Today turning 20, we look back at the Ouija boards, supermodels and meltdowns that make the fly on the wall focused on Isaac Mizrahi an enduring hit
2015 has already been a strong year for fashion documentaries – we have cried at Dior & I, marveled at The Artist is Absent and felt inspired by Iris. However, this year also marks the twentieth anniversary of what is now considered a definitive title in the canon of fashion docs, Isaac Mizrahi’s Unzipped.
Captured by Mizrahi’s then-boyfriend Douglas Keeve in a mix of grainy black and white and bright colour (and released post-break up), it follows the New York designer and self-confessed drama-king as he prepares for his AW94 show. Raw, intimate and utterly entertaining, it offers a candid glimpse into the New York fashion industry in all of its outlandish obsession, glamour and glitterati. In a pre-digital world, it pulled back the curtain (or in this case, the scrim) on the decade’s most celebrated models, fashion editors and musicians, led by Mizrahi’s comedic dialogue and flamboyant zest, as the clock ticks down until show time.
Completely innovative for its time, it no doubt carved the way for future fly on the wall fashion docs, and now sits as a golden heirloom of 90s fashion nostalgia. It also acts as a testament to Mizrahi’s enduring collections and uproarious narrative quips, which are as enjoyable now as when it first premiered twenty years ago. Here are the reasons why we think it’s stood the test of time:
IT HAD AN ALL STAR CAST OF SUPERS
Unzipped called upon an all-star cast of supermodels: Carla Bruni, Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Shalom Harlow and Kate Moss all turn out to walk in Mizrahi’s show (though not all are keen to get their kit off in full view of the audience behind the see-through curtain at the head of the runway). From meeting an unknown Amber Valletta at one of her first casting calls to visiting an art gallery with Naomi Campbell, we are treated to intimate moments with the decade’s greatest icons. We are also reminded of how these girls worked the catwalk – leg kicks, hip pops and spins-a-plenty – they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.
MIZRAHI DELIVERS SOME HILARIOUS ONE-LINERS
While we’re sure that following any designer on the run up to New York fashion week would prove compelling, nobody quite does one-liners like Mizrahi. “It’s almost impossible to have style nowadays without the right dog,” he quips, before later consulting an Ouija board for inspiration – “It told me to do dominatrix meets Hitchcock.”
His energetic repertoire, exaggerated mannerisms and impersonations drive the documentary, as Mizrahi monomania continues throughout. His influences range from Jackie Kennedy and Mary Tyler Moore to Nanook of the North and The Flintstones. “It’s about women not wanting to look like cows,” he comments while discussing the use of fur within his collection, before adding, “But in fact there is something very charming about cows but you know… all I want to do is fur pants but I know if I do I’ll get stoned off Fifth Avenue.”
SOME OTHER FASHION STARS PUT IN AN APPEARANCE
Sandra Bernhard, now considered one of the greatest and most outspoken comedians of her time, provided the poetic theme song for the movie, as well as joining Mizrahi onscreen for a stroll through SoHo. Celebrity cameos also come from a sequin-spangled Eartha Kitt, a sharp-tongued Polly Mellen, Faye Dunaway and the formidable and respected Vogue Fashion Director, Candy Pratts Price. “I'm not fond of plaids,” she barks. “Turn the camera off.”
Elsewhere, catch make-up maverick Kevyn Aucoin working backstage before the show, and charismatic design assistant Robert Best, who went on to become principal designer for Barbie. Top fashion spot however is John Galliano, who joins Mizrahi in Paris for dinner and a tarot card reading.
YOU SEE THE REAL WORK THAT GOES INTO FASHION
While famous faces and scantily-clad supermodels are great fun to watch, what really gives this documentary enduring credibility is Mizrahi’s dedication to creating a comeback collection, following a poor review the previous season. From first sketch to final fitting, his attention to detail and near-neurotic obsessions are captivating, alongside rare insights to Parisian ateliers, endless model castings and the studio cutting floor, as he builds his “Gisele meets Flintstones” collection of popping pastel faux fur and sharp skirt suits.
IT HAS THE BEST DESIGNER MELTDOWN SCENES
As the pressure builds in the days leading up to the show, we also watch Mizrahi have a couple of mini freak outs. “I don’t know what they think I am made of. Where are those chips? Everything is frustrating, every single thing,” he remarks. “I hate when people tell me I’m stressed out. I’m not that stressed out, I’m fine.” His nutty professor haircut and erratic ramblings make for enthralling viewing, as we watch him chain-smoke his way through the final preparation hours. In many ways it feels like a parody but it’s not – it’s straight up, real Mizrahi. Just don’t show him the bad news about Jean Paul Gaultier’s rival Eskimo collection...
IT SHOWS HOW MUCH FASHION HAS CHANGED
The documentary opens with Mizrahi visiting a newsstand to read his latest show review in WWD Magazine, which already feels primitive in comparison to the siege of show reviews now readily and instantly available online. The process of how we view and absorb fashion has completely transformed since 1994. The documentary captures what now feels almost like an innocent time, as we watch camera phone-free audiences, dial-up telephones, paper-and-pen sketches and a collection rife with spaghetti straps, twinsets and candy pop colours. It’s the ultimate memento of a past era of fashion.