A Second Act

updated 08/18/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/18/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Don't cry for him, fashionistas. Isaac Mizrahi is doing just fine. Though forced to close his ready-to-wear business nearly five years ago, the designer soon bounced back with an Off-Broadway cabaret act (he sings!), then a hit cable-TV chat show. He kept a hand in fashion, whipping up the occasional party dress for friends like Sarah Jessica Parker, and now he's back to his sketch pad for two new ventures: a mass-market line for Target, and IM to Order, custom confections for those who can pay five figures for a gown. "The clothes that influence culture," says Mizrahi, 41, are "very inexpensive, accessible...or really expensive."

But don't think that while offering up an $18,000 fox-trimmed suit and filling racks with $29.99 khakis, he's leaving showbiz. When he staged his one-man act, LES MIZrahi, in 2000, he says, "it felt like springtime in my soul." So these days, in addition to shooting a third season of The Isaac Mizrahi Show on the Oxygen network, Mizrahi, newly fit after losing 20 lbs. on Weight Watchers and kicking a decades-old smoking habit, is preparing to direct his first film, The Extra Man, based on Jonathan Ames's comic novel about an outsider ascending New York society.

One role he is thrilled to give up is that of top boss. His Target deal allows him to do only what he loves: making clothes. "I don't have to worry about 500 employees about to revolt or markdowns or anything," he says. "It's wonderful." Happy to pick up the administrative details, Target execs (who previously landed style gurus Liz Lange and Todd Oldham) are betting Mizrahi will bring his unbridled fabulosity to their racks—and with it, new customers.

The boardroom types at Oxygen are also in on that bet. "He put us on the map," says Debby Beece, president of programming. His show, which gets stars gabbing while, say, shopping for ties (Conan O'Brien) or getting a newsworthy haircut (Rosie O'Donnell), is the network's second-highest rated in prime time. Oxygen, he says, "needed to be much more fun—not such a serious yeast-infection kind of thing."

With that kind of give-'em-what-they-want acumen, it's a wonder Mizrahi's own business went under. One reason: Refusing to license his name to perfume, underwear or bath towels kept him from pulling the mega-bucks that Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren do. After too many seasons in the red, his financial backers, Chanel Inc., pulled the plug in 1998. The New York Times, which 10 years earlier had hailed him as the "hottest new designer," ran this front-page story: "Mizrahi, Designer Most Likely to Succeed, Doesn't." The end actually came as some relief to Mizrahi. "When everything is your responsibility," he says, "it's draining and it stops being fun."

Earlier in his career, Mizrahi made it all seem effortless. "I had a vision of what was pretty and right and how it could all be slightly more fabulous," he says. "I wanted to see women wearing French twists with parkas." Once an apprentice to Klein, he went solo in 1987 and in five years won three Council of Fashion Designers of America awards. In 1995 the film Unzipped introduced his quippy and sweetly neurotic self to a wider audience.

The documentary also paved a transition to performing, a love that expressed itself early when, as a boy in Brooklyn, Mizrahi did Judy Garland impressions at the neighborhood beach club. ("My parents were mortified.") The son of Zeke, a children's clothing maker who died in 1982, and home-maker Sarah, 75, Mizrahi attended a performing-arts high school before deciding to make clothes a career. But even as he racked up fashion awards, he always imagined his Oscar speech.

More future plans: "I want to have a kid, but I can't do that by myself," says Mizrahi, who is single but hopeful ("Calling all N.Y. Yankees!" he offers cheerfully). For now, he's enjoying a different variation on the having-it-all theme. "What I want to be is this kind of tap-dancing designer," says Mizrahi, quite seriously. "I want to be Martha Stewart and Martha Graham."

Allison Adato
Fannie Weinstein in New York City

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