Photo: Laurel Marcus
When you say the name Isaac Mizrahi, many words immediately come to mind: wildly entertaining, hilarious, exuberant, Jewish, multi- talented, rule breaking, zany. And madcap, which makes the timing of this exhibition (it opens on Friday March 18th right at the start of March Madness), perfect. He’s also precocious, (at the age of 10, he made puppets with a sewing machine and by the time he was 15, he had launched his own clothing line, IS New York), AND prescient.
This two time winner (1989, 1991) of the CFDA Womenswear of the Year award is the original high/low designer, and I’m not just referring to the highs and lows he’s had throughout his career. (It’s been said that some of those ‘lows’ can be blamed on the fact that Isaac never had a “signature” look. That he changed his tune from one season to the next. Well, Marc Jacobs and Miuccia Prada, are two of fashion’s biggest quick change artists, and it hasn’t really hurt them. Just saying).
He was one of the first designers to emphasize unexpected pairings within their collections, routinely showing puffer jackets and sneakers with ball gowns, humble cotton undershirts with floor length taffeta skirts, and the like. Long before Alexander Wang, Versace, and Balmain’s collaborations with H&M; there was Isaac’s first of its kind line for Target. I remember the High Low Fashion Show in June 2004 which unveiled his fall winter 2004 collection; a mix of the Isaac Mizrahi New York high end line (which was available at Bergdorf Goodman), with pieces from his Isaac Mizrahi for Target line. It was held at Cipriani 42nd Street and was attended by everyone from Anna Wintour and Patricia Fields, to Candace Bergen, Diane Sawyer, and hubby Mike Nichols. When they were getting into their chauffeured car afterwards, I overhead Mike say to Diane, “THAT was fun!” (he said it in a way that implied he thought it would be torture lol), to which Diane replied, “Yes, that WAS fun!” As always, Isaac puts the fun back in fashion.
I also recall the wonderful bag each guest received on their way out: an Isaac Mizrahi for Target oversized tote bag in white rubberized cotton printed with his initials in large black letters in an abstract, geometric design, lined in hot pink with tan suede handles. I not only still have the roomy and lightweight bag, I use it. Like almost everything that defines Les Miz (especially these days), it’s good looking, practical, interesting, and chic. And affordable.
As soon as you familiarize yourself with Isaac’s background, it’s easy to see that fashion was in his blood at an early age. His father worked his way up from a job in a sweat shop in Soho where he learned how to cut garments and make patterns, and eventually started his own children’s wear company which sold to stores like JC Penney and Sears. But it’s from his mother that he really learned about Fashion (with a capital F). She had great style, great taste, gravitated to “all American designers like Halston, Geoffrey Beene, Claire McCardell, and Normal Norell, and took him with her went she went shopping at Bergdorf Goodman.
“My mother was like the Grace Mirabella of the Jews," he recalls. "She was obsessed with clothes and mostly wore these amazing designer samples from Loehmann's. She was good at altering things to make them look better. She would cut things off, get them hemmed at different lengths, make them tighter, or wear them in different sizes, or back to front. I remember when I was a kid she used to wear my father's pajamas on the beach. I mean, who thinks of that?"
While the title may be “An Unruly History”, there’s nothing at all unruly about the well-organized, well edited exhibition (Chee Pearlman was the guest curator). The approximately 250 pieces on display are exhibited in 4 different rooms on the second floor, and serve as a testament to this Renaissance man’s incredible range and the many hats he wears (fashion designer,, performer, writer, musician, and director in dance, theatre and opera). Included are the wonderfully joyous costumes designed for the theatre, opera, and ballet; runway looks; some of his sketches (dating back to 1981); and a gallery showing a video montage of his wildly popular fashion shows in the late 80’s, early 90’s. They were true fashion happenings, and boy, do I remember them well (especially the ones at the Puck Building in Soho). He had all the top models (Cindy, Linda, Naomi, Christy, Veronica, etc.), and Isaac’s colorful, exuberant designs (and unorthodox pairings) could not help put a smile on your face. There was nothing like it at the time here in New York.
It also serves as a reminder (not that we have to be reminded of course) of just how talented and creative he is, and it captures the spirit of an amazing career that has thus far, spanned 30 years and included stints at Perry Ellis (that’s when I originally met him), Jeffrey Banks, and Calvin Klein prior to starting his own company in 1987.
I attended a VIP Preview at the beautiful museum last evening and Isaac was in true form: animated and clearly enjoying his well-deserved moment in the spotlight. Among the many fashion friends and fans who were there: Simon Doonan, Stan Herman, Dr. Valerie Steele, Patricia Underwood, Marylou Luther, and Jeffrey Banks who recalled that Isaac was “a terrific assistant” although he remembered that when he came to work for him he had never seen the movie “Funny Face”. “Can you imagine wanting to be a designer and never having seen that? I went right out and bought him a VHS tape” he said. And the rest is history because of course, Audrey Hepburn was always a major inspiration within Isaac’s designs.
What struck me almost the most, was how imminently modern and of the moment it all looked (the shapes, the proportions, the silhouettes, the colors, the high low mixes, and the creative use of streetwear and athletic wear). If you had told me I was looking at a fall/winter 2016 collection, I would not have batted an eye. Quite frankly, it would have been far better than a lot of what was shown. That, and how fabulous all the saturated color looked (Isaac is known for his fabulous color sense). I was immediately inspired to add more color to my life.
FYI, I wanted to wear something to honor the designer last night, and so I pulled out my fabulous Isaac Mizrahi bright red alpaca toggle coat with massive faux fur cuffs and faux fur trimmed hood dating back to the early 90’s. When Isaac saw me, his eyes lit up with delight. And when I told him I purchased it at Saks Fifth Avenue, he looked at me incredulously and said, “You mean, you didn’t get it wholesale from me? I love you even more!”
- Marilyn Kirschner