Isaac Mizrahi: Fashion’s Fun Side

By Stephanie Sporn

NEW YORK – “What needs to go in museums is stuff that isn’t boring!” declared Isaac Mizrahi. Always one to spin runway shows as theatrical events, Mizrahi and his work certainly meet that standard. Ambitious but never too serious, Mizrahi has fearlessly blurred the lines between high and low, fashion and life, since the moment he launched his line in 1987. Now, with an exhibition three years in the making, the Jewish Museum presents Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History, the first survey of the designer’s boundary-pushing career. Ahead of the show’s opening on 18 March, we spoke with its curator, Chee Pearlman, a design guru and longtime friend of Mizrahi. “Isaac is so much a part of the fabric of New York [and] of fashion,” Pearlman said. “He has so much to say.”

Read on to preview an image gallery of exhibition highlights and discover more about Mizrahi’s many creative pursuits.


Why an exhibition on Mizrahi now?
Why not now? There’s never been a show or even a book about Isaac. And now, there will be both. In part, the exhibition is tied to a memoir he’s working on, but really, Isaac is just a beloved fixture in New York culture. It’s time to acknowledge that, because there’s a lot of learning that can come from what he’s done, especially the fact that many fashion people take themselves so seriously. One of the things about Isaac’s career is that it has evolved and morphed. Culturally, now, most of us have many careers. Isaac was way ahead of the curve on that. He hasn’t just stuck with one label – Isaac Mizrahi, fashion designer. He’s always working on different kinds of projects that span fashion, performance, theatre, television and also writing. I think this idea of breadth of being able to do many things in the creative realm is very timely for today’s world.   

What was your vision for curating this exhibition?
I would like for there to be a moment when we can find a window into Isaac and who he is because he’s obviously such a refined talent. There are very few people who can embrace so many different ways of thinking about their craft and their art and do these things with such finesse.  That’s something I’d like to have come across in the exhibition, and we’re doing it in a number of ways. For example, we’re devoting a whole room to his drawings because they’re absolutely beautiful. When you see them, you see that the finished piece was fully realised in his mind even before he made it. We also have a gallery devoted to his work for theatre, with costumes he designed for Mark Morris Dance Group and for Twyla Tharp. From television, there’s a look that he designed for Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City [a camel sweater monogrammed with a turquoise C], so there’s quite a range.  

Isaac disrupted the world of fashion by infusing a lot of personality...He wasn’t approaching his work with this rigid, market-driven, what-will-the-press-respond-to kind of sensibility.

We’re dying to know if the 1995 Mizrahi documentary Unzipped, a cult classic, will be part of the exhibition. The film was a game changer, wasn’t it?
Isaac came into the public consciousness in a big way with Unzipped. That was the first big fashion documentary. Before that, fashion was really a closed, insular world. The only way you would know what had gone on was to see what was published in the magazines. It was a big deal to take a camera backstage and follow a designer closely. For the museum show, we’ve created a new video that will be on three screens. It’s a fourteen-minute montage, and it includes footage from the runway, Unzipped and cameos on TV and film – Isaac appeared in three Woody Allen movies.     

Was Isaac very involved in putting this exhibition together?
Yes, absolutely, you can’t have such a creative mind not be involved. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. He wanted to make it very clear that there wouldn’t be a lot of fancy bells and whistles. He wanted to go almost the opposite direction. A lot of fashion exhibitions recently have had more layers of media and pyrotechnics, and we’ve pulled back from that quite intentionally and deliberately to make the exhibition serene, cool and clean. All the rooms are framed out with a white scrim – that was something that was also used in Unzipped, where the models change behind a scrim.  


What do you hope visitors take away from the exhibition?  
It would be wonderful if people came away understanding that you don’t need to put creativity in a box. Isaac disrupted the world of fashion by infusing a lot of personality, but even more importantly, a lot of humor. He wasn’t approaching his work with this rigid, market-driven, what-will-the-press-respond-to kind of sensibility. He was very inventive, creative and spontaneous. He really wanted to have fun, and I think you’ll have a sense of the joy and exuberance that went into making his collections.  

Isaac says in the exhibition montage, “Why have a fashion show if you’re going to show the same thing that [you] showed the last time?” What are some memorable looks that really capture Mizrahi’s creative genius?
One is a wonderful ensemble called Together but Separates, from fall 2009. It’s a handbag that is worn as a hat – because why not? And I think that’s how Isaac sees a lot of things: why not? Why can’t a woman who has an infant wear a ball gown and matching baby carrier? Why not take a tartan kilt and turn it into a gown? Why not wear a T-Shirt with this gorgeous taffeta silk ball gown? That’s a question Isaac is very comfortable asking.  

Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History, 18 March–7 August, The Jewish Museum, New York.  

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