. You know what I mean? In other words, if they see something on a very thin woman, not only, you know, not only does it make them want the clothes because they're beautiful, but it makes them also think that they need to look like that.

GROSS: Well, I'm just kind of wondering -- as somebody who has, you know, been chubby yourself ...

MIZRAHI: Mmm-hm.

GROSS: ... do you ever kind of resent this standard that's been put forward of an impossible-to-reach ideal?

MIZRAHI: Oh, God -- of course, I do. Of course, I resent it. You know, I'll tell you -- but look at all fashion advertising. I mean, you know, if it worked to show clothes on people who were chubby or, you know, not skinny, the Gap would do that. They don't. You know, even the most commercial people, really, they also use these women who are really, really thin to show their clothes because they look the best.

But that doesn't mean that a T-shirt of mine looks any worse in a size 10 or a 12 or 14. You know what I mean? They look well on people who like them and whom they, you know, and whom they suit, and whom -- and feel comfortable in them, you know?

So, you know, in the comic book, the joke is that when she gains the six pounds and she doesn't take it off, it's for larger reasons than because she won't work. She feels that she'd rather work less and do better at her work than take the weight off. And in fact what it does is just the opposite of what she thinks. It makes her into a bigger star.

You know what I mean? She takes ...

GROSS: Right.

MIZRAHI: ... she leaves the weight on because of an emotional crisis that she's having. She cannot manage to take the weight off and maintain -- you know, because what happened to me was I took off a little too much weight at one point, not recently, but when I was in my 20s. I took off -- I was so thin it was frightening, you know, and people would say to me: "Really, darling, eat something." You know.

And I was so happy about being thin. But I couldn't sleep and I couldn't function, you know, and I gained back a little of it, like six or seven pounds, and I thought: "Well, I don't look as good, but you know, I'm sleeping; I'm functioning. I can make sense of things."

You know, especially in fashion, or especially in anyone who has a very busy career, I think, you know, so much comes at them, you know, so quickly and, you know, being fat tends to make you sluggish. But sometimes, being too thin is just not healthy emotionally.

GROSS: Yeah, I'm still waiting, though, for some fashion designer to say "oh, the heck with it -- I'll just kind of re-design what this ... (unintelligible).

MIZRAHI: Guess what?

GROSS: What?

MIZRAHI: People have done that. I did that one season.

GROSS: And what happened?

MIZRAHI: I did it -- people like barely looked at the clothes. You know, it was a small collection. It was a "spa" thing. You know, I do these -- I do four collections a year -- two that have gigantic shows and then the other two I show -- little shows in my show room for the buyers and for the press.

And you know, I -- one show, three or four of the people in the show, the women, I chose from women that I had been recently engaged with. You know, I'd met recently. One of them I just actually discovered in a restaurant, and she was a beautiful six-foot -- I mean, she was just an Amazon, with a real body. I mean, and she wasn't just six or seven pounds overweight. She was about 20 pounds overweight, you know, but looking like -- oh, my God -- so sexy. And she had absolutely so much confidence that anything -- anything she put on looked great.

You know, and we did these fittings on her and we showed -- and people barely looked up from their programs. It was really embarrassing. And we got no reportage and people didn't care about the clothes. It was really terrible. It didn't -- I mean, you know, she was -- she was, you know, everything a model should be, except that incredibly thin weight.

GROSS: Right.

MIZRAHI: She had the walk. She had the face. She had everything, you now, and it was just, you know, this fabulous kind of flesh spilling forth, you know, which is a great look. I mean, it was Marilyn Monroe. Actually, it wasn't even as bad -- Marilyn Monroe was fat, let's face it. I mean, she was a fatty, right? She just happened to be ...

GROSS: Well, not by the standards of the '50s though.

MIZRAHI: ... right. No, she sort of set the standards of the '50s. I mean, you know, all those women did. But you know what I mean? She wasn't even Marilyn Monroe, this woman. She was slightly less than that, even -- you know.

GROSS: Isaac Mizrahi is my guest, and he has a new series of comic books called The Adventures of Sandee the Supermodel.

Are there contemporary women or contemporary trends that you keep an eye on that you think are going to set the tone for what the -- what's interesting for the moment?

MIZRAHI: Oh, sure. Are you kidding?

GROSS: Where do you look?

MIZRAHI: You know what? I don't really look in fashion magazines. I don't really look, you know, at those things at all. People sort of -- sometimes I get in trouble because I -- I don't know what people are talking about, and I'm supposed to, you know. So I get sort of in trouble, but I'll tell you: I look at women, you know. I look at women that I -- that I -- actually I idolize women, I think.

I don't know -- women like Isabella Rossellini, I think is a really stylish woman. I just look at her and I think -- and you know, she's not fat. She's a model and she's not fat and she's not emaciated. She's kind of the right weight. Hello -- there's one. Hello ...

GROSS: Yeah,.

MIZRAHI: ... right? Isabella Rossellini.

GROSS: Absolutely. Yeah.

MIZRAHI: She's also -- she's -- I'm not an ageist, either. I mean, I've shown clothes on all different aged women, you know, but this is where I look mostly for inspiration is these incredibly stylish women. Isabella Rossellini, Jacqueline Schnabel (ph) -- she's married to Julian Schnabel (ph) -- and I think that she always looks so unbelievable. Once I was actually at the movies in the middle of the day -- I was just fed up with everything, and I had to get out and I went to the movies.

And, you know, there were three people in the movie theater, and Jacqueline Schnabel (ph) was one of them. And she -- there she was in this, like, it was the middle of the summer. She was wearing this skirt of mine, which was so exciting, right? -- just this plain little straight skirt to the knee and in this beautiful gray silk tweed fabric, with a white T-shirt -- you know, a Hanes T-shirt -- and some fabulous little slide -- you know, some shoe with a little heel on it, you know, a mule. Hot, hot, hot day, and there she was looking so cool, and you know, putting some little jewel -- I don't know what it was, but it was her.

It's funny: I think style is a person doing as they please. That's what style is -- and looking as they please and saying what they please. You know, it's someone who goes with their first instinct. I say this a lot, but it's really true. When I walk into a room, well at least when I'm designing clothes and I walk into a room full of fabrics, I know which fabrics I want. The minute I belabor the point and go over it too much and overwork it is when it becomes a mess, you know?

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

MIZRAHI: When I stay on my course and I just go and do it, you know, that's when I'm best. And I notice that women who get dressed quickly, look amazing. The faster someone gets dressed, the better they look. That's how I feel -- or at least the faster they select what they're going to wear, you know, that's really the issue of course.

GROSS: My guest is fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. He has a new comic book satirizing the fashion world called The Adventures of Sandee the Supermodel. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi is my guest. And now he has a new series of comic books about a character named Sandee the Supermodel.

You were born in 1961 in Brooklyn, New York. I'd like you to describe the neighborhood where you grew up, and mostly how people dressed there when you were a kid. What did the adults look like? What did the kids wear?

MIZRAHI: OK. Well, it -- I come from a -- sort of a very, very small community -- a Jewish community in Brooklyn. And one had money in that community.

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

MIZRAHI: It's sort of upper bourgeois, kind of -- upper middle class kind of a situation. And it's a -- it was a very, very weird mix of ethics, you know, of all kinds. We were educated in a very, very strict Yeshiva. Most of the kids from this community were, I mean, in Brooklyn very, very strict -- Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva.

But then, you know, suddenly it was like a glamour fest at home, you know?


I'm serious. For all of us, I mean everyone in that community in Brooklyn that I come from, it's quite a glamorous formative experience, I would say. You know, there's a lot of decor going on; a lot of important decorators decorating those little houses in Brooklyn; a lot of every designer label you can imagine.

GROSS: Mmm-hm. Fashionable yarmulkes too?

MIZRAHI: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. And I'm telling you, it's so strange. You know, at the high holidays, really, the issue was not giving thanks or whatever, you know, atoning for one's sins. It was really, you know, sort of competing in this fashion ...

GROSS: The new fall look.

MIZRAHI: ... arena. Oh, yeah, exactly. Are you kidding? And that's why when I do clothes sometimes and I'm looking at a fall collection and I'm standing in a fitting, and I say: "Oh that is very high holidays" -- because that is something that my mother is going to wear on Rosh Hashanah or you know, it's just -- it's true.


So that's my -- that's my formative experience. It's like this -- it was like a fashion competition. It was like a fashion Olympics, you know.

GROSS: When you were eight years old, it was -- well, when you were seven years old, 1968, it was the height of the hippie era. What did you think, as a bud of a fashion designer, what did you think of the bell bottoms and the capes and the shawls and the peasant blouses and all that?

MIZRAHI: Well, you know what? I was much, much more -- what's the word? -- comfortable with it once it became fashion. But as, you know, kind of the underground thing that was going on, I was really scared of it. I was really scared of drugs when I was little, I guess because my parents knocked the fear of God in me. You know?

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

MIZRAHI: And those are symbols of, you know, bell bottoms is sort of a symbol of drugs, you know. I can't help it. Janis Joplin just scared the daylights out of me when I was that age. The Rolling Stones scared the daylights out of me, you know.

GROSS: How did you first become interested in women's clothes?

MIZRAHI: I don't know. You know, I often think it's because I was so chubby, you know, and I was so sort of left out of the whole thing? Not just at home, but in the whole community. I wasn't dressed up the way the other kids my age were, you know. I was dressed down because I was so fat and I couldn't fit into clothes and didn't look good in them. So, you know, I had a pair of platform shoes that would come out when I wanted to look foolish. You know what I mean?


So you know, I guess because I was outcast, I -- I was dying to gain control in some way, and this is the way I did it. You know, I sort of became this -- what? -- this -- this holy terror as my mother used to refer to me. And you know, she'd say to me: "What do you think?" And I'd say: "Oh, that's horrible, take it off." And she's say: "Thank you very much, Mr. Designer" -- that was almost my favorite -- my "Mr. Designer" --
"What did I do for the 25 years before you born?" You know, that kind of thing.

GROSS: Did your mother ever pick out clothes for you when you were a boy that you hated?

MIZRAHI: Oh, sure. Oh, yes. That's all she used to do. I mean, because of -- because I was so awfully fat that I couldn't really fit into clothes that I liked, and so the choice was limited to begin with. Then, on top of it, she had very strong ideas of what was flattering and what wasn't. You know, I'm sure that can be really mortifying, you know, for -- I'm sure there are a lot of people who can relate to all of this, but ...

GROSS: So what did you wear?

MIZRAHI: I remember having this really, really good Yves St. Laurent olive-green velvet jacket that was sort of my favorite thing. And also another Yves St. Laurent Navy blue kind of Indian peasant military, like shirt-jacket that was so great that I still actually have, because it's just so well cut.

GROSS: What did you hate that you had to wear?

MIZRAHI: Anything brown. You know, for some reason, that was always the color that they thought I looked best in, and I thought I looked lousy in it, you know. Anytime -- and anytime they bought me anything brown, it just kind of sat there, you know, and I'd wear it once and hate it and, you know, be all sullen and whatever it was, but ...

GROSS: Did you have to wear a uniform of any sort to the Yeshiva?

MIZRAHI: Well, yes you did. You had to wear a tie and a jacket and a shirt, you know, all this -- sure, and a yarmulke and all of that. That's about as uniform as you get.

GROSS: And how'd you feel about that?

MIZRAHI: Well, you know, one would interpret that. And then it's funny -- like, the girls were in the most unbelievable maxi-skirts with wedgies and mini-skirts and, you know, incredible Aaron (ph) sweaters -- you know, these incred -- it was funny; jewelry and hair and makeup, you know, in the eighth grade. It was crazy. It was exciting.


It was.

GROSS: Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi is my guest.

What was your first opportunity to actually design clothes?

MIZRAHI: Well, you know, I -- I graduated from Parsons.

GROSS: The school of design in New York.

MIZRAHI: The school -- yes, the Parsons School of Design, and in the last year, I worked at Perry Ellis as an assistant. And when I finished school, I went to work there full time. So that was my -- that was my first experience, and that was -- I have to tell you -- it was just a dream.

I don't know. I think -- I think -- you know, I guess when you look back on your life, it doesn't seem that -- it seems like life gets more complicated. For some reason, when I was at Perry Ellis, working there, it was very uncomplicated. I had very few responsibilities. All I thought about were clothes and fabrics and flowers and style, you know? Which is sort of a great thing.

GROSS: I would like you to describe something that you've designed in your ten years of having your own shows -- that you're particularly proud of. You know, any outfit.

MIZRAHI: Hmmm. OK. Let's think. There's a dress in this collection ...

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

MIZRAHI: ... that I'm extremely proud of. It's white and it actually comes in black as well, by the way, because sometimes, you know, sometimes it depends on the woman's attitude. Like, sometimes she says: "Oh, a white dress -- I can't wear it." You know? Anyway, it comes in black as well. And it's this crepe -- this beautiful, beautiful very thick silk crepe that stretch -- it has a little lycra in it -- and it's very fitted on top. It has long fitted sleeves, and it's just the deepest V-neck in the world, and it's long -- the dress.

And then at -- it's sort of like a V that goes past the belly button, but then what ends up happening is there are these two sort of laces coming out of either side of the V-neck, at the bustline, which tie around the waist. It sort of just goes around the waist and it sort of looks Grecian. And it's really a hard dress to wear. It's not a problem solver, but ...


... it makes a woman's body -- the woman who can wear that dress ...

GROSS: Right.

MIZRAHI: ... is really, really lucky.

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

MIZRAHI: The other thing I would say I'm really, really proud of inventing -- when I first started, like maybe the third or fourth collection, I did this Navy blue -- I call it a "prayer jacket" 'cause I don't know what else to call it. It's sort of a -- like a very loose -- it's kind of a cross between a sweater and a Nehru jacket. It's kind of like a loose -- and many, many people have copied it, you know.

And with it, I had a -- I showed that jacket with matching gabardine, what I called "sack" pants -- which were just these giant pants that, like, you know, belted at the waist, that fit absolutely anybody at any time anywhere, you know?

So I'm just describing to you, like, the easiest thing in the world to wear, and also like before that, I described the hardest thing in the world to wear.

GROSS: Right.

MIZRAHI: You know, so that's sort of what I think -- you know what? It's like -- it's like - I don't know about you, but for me, I have Gap T-shirts that I wear a lot, but I also have clothes that were made on Saville Row that cost thousands of dollars. And I don't -- I don't buy a $5,000 coat every day. I buy one a year, or one every three years, you know.

GROSS: Right.

MIZRAHI: But I do -- I think that's what makes the Gap T-shirts look so good.

GROSS: Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. He has a new comic book called Sandee the Supermodel. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Here's Audrey Hepburn and Kay Thompson in a scene from the film "Funny Face"


KAY THOMPSON, ACTRESS: Letty -- take an editorial.

To the women of America. No, make it to the women everywhere.

AUDREY HEPBURN, ACTRESS: Banish the black.

THOMPSON: Burn the blue and bury the beige. From now on, girl:

Think pink,
Think pink when you shop for summer clothes.
Think pink, think pink if you want that (unintelligible)
Red is dead, blue is through, green's obscene, brown's taboo,
And there is not the slightest excuse for plum or puce.
Or chartreuse.

Think pink, forget that Dior says black and rust.
Think pink, who cares if the New Look has no bust?
Now I wouldn't presume to tell a woman,
What a woman ought to think.
But tell her if she's got to think,
Think pink.


(unintelligible) think about it
We (unintelligible) think about it.

THOMPSON: I'm tickled pink about it.

CHORUS: Feels so gay, feels so bright,
Makes your day, makes your night.
Pink is now the color to which,
You've gotta switch


To which you gotta switch.


Every stitch


Every stitch you switch.

THOMPSON: Think pink.
Think pink on the long, long road ahead.


On the road, think pink.

THOMPSON: Think pink and the world is rosy red.


Everything's rosy.

THOMPSON: Everything on the gray (unintelligible)
To think that you can think ...
Think pink.

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our interview with fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi and ask him what he likes to wear. Also, all those houses made of ticky-tacky that all look just the same have gotten old. We'll talk about the deterioration of America's first-ring suburbs and what to do about it.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. He has a new comic book satirizing the fashion world called The Adventures of Sandee the Supermodel.

What do you make of '70s retro?

MIZRAHI: You know what? I don't really know. I mean, it's so incredibly predominant these days, isn't it? I mean, just in the movies.

GROSS: Right. Exactly. "Ice Storm," "Boogie Nights."

MIZRAHI: Oh, forget -- before that, there was "Casino" -- I mean, you know, there's many -- I can think of a thousand movies.

GROSS: Oh, I hadn't thought of that. Sure.

MIZRAHI: But you know what?

GROSS: What?

MIZRAHI: I don't -- what's exciting is that I think it's not important now. I think it's really a joke. It's really fun now. It's not anything more than that.

GROSS: Mmm-hm. Right.

MIZRAHI: You know, a couple of years ago, though, it was really confusing. You know, five or six years ago I was thinking: What is the modern day? Is there a modern day? You know. Now I think there is, because for a while there, it seemed like every fashion designer, every filmmaker, every fictional -- anybody making up any kind of art, it was only about like a specific decade.

You know, it was about the '60s first ...

GROSS: Right.

MIZRAHI: ... and then the '70s. And I was thinking, like, you know, there has to be more to fashion than knowing which decade to revive, you know what I mean?


MIZRAHI: There has to be more to movies than that, as well. And it seems like there is now. I can't put my finger on it, but it seems like there's a real '90s look that has emerged and a real '90s sensibility about everything.

I mean, I'm really excited about the millennium because I think it's going to be a big artistic breakthrough. And I think that painting will come back and -- particularly painting 'cause it's dead. Painting is dead, you know. Ballet is dead. I hope ballet will someday come back. I'm not sure it will in the millennium, but you know -- I mean, in the next two years.

GROSS: You design one-of-a-kind things, you know, couture, and you also design for department stores.


GROSS: You have a line that's carried in department stores. What's the difference between your approach to each of those lines?

MIZRAHI: Well, you know, basically I do them in the same way. It's my hands. It's my eyes. But the difference is, you know, in one line -- that's the sort of popularly priced one -- I solve problems only. You know what I mean? You know, if the thing doesn't click along and make your life easier to live, then there's no point in my doing it.

GROSS: When you say "solve problems," what do you mean?

MIZRAHI: In other words, this sweater is going to be great for me because I can wear it from seven in the morning 'til midnight, you know. And I can go from every single meeting I have to go -- I have to pick up the kids, come home, get the prescription, go back to dinner, and then go out to this little -- to this little get-together. That's the way people live today, you know.

Or it's so incredibly delightful that I can't resist it. You know what I mean?

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

MIZRAHI: Whereas I tend to put more emphasis on the latter when I'm doing my collection; when I'm doing, you know, the expensive clothes.

GROSS: Right.

MIZRAHI: I think mostly about delighting a woman, you know.

GROSS: Now, I understand that you like fur a lot, and in the movie about you, "Unzipped," you're ...

MIZRAHI: Mmm-hm.

GROSS: ... you're, you know, you're doing a whole fur-related -- fur-related thing, very inspired by the movie "Nanook of the North."


GROSS: Wearing fur is, of course, very politically incorrect right now. So how do you -- how do you handle that?

MIZRAHI: I don't know. I don't know, honestly. It's not an issue for me. I don't think it's politically incorrect. I just think it's beautiful and luxurious.

GROSS: So you're -- so you're doing for ...

MIZRAHI: Yes, well you know, the way I did it for fall was I sort of used recycled fur only, you know. That's not to say that I don't -- I wouldn't use new fur. I would.

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

MIZRAHI: You know -- you know, it's all -- it's all your level of tolerance. I don't -- I think the worst thing in the world is -- I mean, I understand fur activists and in a way I'm a fur activist, too, because I don't think that fur should be mass produced. I think that's a sin. That's disgusting, you know, to like slaughter these mink coats -- slaughter these minks to make mink coats that are going to be marked down. You know, I don't believe in that. That's disgusting.

But beautiful, beautiful fur is, like, as old as -- it's, you know -- I think the second oldest profession in the world is furrier.

GROSS: Right.

MIZRAHI: You know? Really. And I don't see how you can put an end to that. I don't see how you can totally and completely put an end to that.

GROSS: What do you like to wear usually?

MIZRAHI: What do I like to wear?

GROSS: Yeah, how do you usually dress ...

MIZRAHI: Let's see.

GROSS: ... during the day.

MIZRAHI: Let's see, I wear slim cut pants that are a beautiful, beautiful grade of Italian wool.

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

MIZRAHI: Beautiful Italian socks -- you know, sort of woolen socks that are thin; Belgian -- Belgian loafers, which are these shoes that I get on 54th Street that is -- the only things I can wear because for some reason they are the only shoes that fit my feet, and they're hand-made, actually, in Belgium.

And what else do I wear? I wear a lot of T-shirts, whether they're, you know, from the Gap or from some other place. I wear a lot of cashmere sweaters. I have a giant, giant collection of cardigans and crew-necks and V-necks. And I wear all these jackets that I had made in England.

GROSS: Have you ever had the desire to wear -- not women's clothes, but clothes as kind of flamboyant and outrageous as some women's clothes -- like that long V-neck thing that you described. You know ...

MIZRAHI: Yes, you know what? I don't -- if I did, I would. I -- you know, I -- I have a pair of high-heels that someone just -- this fabulous shoemaker made me in Italy. That are just like these -- they're sort of these boots and they have this really high, kind of set-back heel with a pointed toe. They're beautiful. They're sort of brown and they lace up to the ankle. And they're serious -- I mean, you know, I would actually wear them out if I had something to wear them to.

I have a kilt. I wear a kilt sometimes, you know. But it doesn't really -- I don't get into dress-up. You know, I never -- I never considered myself a great, great beauty, you know. If I was better looking, I think I'd dress up more. You know, I have a -- I have some fabulous flamboyant clothes that I wear occasionally only because I want to feel different. You know what I mean?

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

MIZRAHI: It's not like I want to feel like a girl or feel like a boy or whatever. I want to feel different sometimes. I don't want to wear these black jeans every day and these Belgian loafers every single day.

GROSS: Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. He's written a new comic book called The Adventures of Sandee the Supermodel.

Coming up, the decaying of America's first-ring suburbs.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Isaac Mizrahi
High: Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. He's just written "The Adventures of Sandee the Supermodel," a collection of three giant comic books, illustrated by artist William Frawley. Mizrahi has been called a "creative visionary" in today's fashion industry. In 1995 the documentary "Unzipped" was made about Mizrahi and his life.
Spec: Fashion; Isaac Mizrahi; Media; Movie Industry; Unzipped; The Adventures of Sandy the Supermodel
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Isaac Mizrahi
Date: DECEMBER 03, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 120302NP.217
Head: Urban Sprawl
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:35

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The early suburbs that once represented an escape from the city into a new, more rural neighborhood now have some of the same problems as cities. My guest William Morrish is leading the charge to revitalize these so-called "first ring" suburbs -- the small communities which developed just on the edge of city centers; suburbs like Levittown and New Rochelle, where "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was set.

Morrish is the director of the design center of American landscape at the University of Minnesota. In 1994, he and his wife, Katherine Brown (ph), a landscape architect, were described in the New York Times as the most valuable thinkers in American urbanism today.

Morrish is currently directing an extensive study of metropolitan neighborhoods and is planning the first national conference on first ring suburbs. I asked him who originally moved into the first ring suburbs and how the population has changed.

WILLIAM MORRISH, URBAN DESIGNER, CO-DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR THE AMERICAN URBAN LANDSCAPE, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: The first ring suburb, especially the most famous one -- the post-World War II -- was for the returning veterans -- the post-World War II economic boom -- people returning from the war, seeking a new life. Now, these were the homes for the workers, for the new aerospace industries and all the new industries that grew up around World War II and after World War II.

These homes were -- famous ones, of course, is Levittown and I might refer back -- it's probably the most famous one, representing post-World War II community. These towns were designed as small communities, with schools, small and inexpensive government, sitting and using the economic base of the central downtown. They commuted in to work into downtown from these "bedroom communities."

We're now going to the next succession in its ecology; the next version is a more diverse economy. We've got a larger aging population and we also have new family formations coming in with different family structure and ethnic backgrounds.

So what might have been construed in much literature about a homogeneous world is now becoming a heterogeneous reflection of the diverse American family structure.

GROSS: Give us an overview of some of the typical problems that the first ring suburbs are dealing with now.

MORRISH: First one is just the aging infrastructure of its housing stock. The houses themselves have served their lifetime and no longer compatible -- or competitive in the larger market. They're small and on small lots, and therefore they're affordable to many people, but they're constrained and therefore need to be renovated.

The community is starting to see a raise in the cost of social issues as they become areas of affordable housing. They have declining tax base and increased social costs. So the city's under some financial stress as the jobs and economic life is pulled out by the second and third ring suburbs.

They've also become pass-through communities for a lot of congestion between the city and the edge city of the second and third ring. They have -- so they're caught right now between the possibility of being a great place for new families to locate and renovate affordable housing, and at the same time, they're looking at social and economic issues they've never had to face with a small economic tax base.

GROSS: Do you think that changing lifestyles have affected life in those first ring communities today?

MORRISH: Oh, very much so. The typical family that the society was building for, for example, in -- even as middle of the 1970s here in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul -- 79 percent of the families in the area were what called the nuclear family -- one wage-earner, two-parent family. We now have 25 percent of those families meet that bill. Most of us are working parents, and a lot of single parents.

And that structure, which relied heavily upon the automobile and ...

GROSS: And the wife at home.

MORRISH: ... easy ...


MORRISH: ... yeah, well somebody at home -- driving -- yes -- the wife at home managing children and easy access over to the school, has fundamentally changed. And those conventions that it was built upon have changed now. We can -- we don't have that lifestyle anymore.

GROSS: Didn't you once point out that stay-at-home wives and mothers were considered a part, more or less, of the infrastructure? In those early suburbs, it was just assumed that the wife would be around to take care of certain things.

MORRISH: Very much so. I mean, it was one of the key subsidies for the system, along with 90/10 highway funding where federal government paid 90 percent of the highways to build very expensive highways and subsidize them for their -- yes, it relied heavily upon the wife or someone at home to be able to move everybody around, since there was no public transit in many of these communities.

GROSS: Another thing that you point out that has changed the nature of life in these first ring suburbs is that there's lots of suburbs that have gotten built up around them, so they're no longer on the edge; they're no longer kind of semi-rural. They're totally hemmed in by all these other rings of suburbs.

MORRISH: It's a phenomenal period of growth in the last 50 years. I mean, you have communities that were literally on the edge of the rural areas 50 years ago, and now are way with inside the city. In fact, they're referred to now as the "inner ring" and many suburban communities, such as second, third, and fourth ring communities kind of just lump it in to the central city as one big problem.

And yes, they are hemmed in. They have a limited ability to expand their tax base by attracting new business because they have a limited amount of land area available for economic development, 'cause they're predominantly residential and have little space for job development.

GROSS: What are your fears of what will happen if we don't creatively address the problems that the first ring suburbs are having now?

MORRISH: I believe that if we miss this opportunity, we're going to end up with using the term "brown field," which is usually referred to as land that has been left back by industrial waste and abandoned by industrial land. We'll end up with, I think, an economic and social brown field that's going to be quite profound. It'll -- if it declines and deteriorates with -- as we've seen in central city -- it'll be more profoundly -- a more profound problem than central city 'cause it does not have the tax capacity that a central city has.

And we'll be looking at an area which will be bypassed by economic development, and may even hurt central city renewal as people begin to look at it as just another example of larger city problems; people will turn away and start focusing on the edge city and farther out.

GROSS: My guest is William Morrish, and he's the director of the Design Center for American Landscape at the University of Minnesota. One of the big issues he's working on is trying to reverse the decay of first ring suburbs in America.

The model you're trying to create for these first ring suburbs is what you describe as a "metropolitan town." Would you describe what that model might be?

MORRISH: Well, the metropolitan town is an idea that we've been working with that as our cities become parts of a large metropolitan region -- economic region -- we're beginning to focus on the idea that towns by themselves cannot exist without partners and linkages to the larger system. Instead of just seeing the first ring town as an independent, self-supporting system, the way they're going to sustain themselves in the future is to begin to start seeing them as what we call the "metropolitan town."

Something of the scale of the town, which people I think are looking at politically and socially as the proper scale within a metropolitan area -- something they can understand; and then "metropolitan" mean it's hooked up; it has sub-regional partners. It's hooked up to transportation. It's part of a social safety net that many communities share. They have access to jobs on either side. They can't -- they can no longer afford to operate as independent and autonomous units.

GROSS: Well how do you deal with something like public transportation in an area where it doesn't exist? Or not much of it exists.

MORRISH: Well, yeah, the issue of transportation -- it's quite phenomenal. These towns are going from a period where they've had not to deal with it -- the issues are not very complicated, and they're now having to go to very complicated and integrated issues. Actually, locally there's a group called the Northwest Human Services, which has actually been working with the medium-size employers in the first ring and second ring communities and talking to them about where their employees live and what their needs are.

And they're beginning to develop a transit system about -- between this partnership; between employees living in the first ring and their employers right nearby -- and beginning to articulate travel systems and also helping re-route and rearrange the metropolitan transit system.

So actually what's interesting is transportation has to be brought in on the community's terms -- from the sort of grassroots base. It can't just be super-imposed down upon the city.

GROSS: What's the best example you can think of of a first ring suburb that has become revitalized?

MORRISH: Actually, there are just -- we're -- it's just beginning. There are several examples that are forming now. Just recently, I received a letter from a group of first ring suburbs around Cleveland who have been organizing both politically and planning-wise, and they have been discussing issues of transportation and slowing down highway growth through their community. And they're beginning to look at transportation on different terms.

So many communities -- there isn't, I think, a finished example yet, but there are many people who are now raising that issue and forming coalitions. And I think that's the most significant first step, is that they're beginning to see the partnership, the shared concerns, and beginning to look at positive solutions, rather than just becoming NIMBYs.

GROSS: I think one of the disadvantages of a lot of first ring suburbs is that there's no center -- there's no real downtown; there's no real cultural centers. Maybe there's a multiplex. Is there a way, do you think, of designing that in after the fact?

MORRISH: Well, one thing about cities is you get to always get to redesign them constantly. The whole notion of city and towns is they're constantly getting added to. So the idea of adding a center after a city's started is always possible.

Many first ring communities have rediscovered the notion of creating a three- or four-block mainstreet area out of an old strip street that used to be strip commercial. There is a community right here in Minneapolis -- outside of Minneapolis -- called St. Louis Park. It has a street called Excelsior Boulevard which had the traditional '50s strips -- commercial on it. They've just discovered that (1) it is a great piece of land there that could be used for higher and better use; and (2) they have a big demand for multi-family housing, which is not going to be placed inside the middle of single-family houses. So they're rethinking this strip street and beginning to go back to the notion of maybe a boulevard could be a place, rather than just a passage for automobiles going somewhere else.

So they're actually talking about redesigning the speed of that road and getting it down to actual 35 miles an hour, rather than 50. And from there, beginning to sort of make an identity for itself.

The revival of schools, I think, is the other issue, too.

GROSS: How so?

MORRISH: As schools are beginning to -- there is actually some discussion between school districts, both in city and the first ring, to begin to start sharing schools -- school buildings; and also the school beginning to become the access to the information highway and job retraining for many of the people that exist in the first ring. So it may become much more of a 12-hour place, rather than just a K through 12 activity.

GROSS: My guest is William Morrish, the director of the Design Center of American Landscape at the University of Minnesota. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


Back with architect William Morrish, who is planning the first national conference on the decaying of America's first ring suburbs.

What are some of the strengths inherent to some of these first ring suburbs that you think can be used to help revitalize them? You know, for example, we've talked about how some of the housing stock really doesn't hold up, and, you know, particularly some of the houses that were built in the '40s and '50s were seen, even in their time, as being, you know, houses of ticky-tacky that all look just the same. So where are the strengths?

MORRISH: Well, its first strength is, taking the number one rule of real estate, is location. Its location is perfect for a metropolitan area. You can be halfway to work whether you're in downtown or out on the edge city. You can be a 20-minute drive.

So as people begin to look at housing, and the two workers in the family have one job in the suburbs and one job in the central city, many of them are trying to understand how to move into the first ring; what adjustments to they make? That brings them to two issues: schools and housing stock.

Schools is they're beginning to become involved in understanding and recreating the schools -- a more diverse and integrated place. The second one is the housing stock, and that's a really interesting design and technology question. There are small lots, typically 40 by 150 lot parcel; 800 to 100 square feet. Technologically quite innovative at their time in the 1950s, using much of the technology developed in World War II: light frame construction, plywood; very revolutionary and mass construction techniques which are still used today.

The challenge is (1) in changing the zoning so that people can begin to add bedrooms. You can make a pretty good investment in the costs of the building, but you're going to have to add bedrooms and bathrooms and kitchens. And also to look at innovations in technology, such as new heating systems to window wall systems, and even pre-development and pre-made elements, to renovate essentially the houses to make them maybe more compact in square footage, but actually environmentally and technologically more sophisticated than the second and third ring suburbs.

So that the trade-off is a more sophisticated, maybe even technologically more advanced house, but maybe you have to buy one less car, and one less car means that you can get $50,000 more in mortgage, which means you can invest it back into your house, which is a better investment than investing in a car.

GROSS: There are many first ring suburbs that are racially and ethnically mixed now, and you see that as one of the real strengths of these communities. Are you hopeful that they will actually stay racially and ethnically mixed?

MORRISH: I think this is -- and others agree with me -- that this is probably one of the great challenges for America. We've already talked through our history about building communities which are equitable and accessible to all, and as the first ring begins to become much more heterogeneous, both economically, class and ethnically, I think this will be a real challenge to see whether we really can build an integrated community.

These are working families that are moving in, revitalizing an area not with huge government support. And the question is: Are we going to deal with the racial issue to understand that this is a great economic tool -- balanced of ethnic and class, working together to stabilize our metropolitan areas.

If we do not -- if we can't pull it off here, which I think is a very direct and physically I think easy problem, then we're not going to be able to pull it off in the more complicated areas. I think it's going to be a real challenge to us.

GROSS: How did first ring suburbs become your issue?

MORRISH: That's an interesting question. Actually, it came about -- as we began to look at the metropolitan issue, we worked quite heavily on inner-city neighborhoods and began to aggregate neighborhood questions in the inner-city. And as we began to start following some of the economic trends -- a lot of the work done by Representative Myron Orfield from our state legislature in Minnesota, whose written a book called "Metropolitics," who's shown that the statistics of the first ring -- the increase of poverty, the change in social demographics -- is starting to have a negative effect on the first ring.

We began to start asking the question: If we are going to have to renovate and take advantage of this great opportunity, how will we do it?

So we're essentially following the statistics that are beginning to emerge, and various different writings that people have produced recently.

GROSS: Have you ever lived in a first ring suburb?

MORRISH: Yes, I have.

GROSS: When?

MORRISH: Actually, it's -- it's actually the town of Fresno, California, but it was built quite heavily after World War II, and a lot of those light-weight plywood houses. Yes, I think a lot of the baby boomers grew up in first ring suburbs.

GROSS: Did you grow up in Fresno?

MORRISH: Yes, I did.

GROSS: And what -- what did you learn from living there? You know, that you can actually apply to your work.

MORRISH: Well, actually -- yeah. Well, for a little kid out in the first ring suburb, at that time it was pretty wide open and you could run around all over the place. It was pretty safe. You could ride your bike everywhere and there wasn't any traffic.

I think what was interesting is that there was a lot of social interaction going on in the suburbs -- a lot of kids sharing things, running around, meeting each other. I don't think it was really the cultural void that many writers have referred to it recently.

I think that the challenge as I've seen areas like Fresno and others age, is that the downturn is quite significant, and that system is no longer viable after a while. You become pretty isolated once the area becomes congested and begins to in-fill.

So for a period of time, I think it was probably very useful and raised a lot of pretty good kids.

GROSS: What kind of neighborhood do you live in now?

MORRISH: Actually, I live in the central city of Minneapolis. I live in an old turn of the century neighborhood, very close to downtown.

GROSS: What do you like about living downtown?

MORRISH: It's accessible, actually. It's very easy access to the central city and the cultural resources. I'm just two blocks from the Walker Art Center and the Guthrie Theater, so it's very easy to get to cultural activities.

GROSS: Well, Bill Morrish, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

MORRISH: Thank you.

GROSS: William Morrish is the director of the Design Center of American Landscape at the University of Minnesota.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: William Morrish
High: Urban designer William Morrish. He addresses the problems of urban sprawl, the present state of post World War Two housing developments, and the ongoing relationship between cities and suburbs. Morrish and his wife are the directors of the Institute for the American Urban Landscape at the University of Minnesota.
Spec: Housing; Environment; Cities; Culture; Urban Sprawl; Automobile Industry
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Urban Sprawl
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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