Art

The Whimsy and Wit of Isaac Mizrahi

Installation view of the exhibition Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History, March 18-August 7, 2016.
Installation view of ‘Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History’ at the Jewish Museum, New York (photo by Will Ragozzino/SocialShutterbug.com)

Oversized frog heads; a thin, silk faille gown swathed in a cotton candy-colored parka; a cacophony of plaids, polka dots, chevrons, furs, sequins, feathers, tribal prints, and religious iconography. This is the world of Isaac Mizrahi, on view at the Jewish Museum.

Installation view of assorted sketches from the exhibition Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History, March 18-August 7, 2016.
Installation view of assorted sketches from the exhibition ‘Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History’ (photo courtesy Press Office Cardarelli) (click to enlarge)

An enfant terrible of fashion in the 1990s (a label he doesn’t quite reject, but is more befuddled by), Mizrahi served as the antidote to the Calvin Klein and Helmut Lang minimalism that defined the decade, joining contemporaries like Todd Oldham and Michael Simon to make colorful noise on the then-quiet runways of New York. Working with curators Chee Pearlman and Kelly Taxter, Mizrahi looks back on the impact he made on fashion, television, and Jewish culture in Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History.

Many may know Mizrahi as the subject of the 1994 documentary Unzipped, a cult fashion classic where we witness the droll personality hanging out with supermodels and celebrities, cracking jokes, and concocting a fashion collection based on Nanook of the North. Some may recognize him from his appearances on television, from judging Project Runway All Stars to his clothing collections for QVC. But his media personality and home shopping lines can make us forget what a brilliant force Mizrahi is and was.

During a recent phone conversation, I asked him about his roots and how his Jewish heritage might’ve influenced his work. He mused, “After hundreds of years of breeding, this Jewish sensibility is deep within me. I would characterize it as a kind of a working skepticism. It takes me a long time to believe something but when it happens I’m unshakeable in that belief.”

Elevator Pad Gown, grosgrain-ribbon bodice, quilted silk and lambís-wool skirt, spring 2005. Workhorse elevator padding used by movers inspired Mizrahi. He appropriated the quilting technique, but elevated the shipping blanket in a patchwork of blue, green, gray, and silver silk
Isaac Mizrahi, “Elevator Pad Gown,” grosgrain-ribbon bodice, quilted silk and lambís-wool skirt, spring 2005. Workhorse elevator padding used by movers inspired Mizrahi. He appropriated the quilting technique, but elevated the shipping blanket in a patchwork of blue, green, gray, and silver silk. (photograph © Jason Frank Rothenberg)

That labored intuition has proven right, even in the most outlandish of garments. It takes a keen eye to create a dress out of elevator pads or make a buckle out of a huge Star of David, and it takes a genius to know that they’ll be successful. The “Elevator Pad” dress in particular is iconic of Mizrahi’s career as a designer: a gown with a simple, striped tank top-style bodice paired with a hefty skirt fabricated to resemble the same material used to protect elevators from cumbersome furniture. It’s audacious and understated; casual and formal; fit for a woman as demure as she is bombastic. The ensemble is an unresolved one, encapsulating the dualities present in any wearer.

The Real Thing, Coca-Colañcan paillette dress, spring 1994. The Coke can makes an improbable appearance on the runway: Mizrahi used an elaborate process to create these custom paillettes from real Coca-Cola cans. He worked with the charity We Can, which employed homeless New Yorkers to collect cans to recycle; these were shipped to the sequin-maker Langlois-Martin in Paris, where they were cut into paillettes that were then sent to India to be beaded onto dresses. The result is a high-fashion, nearly weightless modern take on a ubiquitous American icon.
Isaac Mizrahi, “The Real Thing, Coca-Colañcan paillette dress,” spring 1994. Mizrahi used an elaborate process to create these custom paillettes from real Coca-Cola cans. He worked with the charity We Can, which employed homeless New Yorkers to collect cans to recycle; these were shipped to the sequin-maker Langlois-Martin in Paris, where they were cut into paillettes that were then sent to India to be beaded onto dresses. (photograph © Jason Frank Rothenberg) (click to enlarge)

Mizrahi’s sartorial sarcasm is somewhere between the subtle smirk of Schiaparelli and the brazen-faced ostentation of Moschino. Witty, not funny. Garish, but still tasteful.     

One other garment that well represents his style is a delicate mini of interlinked paillettes crafted from cut-up Coca-Cola cans, the iridescent, overlapping circles resembling the breast of a hummingbird. A little Warhol, a lot of Paco Rabanne, the dress perfectly embodies the humor evident in Mizrahi’s work, but also speaks to the deeper meanings he explores in his artistic process. “It was my reaction to recycling,” he said of the dress that took him three years and workshops in three different countries to produce. “The one thing I regret more than anything is that I did not have a grassroots exposure to conservation the way some younger designers have now.” 

For all the whimsy and wit concealed within Mizrahi’s garments, he’s still a personable character who ultimately just wants to help people be dressed to the nines. Reflecting on a recent triumph, he said, “I found out that a 93-year-old woman got my pajamas on QVC and loved them; the night she put them on she said she wanted to be buried in them, so she’d be ready to meet her husband in heaven — in bed. And then she died, and you know what they did? Buried her in my pajamas. For me, that is very gratifying.”

Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History continues at the Jewish Museum (1109 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through August 7. 

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