Isaac Mizrahi’s Story May Be Unruly, Not So His Exhibition

“How do you solve a problem like Mizrahi?” was, no doubt, the kvetch heard around the Yeshiva of Flatbush, when, as a young boy, Mizrahi would use his prayer books as fashion design sketchbooks and stage elaborate, story-boarded puppet shows for his neighbors. Realizing what a gefilte fish out of brine he was, a perceptive teacher intervened, not unlike The Sound of Music’s Mother Superior in the convent. Instead of becoming a governess, he went off to Manhattan’s High School of the Performing Arts and then to Parsons School of Design. The rest is of course, fashion design history; the first designer to master both the high-end and low-end of fashion.

Chee Pearlman

Ironically, Mizrahi has come full circle: his first exhibition, a 30-year retrospective entitled “Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History” has, as its home, the Jewish Museum (opening this Friday, March 18 through August 7). Guest Curator and author of the accompanying exhibition book entitled simply “Isaac Mizrahi” (Yale University Press), Chee Pearlman made a few introductory remarks about how the exhibition came to fruition during the Russ & Daughters in-house catered press breakfast yesterday. “We began about three years ago by watching runway footage of Isaac’s shows (1998-2010) while he kept up a running commentary of gossip on each of the models.  It was delicious and unedited.” This statement could very well be used to describe the designer himself.

Isaac Mizrahi & Lynn Yeager

After requesting and receiving a black-and-white cookie from the breakfast spread, served to him by Claudia Gould, the Jewish Museum Director, Isaac answered questions posed by Lynn Yaeger, a Vogue contributing writer/editor and essayist for the accompanying exhibition book, as well as his across-the-street neighbor. Incidentally, Isaac found the process of going through his own archives a lot less enchanting than the curators did. In fact, he compared it to childbirth: “If you remembered how hard it was you would never do it again!” he quipped. Although he doesn’t consider himself someone who looks back with nostalgia, he admits to “almost bursting out in tears” upon seeing the selected sketches (he has every one he ever did) “in this hermetically sealed environment being handled by people wearing gloves.”

The wall

The exhibition begins with a full wall of what resembles a million colorful mosaic tiles, but is actually Isaac’s saved and archived fabric swatches — he’s been a collector since 1987. Gould terms the entrance wall “an exuberant, fearless mash-up of color.”

Fashion sketches

Next is a room of the previously mentioned gouache sketches, followed by a room of costumes designed for various stage productions including The Magic Flute, Platee, Peter and the Wolf, the opera “Brief Fling,” and the Roundabout Theatre Company production of “The Women.” Mizrahi has worked with choreographers Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp on various productions as well as directing, designing and narrating for several theatrical endeavors. The designer has been known to attribute much of his inspiration from old movies such as his “Nanook of the North” collection (see “Unzipped”).

Move on to view Isaac’s runway fashions from his Ready-to-Wear collections including the ultimate in high/low with his taffeta Ballgown Sport paired with a white cotton T-shirt(fall 1994) as seen documented in the 1995 film “Unzipped.” (Maybe that’s where Sharon Stone got the inspo to team her Gap turtleneck with a Valentino ballgown skirt at the 1996 Oscars?) Also in this room is the Orange-orange coat and yellow jumpsuit seen on Linda Evangelista (fall 1988), the Irving Penn inspired Exploded Tulip and Exploded Poppy (spring 1992), the spring 1990 Harlequin linen suit (a print collaboration with Maira Kalman) and many more of the irreverent and tongue-in-chic looks that he’s known for.

Camel hair jump-coat (fall 1998), moth suit (fall 1990),”straphanger” (fall 1989)
& mink blanket coat (fall 1988)

At the other end of the hallway is the Semi-Couture line (2003-2011) which features the famous Naomi Campbell Totem Pole Gown (fall 1991), and Tee-Pee Jacket, Coca-Cola can paillette dress (spring 1994), Extreme Kilt flannel gown (fall 1989), Baby Bjorn Ballgown (fall 1998), Desert Storm camo dress (fall 1991), the Star of David belt ensemble worn by Linda Evangelista on the fall 1991 runway, the Elevator Pad Gown (Spring 2005), and the Colorfield coat (fall 2004) from the High-Low collection which was shown on the runway with a pair of jeans from Isaac’s Target line (2002-2008).

In the last room are many interesting accessories including a pair of Spring-Heeled Heels, a leather bustier, a Lucite lobster epaulet (both spring 2010), a fall 2007 fox piece with rhinestone embellished fox head as well as the Dress-Up Rain booties, basically a pump encased in a clear plastic sleeve (fall 2010).

Kitchen sink pink dress (fall 2006)

After a hallway lined with Nick Waplington photos featuring Isaac and models backstage or prepping for his shows, you reach a three-screen projection room on which archival runway footage, snippets from the award-winning documentary “Unzipped,” TV clips from The Isaac Mizrahi Show, scenes from LES MIZrahi, his one-man cabaret show; excerpts from his appearances on Jeopardy, Project Runway All Stars (on which he is a judge), his QVC appearances for Isaac Mizrahi Live! and more can be viewed.

“Queen of the Night” from The Magic Flute

Make no mistake about it, Mizrahi is still very much enjoying what he always did which is straddling the worlds of dramatic performance (he attributes this to receiving the Minstrel during a Tarot card reading) and fashion design,   Along with his regular QVC appearances, he currently has several irons in the fire including  “a small TV project,” a theatrical show based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 fantasy film “The Devil’s Eye,” and a memoir which is due out next year.

Bubble, Drop Cloth, & Daisy (2016)

Just for the record, Mizrahi claims he hates: mannequins (unlike the human form they are unyielding), traveling (although he will go fly, just not happily), and writing (he says he is pretty far along with his memoir, despite what he terms the problem of “word disposal.”) “I write and write and write and write all these words and then throw all but about five of them away,” says the man who admits to becoming more neurotic with age.

Selections from past RTW collections

I’ve always wondered what it’s like to have been the toast of Seventh Avenue one day; with Veronica, Linda, Christy, Kate, Naomi, Shalom, Iman and Karlie modeling for you (his original eponymous Chanel-backed clothing line folded in 1998),  to designing a line for the masses at “Tar-jay” (apparently there are even IM designed Band-Aids) and QVC the next. Isaacs answer is a smart one: “Why would you want to make a dress that like three people are going to wear when you can make one that thousands will wear?” Yes, I definitely get it — you can be a snob about it but he’s laughing all the way to the bank in a way that many designers of luxury lines can only dream about.

Lumberjack ballgown (1994)

Interestingly on the recent and dreaded “unconventional materials” episode of Project Runway All Stars, Isaac calls out designer Stella for producing a garment that’s reminiscent of something you’d find at “Forever 21.” Although he admits to loving F21, Zara, and other fast fashion houses, he feels that it’s a design competition after all, and the designers should be held to a higher standard. What’s worse: She offers an excuse as to why her garment isn’t as it should be. “There’s nothing less chic than an excuse,” deadpans Isaac, in one of his signature witticisms destined to appear on a t-shirt. None are needed here.

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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