WELL CLOTHED

The Fashionable Magic of Isaac Mizrahi

The Jewish Museum is hosting a retrospective of the designer’s clothes—and what impresses is his longevity and originality.

When it comes to fashion, designer Isaac Mizrahi’s approach is no color left behind.

This is evident from the first step on to the second floor at The Jewish Museum in New York City where the all-American designer is the subject of his first-ever museum show.

Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History (on view through Aug. 7) opens with a giant wall displaying the designer’s collection of fabric swatches that he has been collecting, collating, and archiving since the late 1980s.

“I keep saying this, there are no ugly colors, just ugly people,” Mizrahi says in the audio guide to the show. “I see myself as a kind of keeper of colors and any time I see a color I sort of panic that I won’t be able to keep it or encompass it or express it, so I tend to collect colors.”

Mizrahi’s openness to the color rainbow is just a small example of how he approaches his life and work.

The man who started designing for the runway in the late 1980s is far from a fashion snob.

Over the course of his career, he has pulled inspiration from the highbrow and the lowbrow equally. And he’s explored those same dichotomies in his own career.

Photos: Isaac Mizrahi's Fashion History

One season, he sends his looks strutting down the exclusive runways of New York Fashion Week; the next he presents a collection exclusively for the populist home shopping channel QVC.

He designs costumes for the stage, but has also been the host of his own talk show. If one thing’s clear, it’s this: The boy just wants to have fun.

Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History gives viewers a taste of the many facets of the designer’s career, beginning with the innovative designs and shocking explosions of color he’s been sending down the runway for over two decades.

There is the strapless maxi dress with alternating panels of pink (titled “Kitchen Sink Pink”).

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There are frocks printed with giant flowers (a tulip on a sheath dress, a poppy on a short cocktail number) inspired by artist Irving Penn.

There’s a camel hair jump coat (a mix between a coat and a jump suit), a tartan dress that plays off the idea of kilts, and the slinky sling-back beaded evening number inspired by a dancer.

As is to be expected in fashion—especially born from the mind of a man so attuned to the pop culture of the day—it’s no surprise that some looks can leave you delightfully cringing decades later.

Take a lumberjack turquoise-and-purple plaid down jacket with wrists and hoods adorned in a ruff of turquoise fur that is fit only for the early ’90s (or a themed costume party).

Or a light orange, striped wool jersey jumpsuit paired with a bright orange coat that is right at home in the waning years of the 1980s.

But there are others that, while highly innovative for the day, also have achieved a sense of timelessness. For Mizrahi’s fall 1994 collection, he showed a now iconic pairing of brightly colored ballgown skirts (with all the trappings of crinoline and bustle), with fitted white T-shirts in an exploration of the interplay between casual and formalwear. The result is a kind of cool-girl glamour that still holds up today.

“My aim was not to create a signature look, because I think a lot of designers can do that,” Mizrahi told Co.Design. “I was aiming to create a kind of political balance where you would kind of look at it and know—because it had so much color and so much humor and so much this and that—that it was mine. That it could only be mine.”

This sense of exploration pervades Mizrahi’s work, and the designer’s joy in experimentation and playfulness shines through the exhibition. He clearly loves the act of creation, the possibilities of color and fashion, but he also avoids taking it all too seriously.

For a long dress in his spring 2005 collection, Mizrahi re-created freight elevator pads out of silks to make up the flowing skirt, while for fall 2009, he took a dark green leather tote bag and turned it into a hat, complete with straps sticking straight up.

For fall 1998, one of Mizrahi’s models paraded down the runway in a red satin ballgown complete with red satin baby carrier (with live baby) attached to the front.

Then, there’s “The Real Thing” dress made out of red sequins…that were created from old Coke cans.

Taking chances seems to be par for the course for Mizrahi, particularly when it comes to the shape of his own career. He was one of the first designers to team up with Target in 2004 to produce an affordable capsule collection (now par for the course for designers ranging from John Paul Gaultier and Proenza Schouler to Missoni and Jason Wu).

He was also one of the first designers to let cameras follow him around for a season. Today, it seems that a new fashion documentary premieres every month, covering everything from big-name designers (Valentino: The Last Emperor, Dior & I) to various aspects and personalities of the fashion industry (The September Issue, Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s, Iris). But back in 1994, this was almost unheard of.

That year, Mizrahi allowed director Douglas Keeve follow him around while he pulled together his fall 1994 collection. The stakes were high: The designer was trying to redeem himself from a poorly received collection the previous season.

But the result, Unzipped, is a delightful behind-the-scenes look at the creative process of one of the designers who has been a central figure in the American fashion industry.

The documentary has plenty of fun moments that show just how colorful a character Mizrahi is.

During the creation of that season’s collection (that of the wildly successful T-shirt/ballgown skirt pairing), Mizrahi confirmed his design direction with a ouija board, joked around with models in fittings even during the stressful home stretch, and had a tendency to break out into his song of choice—The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song.

But the most exciting revelations involve how his creative process works and how much he takes in from the world around him.

“Every single thing is frustrating except designing clothes,” Mizrahi says to the camera at one point. “That’s not frustrating. That’s really liberating and beautiful.”

You can see this joy in the process of creation in the exhibition room where Mizrahi’s sketches are displayed. Walls are filled floor to ceiling with his colorful drawings of his latest designs, works of art in and of themselves.

Some have names scrawled across the top—Christy, Linda, Gisele—that wink to the big-name supermodels that Mizrahi has worked with throughout his career.

In his more recent years, Mizrahi has turned his focus from the high-fashion runway to the stage and screen, both in his continuing process of design and in his own career choices.

A selection of his costumes for stage collaborations are on view, like for his renowned annual performances of Peter and the Wolf.

But Mizrahi reached the peak of his fashion/culture crossover when he contributed to Sex and the City. Mizrahi not only designed the iconic brown sweater with a turquoise “C” (that you can see in the exhibit) for everyone’s favorite sex and relationship columnist, he even made a guest appearance in Season 5 of the show, reassuring Carrie that “books are back.”

The final room of the exhibition gives an idea of the breadth of his more recent on-screen roles, from his QVC appearances to his talk show, The Isaac Mizrahi Show, to hilarious appearances on Celebrity Jeopardy, Mizrahi has continued to embrace pop culture in all its forms and use it as a basis of inspiration for his work.

Blitzed by all this brilliant fashion, the best thing a visitor can do after full immersion in Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History is visit the Russ & Daughters cafe on the bottom floor of The Jewish Museum: equally full immersion in a plate of chocolate babka is recommended.