As the first exhibition dedicated to Isaac Mizrahi opens in New York, we publish our March 1996 interview with the designer
With the release of Unzipped, the 1995 DIY documentary chronicling the making of (and meltdowns induced by) his AW94 collection, Isaac Mizrahi became a breakout personality of American fashion. As the first exhibition dedicated solely to his work opens at the Jewish Museum in New York, we revisit an archive interview with the designer from the March 1996 issue of Dazed, complete with an original editorial by Rankin and Katie Grand.
Directed by the designer’s then boyfriend, Douglas Keeve, with a supermodel cast list, (Naomi, Linda, Kate), Unzipped is a six-month journey through the thick and quagmire of the US fashion industry, from the failure of one collection to the success of the next. Where Robert Altman's Pret-A-Porter was an ambitious spoof on the fashion industry at large. Unzipped is an intense one-to-one with 35-year-old Mizrahi, the self-confessed drama queen; the designer who, since starting his own label in 1987, has made flamboyance and ebullience his trademark. This is a designer who declares fashion to be about “women not wanting to look like cows”. A designer who talks to his mother in a bubble bath about satin and frills, who jests in the film that he has designed his collection by Ouija board, whose idea of glamour is an all-in-one jumpsuit made of wildebeest fur. His signature style is exuberant and glamorous. Unzipped cannot help parodying the angst and strife of a designer's life as it opens the door on the histrionics and hypocrisies of fashion, where heart attacks happen over a missing button and the pace is insane.
How did the film come about?
Isaac Mizrahi: I was awarded the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) award, and they needed a video presentation about myself. So, with Nina Santisi, my assistant, Douglas Keeve, photographer and also my partner, we made a three minute film which was meant to represent me, what I am about. Actually, a casting director saw the video and wanted to cast me in the film For Love Or Money. Anyway the thought kind of exploded into a movie.
In the UK Unzipped has received a great response, but your name as a designer is hardly known. People were laughing out loud during the film. That's virtually unheard of in England. You know how reserved we are.
Isaac Mizrahi: Like, really laughing out loud? Actually I think the English are much jollier than we are. But, honestly, there is nothing Machiavellian about Unzipped. We produced it with our own money; only later did Hachette/Filipacchi become partners. It was shown at the Sundance Film Festival and Miramax bought the distribution rights. We've made no money from it, no profit. Maybe if the film goes to video... but these things are usually like that. You do them as a labour of love. Douglas and I broke up after the film. I think it really showed up our incompatibilities.
It must have been intense working with someone who knows you inside out?
Isaac Mizrahi: As much as anyone can know anyone else.
The film concerns you and the fashion industry at large which you have been a part of since. Why are you so interesting?
Isaac Mizrahi: I’m such a drama queen. But I'm like that because I really enjoy what I'm doing.
There are the scenes with you chain-smoking in bed, pulling your hair out, at your wits' end…
Isaac Mizrahi: Part of the enjoyment is frustration, and pain adds to that. I'm not afraid of those things and that's why fashion can be such an animated art form. Yes, the clothes have to be practical, but when I work I treat fashion as a person. I have an ongoing dialogue with fashion in the same way that you do with a person. I don't have a confidence problem. I think I have a Diana Vreeland complex. Before Robert Altman was filming Pret-A-Porter, Forest Whittaker, who played the effete young designer was sent to spend a day with me.
And the way you design fashion is like a caricature of fashion itself?
Isaac Mizrahi: Hey, hang on there. It's not all about tangerine fake fur coats; I mostly make little coats and dresses, not those huge chequerboard suits... those are just the exuberant pieces. I wish I could insert the new collection into the film.
But what really shows in the film is your sense of humour, from you and the clothes.
Isaac Mizrahi: I try to put humour into everything. But since the film my work has changed, evolved into something else. It's like having a relationship; you are always trying to get something more from it.
It was interesting to see how closely involved the fashion editors are with your collection; the scenes where the editors are criticising your collection while you are designing it. Is that always the case? Do you feel obliged to make what they ask for, what suits their pages?
Isaac Mizrahi: It’s more like a dialogue, where there is always a certain amount of struggling. In the end, there are those who I really trust, like Candy Pratts Price from Vogue. In the film she says she is not crazy about plaid but I still carry on doing it. I would not design to order! I mean, there are some designers who will only listen to what the editors want, but they are more like machines. But it’s helpful for the editors to preview the collection, just so they know that just because Gaultier has done the Eskimo theme, that by the time the catwalk show comes around, they know that I’m not just on his tail.
“I have an ongoing dialogue with fashion in the same way that you do with a person. I don't have a confidence problem. I think I have a Diana Vreeland complex” – Issac Mizrahi
I like the way that you cut all your influences into the film. The photographs of you as a kid, your mother, the clip from the 30s epic Call of The Wild – you are so impressed with Loretta Young as she lies dying on the tundra with perfect make-up and perfectly arched eyebrows. You say Mary Tyler Moore and Jackie Onassis are your all time influences, that they sum up to you the American psyche...
Isaac Mizrahi: Always, forever. They were so formative in my childhood. I worshipped those women as a child. I'm obsessed with them in the same way that Beethoven was so obsessed with what Mozart was doing.
What do they represent to you?
Isaac Mizrahi: They are both like optimistic good girls... above everything they are American. They did not wear Italian designers or French because that was the fashion. They were trendsetters because of how they looked and pure American.
What influences are you thinking about now?
Isaac Mizrahi: Oh, Jackie Kennedy – she was still as perfect in the 70s with her ram hairdo. But there's also Millicent Rogers. You don't know who she is, do you? Well, she was an American woman in the 20s. She was really eclectic; she would wear a white, man’s shirt and black velvet pants and tonnes of ethnic jewellery...Bohemian, adventurous for her time. There's my friend Elizabeth Saltzman (fashion editor of Vanity Fair). I always look at what she is wearing. The actress, Carol Lombard. These are sort of unspoken muses.
What bits of the film went into the cuts bin?
Isaac Mizrahi: A bridge club scene with my mother, Amy and Steven my friends. It was just a scene about living. I saw the rushes and it is just me yelling at the camera, 'Get out of here, get out of here, leave them out’. It didn’t really work. Then there was the trunk show in Chicago, ‘Mizrahi on Tour’, but that didn't work either.
You are a great raconteur; your stories are the substance of the film. Who influenced you?
Isaac Mizrahi: Sarah, my mother, of course. And screenplay writer Joseph Munkewicz. I'm extremely rushed right now, it’s 3:20 and I have to be at Saks Fifth Avenue by 3:30 for the I.S.A.A.C. (Mizrahi’s new diffusion line) presentation, and I’m way downtown.
You'd better run, then... OK, just one more question. Are you superstitious?
Isaac Mizrahi: Yes, I am extremely. Any more? Maybe time for one more?
What are your three favourite words of the moment?
Isaac Mizrahi: Why do you have to ask me such horrendous questions? No, I can’t think. Yes, one moment, let me look in my diary. I know I wrote some words down wait one minute...
What do you keep in your diary?
Isaac Mizrahi: Sketches, postcards, candy wrappers, everything… I just can't find them. Can I remember them? My favourite words. No, how stupid, I’ve forgotten, I’ve no idea.
Could you fax them?
Isaac Mizrahi: Perfect.
Isaac Mizrahi's words of the season are: ‘languor’, ‘daintiness’ and ‘charm’.
Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History runs until August 7th at The Jewish Museum, New York
Featuring clothes from Isaac Mizrahi's Spring/Summer 96 Collection. Photography Rankin; fashion Katie Grand; hair Adam Bryant using Tigi Linear Products; make-up Sharon Dowsett using Aveda, models Margo at Uglies and Jean; assistants Deirdre O'Callaghan and Courtney Hamilton.