P erry Ellis. Halston. Patrick Kelly. The AIDS epidemic devastated the fashion industry. While certain designers had firmly cemented their sartorial legacy at the time of their deaths, others were rising stars whose wave of worldwide fame would ebb over time; their potential never fully realized. Such is the case with Isaia Rankin, or Isaia as he was fondly known, who died 30 years ago at the age of 35. An up-and-coming womenswear designer in New York during the 1980s, Isaia was on par with his contemporaries: Anna Sui, Marc Jacobs and Betsey Johnson. His upscale basics and body-hugging skirts and dresses – which epitomized his design mantra: sleek, modern, sensual – were increasingly featured in Vogue and WWD. “He had a sparkling, hysterical personality,” recalls Robert Page, who soon after moving to New York in 1985 became Isaia’s mentee and later his Director of Sales and Marketing. Page consigned a Jean-Michel Basquiat drawing depicting Isaia and his store called Fertility for Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Online auction, thus illuminating a little piece of downtown New York history that also anticipates today’s rampant fashion and street art collaborations. “While it’s really difficult for me to part with this very personal piece, I am excited to remind people about what a huge talent Isaia was and what the world lost.” Ahead, Page shares his colorful memories of Isaia, including how the designer decided Basquiat was a genius.
Isaia N.Y.C. was sold exclusively at high-end boutiques, but his garments were reasonably priced, correct?
Isaia’s designs were carried at ten of the best specialty stores around the world, including Charivari and Barneys in New York, Ultimo in Chicago, Fred Segal in Los Angeles, Browns in London and Robots in Japan. Aesthetically his clothing was on the level of Azzedine Alaïa, but an Alaïa dress was a couple thousand dollars. An Isaia dress was under $150.
Can you recall your first meeting with Isaia? How did he become your mentor?
When I first moved to New York, I was working at a little shop in SoHo called Modern Girls that carried Isaia. Isaia would come to the store once a week to drop off new merchandise, and I would give him an envelope of cash. After knowing him for several months, I wanted to talk to him about getting a real job for a designer. I would call and say, “When you come to the store, do you have a couple minutes?” He dodged me for weeks. One day I was so exasperated I finally grabbed him to explain. Turns out, he knew exactly what I wanted, and he also wanted me to work for him. The girls at the store had gotten into a big fight with him because they didn’t want to lose me. He asked me if I could be at his office 9am Monday, and that’s how it started.
What was it like working for Isaia?
There were four of us working at the company, and we were all under 25. It was a great opportunity to do everything from packing boxes to showing Grace Coddington the line and going on photo shoots with Elizabeth Saltzman. The year before I started the company was making $100,000. Within four years we got it up to $1 million. Isaia was a really good businessman and quite proud to be self-financed.
"It just blows my mind to think of what the world would be today if people like [Isaia] had still been alive to contribute to not just fashion but also art, dance and music. We’d be looking at a completely alternate universe."
Is it true that Isaia would pose as someone else in order to get feedback directly from his clients and customers?
Yes, Isaia used to go by an alias named Malcolm. He’d pick up the phone at work, and when someone would say that they wanted to speak with Isaia, he’d say, “This is Malcolm. Isaia is unavailable right now. What can I help you with?”
We also would go into Barneys, and he’d tell everybody he was Malcolm. We would tear that store apart. If he didn’t like the way his section was presented, we would visually merchandise the entire thing.
Initially there was a lot of mystery surrounding Isaia’s death, as his staff refused to disclose the actual cause. Why did Isaia hide his disease, and how did he become such a pillar for how the AIDS epidemic affected the fashion community?
He probably knew he had AIDS for between two and three years, but he did not want anyone to know. At that time being an out gay man was very shameful, and having an incurable disease with a death sentence hanging over you had an added level of shame. He wanted to keep his company going and was afraid that he’d lose business. Towards the end of his life, we were doing everything we could to keep the lights on and get $4,000 a week to pay his 24-hour nurses.
Isaia was an incredible talent. It just blows my mind to think of what the world would be today if people like him had still been alive to contribute to not just fashion but also art, dance and music. We’d be looking at a completely alternate universe.
In your opinion what was Isaia’s biggest contribution to the industry?
What’s interesting to me is that there are now billion-dollar businesses based on athletic clothing and leisurewear that mix fashion and performance. Isaia was the first. He was inspired by the clothes that bicycle messengers wore. He was also known to ride around the East Village in his dreadlocks with his little black collapsible bicycle.
Basquiat often referenced African Americans whom he admired in his work. He also engaged with fashion throughout his life. What does the Basquiat drawing that Isaia gifted to you represent?
Before Isaia N.Y.C. there were two incarnations of his store Fertility – one was in his apartment in the East Village in the early 1980s (which the Basquiat drawing depicts) and the other was when he was dying. We thought that a retail space would bring in revenue, so we opened a new version of Fertility on Spring Street in SoHo.
Isaia gave this drawing to me kind of as a “thank you” for taking care of him while he was dying, and I have always cherished it. It was the only tangible thing I had to remember him by. He was my first mentor in fashion and one of the biggest influences on my life.
What can you tell us about Isaia and Basquiat?
When I learned that they were friendly and worked together, I was floored. Basquiat made T-shirts and postcards for Fertility. Isaia told me that one time Basquiat asked him what kind of stuff he should create for Fertility this season, and Isaia said, “Maybe we should do something yellow for summer.” Basquiat came back with a white T-shirt and black letters that said “banana.” Isaia told me that’s when he knew the guy was a true genius.