My Visit to the Isaac Mizrahi Exhibit

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One of my all-time, top-5 favorite movies is Unzipped, the 1995 documentary about Isaac Mizrahi’s Fall 1994 collection. The film, shot almost entirely in grainy black and white, is a must-see for anyone curious about the inner-workings of a creative genius.

The movie opens with Mizrahi reading the abysmal reviews of his previous collection: “His color and fabric sense failed him,” he read in horror. “Certainly his sense of how a modern woman dresses after 8 P.M. failed him.”

Yikes.

He responded by designing a fall collection inspired by classic films with an Arctic flavor (like the documentary Nanook of the North and adventure epic The Call of the Wild, which features Clark Gable rescuing Loretta Young from a sub-zero death on the tundra). He created a collection filled with faux fur, colorful puffer jackets and swirling cocktail dresses in bubblegum colors.

The movie ends with Mizrahi reading the rave reviews and nearly collapsing in relief. Unzipped is everything I want in a movie — juicy, funny, touching and endearing.

So when I got a chance to see some of the Unzipped clothes in the flesh, I was giddy. Mizrahi’s creative process is the centerpiece of a meaty exhibit at the Jewish Museum on the Upper East Side (open through August 7). The exhibit, Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History, is probably the best fashion-related exhibit I’ve ever seen. (Yes, I loved it more than Manus x Machina at the Met, which I will discuss later this month.)

Here’s what I saw:

A beautiful pink Isaac Mizrahi confection, nicknamed the "Cotton Candy Cocktail." Made from mohair, with sequins and double-face satin ribbon.
A beautiful pink Isaac Mizrahi confection, nicknamed the “Cotton Candy Cocktail.” Made from mohair, with sequins and double-face satin ribbon.

One thing I noticed about Mizrahi’s clothes is that most of them are still incredibly modern and wearable, despite being several decades old. This pink mohair cocktail dress is a perfect example — and one of my favorite looks from Unzipped.

Here’s how the dress looked on Shalom Harlow in Unzipped:

The dress, as modeled by Shalom Harlow in Unzipped.
The dress, as modeled by Shalom Harlow in Unzipped.

Next up was a purple and turquoise puffer paired with a matching ballgown skirt. This is a little 90s — you probably wouldn’t wear this nowadays — but the playful use of color reminded me of Mizrahi’s obsession with pop culture, like The Flintstones. Doesn’t this color palette remind you of a bowl of Fruity Pebbles?

A parka trimmed in "beast" faux fur inspired by The Flintstones and Nanook of the North.
A parka trimmed in “beast” faux fur inspired by The Flintstones and Nanook of the North.

Here’s how Naomi Campbell modeled the same silhouette in Unzipped:

Naomi Campbell in a similar silhouette, also in the1994 show from Unzipped.
Naomi Campbell in a similar silhouette, also in the 1994 show from Unzipped.

There were many other playful pieces on display — most notably, in the accessories department. This necklace was constructed with rocks from Central Park, a nod to the fact that sometimes the most precious treasures do not have to be expensive. They can be found in our own backyards.

A necklace made of rocks sourced from Central Park.
A necklace made of rocks sourced from Central Park.

Or what about the fur scarf below? It wittily references the style of mink stoles from the 1950s, which included — gasp — the actual faces of the minks. (Click here for a picture — PETA sympathizers, look away.)

A fur with a face.
A fur with a face.

The exhibit opens with an enormous wall covered in fabric and thread samples. I am always amazed how a designer can reference a scrap and dream up an entire ensemble.

The exhibit opens with a wall full of fabric swatches.
The exhibit opens with a wall full of fabric swatches.

There were also dozens of sketches, which were mesmerizing. (I would gladly buy a coffee table book full of them.) I was giddy with excitement every time I saw a sketch intended for a specific supermodel, like the purple suit for Christy Burlington below.

A sketch of Christy Turlington.
A sketch of an outfit that was modeled by Christy Turlington.

Mizrahi is probably most well-known for his foray into fast fashion with his Target collaboration. (The democratization of fashion had started with designers like Halston, but Mizrahi really turned the trend into a business bonanza.)

The exhibit tipped its hat to Mizrahi’s affordable creations, most notably by showcasing a sweater from the Target collection paired with a fur trapper hat and a luxurious pair of floral embroidered trousers — the ultimate collision of high-low.

High/low at its finest: the sweater is from Mizrahi's Target collection; the sequined pants, also Mizrahi, are practically couture.
High/low at its finest: the sweater is from Mizrahi’s Target collection; the embroidered pants, also Mizrahi, are practically couture.

Some of my favorite looks were undeniably kooky. The fur blanket below looks like a bathrobe for a deranged socialite (a la Big Eadie in Grey Gardens).

If the Ringwraiths lived on the Upper East Side, this would be the uniform.
If the Ringwraiths lived on the Upper East Side, this would be the uniform.

Perhaps this was the ultimate pop culture reference — fur imagined as the cloak for the ringwraiths from the Lord of the Rings?

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If you’re in NYC, I heartily recommend you check out the exhibit (it’s free on Saturdays). And if you’re not in the area, check out the Unzipped documentary on Netflix (Free with a subscription) or on YouTube ($2.99 rental).