This Year’s Model
by ALICE BOLIN
The theatrical poster for the 1995 fashion documentary Unzipped shows designer Isaac Mizrahi, his head adorned with a wreath of laurels, with supermodels Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell flanking him, the three of them framed by a v-shaped opening that has been “unzipped” in a wall of white fabric. Evangelista and Campbell, along with fellow supermodels Cindy Crawford and Kate Moss, get top billing with Mizrahi on the poster, above the film’s title. Much of the attention surrounding Unzipped since its release has focused on the remarkable presence in the film of every major supermodel of the mid-1990s — included in the parade of celebrity models that makes its way through the film are Shalom Harlow, Amber Valletta, Niki Taylor, Veronica Webb and Carla Bruni.
This preoccupation with Campbell, Evangelista, and their cohort is understandable: the supermodels in Unzipped are conspicuous and easy to talk about, filling their role as the most accessible part of the fashion industry. But to paint them as the stars of the film is totally misleading. Unzipped, directed by Mizrahi’s then boyfriend, Douglas Keeve, and documenting the creation of Isaac Mizrahi New York’s fall 1994 collection, has only one star, Mizrahi. He is so compelling that he renders the most beautiful women in the world merely set dressing.
In fact, the supermodels contribute to a tension at the heart of Unzipped: that the film performs a kind of timelessness while chronicling the mid-90s fashion zeitgeist. The film is shot primarily in black and white, and the picture is at times so grainy that it recalls a silent film. Mizrahi himself could be from another time, with his loose pleated pants and two-tone shoes straight out of an old movie — and most of the references he draws from, films like Call of the Wild and Nanook of the North, The Red Shoes, Valley of the Dolls, even That Girl! and Mary Tyler Moore, are classic, nostalgic. The models appear halfway through the film, and it seems they play their part — with their celebrity, with their skill at wearing and displaying clothes — only after the collection is already designed. Mizrahi’s true muses are a world away from Cindy Crawford.
Mizrahi’s fashion spirit guides are depicted in Unzipped as wholesome and idiosyncratic women, odd American icons like legendary sex kitten Eartha Kitt, who makes a memorable cameo in the film. “Because I’m American. And I’m not a stone. That’s why I like Mary Tyler Moore,” Mizrahi says, and he is constantly singing the theme song to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mizrahi’s mother, Sarah Mizrahi, appears in the film, and she was one of his earliest fashion inspirations. He describes how she would alter and adorn her store-bought clothes, by, for instance, affixing cloth daisies to a pair of plain mules. “And who knew that he was looking at them,” Sarah says of the mules. “I mean, he was four years old.” “Who knew that I was obsessed with them,” Mizrahi says.
These totems of Mizrahi’s mythology, the objects of his fancy, swirl through Unzipped, forming the scaffolding that eventually supports the fashion show that is the film’s finale — a crucial part of the project here is documenting the process of inspiration. “Here’s my process,” Mizrahi announces to the camera early in the film. “I get inspired somehow, somewhere — from the ballet, from dance, from a movie, from something — I get this gesture in my head. And I think, is this worthy of doing a whole collection? Usually it is, because it’s the only thing I can think of. And from there I just do all these millions of sketches about this one gesture.”
For the collection he’s designing in Unzipped, Mizrahi has become infatuated with an arctic motif involving lots of colorful faux furs. He is shown watching the 1922 film Nanook of the North, sketching, and talking on the phone — he says he wishes he could design a pair of fur pants, but he knows he can’t. “It’s about women not wanting to look like cows, I guess,” he says. “When in fact there’s something very charming about cows.”
His other main reference is the 1935 film Call of the Wild, starring Clark Gable. He is shown repeatedly describing a scene where the film’s starlet is found almost dead of exposure on the tundra — “She’s nearly dead,” he says, “and her makeup is perfect, dewy skin, perfect eyebrows, lip liner.” The dissonances of these pop culture depictions of life in the frozen north are what Mizrahi ultimately finds so inspiring. “I don’t need go to Australia or to India in order to do collections about those places,” he says. “I can do them from my imagination or from having seen, you know, the Flintstones episode that is set in Australia.”
Unzipped collects these sources of inspiration like a scrapbook. Keeve makes frequent use of other footage — Eartha Kitt singing “Santa Baby,” a portion of The Mary Tyler Moore Show opening credits, scenes from Call of the Wild — so that collage is critical to the aesthetic of the film. And Mizrahi does endless impressions, channeling Bette Davis, Boris Lermontov from The Red Shoes, and his old drawing teacher at Parsons. Often these impressions are cut with footage from what he is recreating: after Mizrahi says, “There’s only one star in a Helen Lawson production, and that’s me, remember?” we see Helen Lawson, the washed-up diva from Valley of the Dolls, say the same line.
Mizrahi recounts his meeting with Eartha Kitt and then there is footage from the encounter — “Will you make me gowns?” Mizrahi says in Kitt’s signature purr, then we cut to Kitt asking the same question. “I have to be able to move around!” Mizrahi mimics, and then we see both Mizrahi and Kitt contorting their bodies bizarrely. Unzipped features incredible cameos — even disregarding the supermodels, there are appearances by Sandra Bernhardt, Roseanne, Ellen Barkin, Richard Gere, André Leon Talley, and fashion legend Polly Mellon — and it becomes even more densely populated with the legendary figures who live in his memory.
Mizrahi is a performer, and as he ventriloquizes his show business role models, we glimpse a defining aspect of his identity: that he is interested in, and good at, staging a show, and this talent is separate from his talent at designing clothes. In Unzipped, Mizrahi is fixated on his idea for the fashion show of using a theatrical scrim for a backdrop that, when backlit, would become transparent, exposing the chaos backstage. His business partner Nina Santisi is skeptical, but it turns out to be a visionary concept, presenting the show’s viewers with the finished product and then, with a change of lighting, giving them access to all the work and workers who created it, disrupting the fantasy.
Particularly after his Isaac Mizrahi New York line folded in 1998, Mizrahi seemed to be exploring more fully his interests in theatre and performance. He made frequent collaborations with director and choreographer Mark Morris, who appears in Unzipped, including costuming Morris’s productions for New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He performed a one-man show off-Broadway called Les Mizrahi and had television shows on the Oxygen and Style networks, in addition to appearing on Bravo’s fashion competition show The Fashion Show. But Mizrahi’s flair for the theatrical was also blamed for the ultimate failure of his line. “Mizrahi was such a great showman that his runway extravaganzas sometimes overwhelmed the clothes they were meant to be selling,” New York magazine reported on Isaac Mizrahi New York’s closing.
New York spoke of Mizrahi’s celebrity eclipsing the poor sales of his clothes. In his final showdown with Chanel, who owned a majority of Isaac Mizrahi New York, the brand reportedly refused to pay for another one of Mizrahi’s extravagant fashion shows. “But I’m showbiz,” Mizrahi is rumored to have replied. Mizrahi’s public personality may have helped hide his line’s business problems, but Unzipped steadfastly rejects the notion that Mizrahi’s focus was on “showbiz” at the expense of designing clothes. “Isaac Mizrahi really knows how to put on a show,” he reads aloud from Women’s Wear Daily at the end of the film, on the day after his fashion show. But this is precisely what he talks about as his main headache.
“That’s when it gets kind of grating on my nerves,” he says of the work that happens after the clothes are designed. “Because it’s no longer about creating a look, it’s about creating a show.” There is an incredible shot of an exasperated Mizrahi in a closet full of garments covered in plastic, his arms spread wide. “Everything is frustrating,” he says. “Every single thing is frustrating. Except designing clothes. That’s not frustrating. That’s really liberating and beautiful.”
It’s hard to know which of these contrasting pictures — of the Mizrahi whose “primary goal was not making money but building a persona” (as New York quoted from fashion critic Bernadine Morris) and the one who finds everything except designing clothes to be frustrating — to look to. The only solution is to hold them both in the mind at once. Mizrahi has often been likened to an old fashioned dandy, described by Time as “a kind of Seventh Avenue Oscar Wilde.” According to the ethic of dandyism, wit and style must suffuse not only dress but every aspect of the dandy’s life, making, in Michel Foucault’s conception, an art of life, rather than a life of art. Or, as Wilde put it, “One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art.”
Mizrahi’s art of life, his outsized self, provides one answer to the question of Unzipped’s simultaneous datedness and timelessness — how it remains a supremely stylish film while chronicling the creation of clothing that is no longer remotely stylish. When the fashion show begins, the film switches abruptly from black and white to color, as if signaling a move into the glaring, undeniable present — there is no way this portion could have been shot at any time but in 1994.
The clothes in this collection are by now truly ridiculous. There are tailored looks made of a soviet gray flannel, medieval-inspired corsets with full skirts, sequined mini-dresses, and of course the day-glo furs, some of them accenting Technicolor vinyl raincoats. House music pulses as Cindy Crawford walks down the runway and one cannot help but think that it’s all so nineties. Fashion is arbitrary: it is a cyclical, mass change in taste required by the dictates of capitalism so that the public is continually keeping up with the joneses. As much as one can try to opt out of fashion, it infests the eye — styles that are “out” look simply, inexplicably wrong.
And nothing jars the eye like the “wrong” color, or the wrong colors used together. Mizrahi has always been known for his use of color, and in Unzipped, color serves as synecdoche for all of the changing whims of fashion — when, during the show, the picture moves momentarily from garish full color to black and white, the clothes look immediately more stylish. Ultimately, Unzipped might be about the limitations of fashion, or how style picks up where fashion leaves off. In 2010, while speaking about Unzipped at the Costume Institute at the Met, Mizrahi discussed how he used both “real people” and models for his campaigns for Liz Claiborne. “Sometimes the model isn’t in the foreground,” Mizrahi said. “Sometimes the model is the worst part of the picture.”
Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She last wrote in these pages about Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
"Thunder Clatter" - Wild Cub (mp3)
"Colour" - Wild Cub (mp3)