From non-conformist Yeshiva student to flamboyant judge of Project Runway: All Stars, showman for QVC Network’s, Isaac Mizrahi Live! and Jeopardy genius, the inimitable fashion designer has always marched to the beat of his own drum. He draped supermodel, Naomi Campbell in his Totem Pole Gown from his fall 1991 Collection in what today, would almost certainly be deemed “politically incorrect” but then, instead of being lambasted by the media, it made the cover of Time Magazine. He brought style to the hoi polloi as the first fashion designer to create collections for Target (2002-2008) and at the same time, semi-couture (2003-2011) for the A-listers. In fact some celebs still shopped his lines at Target because – hey- who doesn’t like a bargain?
“You know, irreverence and humor is so important and I didn’t want to disembody the work from the man,” chuckles guest curator Chee Pearlman, by phone from The Jewish Museum, New York where Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History has just opened and runs until August 7th, 2016.
Three years in the making, and organized by Kelly Taxter, a curator at the Jewish Museum, Pearlman spent hours watching runway footage from 1988 when Mizrahi first presented his debut collection as a trunk show, up to the present. She visited his warehouse, an Aladdin’s cave filled with thousands of documented fashions, shoes, hats, handbags and jewelry. Mizrahi would often join her with “ a running commentary, both delicious and unedited about all the inventory and gossip about the models,” she says.
Oh, to be a fly on that wall, but I digress.
Although it spans 30 years of his career, Mizrahi didn’t want the Jewish Museum’s Exhibition to be a retrospective. At 54, he feels he is “only halfway through his life, and besides, the memoir is coming out soon,” he told a flummoxed Stephen Colbert, when he was a guest on his talk show recently.
“For Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History, we ended up with 42 complete looks and 10 costumes from Isaac’s designs for dance and theatre,” Pearlman explains. “He also designed three coats just for the Exhibition. Arranged thematically and also brought to life with three large screens and multi-media presentations, Isaac was utterly fearless with color, often at a time when women were afraid to depart from basic black. I really feel that Isaac Mizrahi gave woman the freedom to be fashionable and express themselves with color.”
And although Mizrahi has dressed politicians and actresses including Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, Sarah Jessica Parker and Sandra Bernhard, Mizrahi says in an interview in the Exhibition’s catalog: “I always had real women in mind, not fantasies.”
Born to Syrian Jewish refugees who settled in Brooklyn, New York, his father, Zeke, a children’s clothing manufacturer, gave him his first sewing machine at the age of 10, and Mizrahi says he derived much of his sense of style from his mother, Sarah.
Mizrahi, attended the Yeshivah of Flatbush where he readily admits to always feeling like a fish out of water and eventually transferred to the New York City School for the Performing Arts.
A toss-up between a career in theatre or fashion, he graduated from Parsons School of Design, then worked in the studios of Perry Ellis, Jeffrey Banks and Calvin Klein. Launching his own label in the late 1980s at the age of 27 with his eponymous clothing line, Isaac Mizrahi New York, it debuted at Bergdorf Goodman in 1986.
In 1989 he received the Perry Ellis Award for Emerging Talent and was named Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Womenswear Designer of the Year, an award he won again in 1991. Unzipped, an exuberant and insightful documentary about the making of his fall 1994 collection, earned Mizrahi and director Douglas Keeve the 1995 Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. He even teamed up with Chanel investors, but when his fashion house closed in 1998, Mizrahi followed his other passions in theater and dance, designing costumes and sets for Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp in addition to winning a 2002 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Costume Design for a Broadway revival of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women.
Most recently, HP has collaborated with fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi to create the Isaac Mizrahi Smartwatch, a $249 luxe timepiece for women featuring Swarovski crystals, multicolored leather bands, smartphone notifications, and activity tracking.
Evidence of Mizrahi’s innumerable artistic inspirations and mischievous wit – always with an underlying playful wink to the cultural, social and political mores of the day – are everywhere throughout An Unruly History.
Adidas sneakers replace high heels and handbags are worn as hats; a vibrant ballooning taffeta skirt is paired with the plebian white T-shirt. A Star of David on a suede and brass belt (worn by supermodel Linda Evangelista in Mizrahi’s documentary, Unzipped, ) is a riff on the religious icon trend of the 90s with a salute to his own heritage.“ If crosses are everywhere,” he said, “why not make the Star of David ubiquitous too.”
He mimicked the U.S. army’s camouflage uniforms during Desert Storm and created his Camouflage Halter Dress in 1991. To produce The Real Thing, a shimmering, ready-to-wear red shift crafted from Coca-Cola cans cut into paillettes in Paris for his Spring 1994 runway show, he worked with We Can, a New York charity for the homeless. His floral muse for Exploded Tulip and Exploded Rose ready-to-wear dresses, was photographer Irving Penn’s 1980 tome, Flowers. In 1992, Mizrahi commissioned photographs in that style and printed them on silk crepe dresses. A jacket and chiffon gown ensemble (Spring 1990) realizes Henri Matisse’s hand-painted costumes for Serge Diagilev’s Ballets Russes in Stravinsky’s opera, Le Chant Rossignol.
And the Exhibition’s piece de resistance? For the mother who can’t bare to leave her child with a babysitter, the elegant satin Baby Bjorn Ball Gown with it’s own built-in baby carrier!
Apparently, model, Gisele Bündchen wore the dress on the runway in 1998, with a real infant. “He was wearing earplugs,” Mizrahi recalled at the Exhibition’s opening. “No harm was done to that child,” he quipped.
“While we were hanging the show, we discovered all these incredible drawings from 1981 that Isaac had done and I really wanted to include an in-depth focus on them,” Pearlman confides. “They are absolutely beautiful and masterful – so finely rendered all by hand, with amazing patterns and designs. Isaac never used the computer to draw. We opened up the area just so so they could be so deservedly appreciated.”
TOP PHOTO: (l) Isaac Mizrahi sketches his 2013 luxury home furnishings textile collection for S. Harris. Photo: Jason Frank Rothenburg for Fabricut. (r) Installation view from Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History, The Jewish Museum N.Y . Photo: David Heald