Unlike the rest of us, who stumble through that screenplay called life as extras and bit players, designer Isaac Mizrahi is star, leading man, ingenue, writer and muse of his own movie. On film and in real life.
He's the fashion designer who punches sequins from Coke and 7Up cans and recycles them into glamour. He's the designer Roseanne doesn't keep waiting. He makes fashionable women applaud pink babushkas. He's the 33-year-old darling of fashion editors.
He is about to become the designer darling of movie-goers with widespread release of "Unzipped," an intimate documentary that follows him through the six-month creation of his fall '94 collection.
The Mizrahi name is relatively unknown except to fashion insiders, but not for long. In the film he manages to upstage a cast of players that includes the entire galaxy of model superstars and some of the most entertaining fashion groupies. "Unzipped" opens here tomorrow at the Senator Theatre. The film has had excellent reviews in Cannes, L.A. and New York.
How very fashiony. Make the provincials wait for the second seating.
Having charmed audiences and critics, Isaac Mizrahi is still spinning his story. He demurs at compliments, giving credit to colleagues and crew but he does admit he played it well. "The film doesn't present me as a bloodless person which is the popular perception of the fashion world," he says. True. He's lovable, even at his enfant terrible worst. He vamps and camps it up. He fries up Tater Tots. He talks to Mom while soaking in bubble bath. He takes the camera into his confidence and into that crazy, brittle world of fashion that can turn its back as quickly as it turns a hem.
He also shatters the myth that fashion is ruled by homosexuals who make women ugly by design. He has always openly admitted to being gay, and the film, directed by his then-lover Douglas Keeve, shows him to be affectionate and sympathetic to women. Even at his most candid -- "The idea of fashion is to make women not look like cows" -- he cares. Mizrahi designs make women glamorous and beautiful. In that kissy-hissy crowd the affection is returned.
Polly Mellen, the bobbed gray eminence of the heavy fashion mags, formerly of Vogue now creative director of Allure, has played her part in making or breaking designers. In "Unzipped" she casts her lot with Isaac. "It's so major!" she gushes for an overblown faux fur.
"Polly is a buddy, a mentor, who I think is a miracle of taste and enthusiasm," says the designer. "I feel very much that she loves me in the same way. I'm sure she's one of the most astute people I've ever worked with."
No wonder that he's been the darling of the fashion press since his debut in 1987. He has been praised and panned, but always noticed. Women's Wear Daily gave this fall's collection a mixed review. They liked the classic suits, coats and daywear, but hated the "screaming iridescent taffetas and hot pink sequins." Talk about the perversity of fashion. Those very iridescent taffetas are on the September covers of Vogue, Allure and Town & Country and prominently played inside Bazaar. That's as good as it gets for a designer's prestige.
During the week when American designers preview the next season's line for editors and buyers, an invitation to the Mizrahi show continues to be one of the hottest and most elusive tickets in town. Isaac has so many friends. There is the first request to be included on the list, follow-up phone calls, the wait for tickets to be delivered to the hotel, the phone call for a seating assignment.
"It's such a nightmare telling people that they can't come," he says. But they keep asking to be invited because even the jaded fashion crowd knows that Isaac is full of surprises. The surprise in the film is the see-though scrim showing models dressing for the runway. The film follows the talk about Cindy's and Linda's and Kate's and Naomi's comfort level about stripping in front of a circus tent audience. Surprise, they wore underwear -- the women whose bosoms, derrieres and moles have been intimately recorded on glossy magazine stock and supermarket pulp.
The showmanship may be studied, the designs come from the heart. "I aspired to be an actor, but I was always a designer. I studied acting at the School for the Performing Arts, but in my third year I started taking design classes at Parsons. I never stopped."
He remembers his first designs. At 7 or 8 the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn couldn't resist sketching strapless dresses in the margins of his books at the Yeshiva. His parents understood. His father was in the garment business as a children's wear manufacturer and his mother believed in fashion. Now his mother believes in fashion according to Isaac.
But that's old footage, Mizrahi moves on. "For some reason people think I take chances, that's not the point," says the designer. "My vision is to amuse and not to say 'Do this or do that.' That's why there is interest in my work," he says. "Last season I pulled back. I didn't show in the tents." Reigning designers showed in large, temporary tents set up for the thousands who attend the packed fashion week schedule. "There were these crazy feelings about the tent shows, you sat getting bored by clothes and bored by fantasy."
He took his show to a bare, fluorescent bank space on Park Avenue and created his own scene -- rush-hour traffic, cops, horns and gawking pedestrians pressing their noses to the windows for a glimpse at the initiated. The black-clad fashion pack included a generous sprinkling of glittery socialites and cross-dressing diva RuPaul in big hair and small clothes and the singer formerly known as Prince marked the celebrity row. It was a good Mizrahi mix.
"I really do consider the idea of fashion shows," he says, "I don't just have a show, I have fashion. Even more important than the clothes is the setting, almost like live theater. It was not a typical runway presentation."
Now that he has the attention of upscale buyers who are willing to pay thousands for a dress, he is launching a line for women who shop on a budget.
The Isaac line
"The line is called Isaac, with a sub-line that says American Star Quality." He has replaced the "A's" in the spelling of Isaac with two pink stars. Sweet. "The clothes will be priced a little below bridge price. A dress at $220 is not a dress at $2,000. I'm excited," he says. "The secondary line not only looks good, but is relevant and available. Not to be too intellectual about it, but this is my chance to recognize American style." The line, which includes denims, sweats and glitter, makes its debut next month.
That's the natural step ahead from the years spent forming his image as a creative rebel. "Call them my formative years," he says.
"When I first started, many companies called me up -- Italians, Japanese. In my inexperience I said 'Yeah, OK' and failed to return calls. When Chanel called me all of a sudden I realized maybe I should return their calls," he says. He still has the Chanel financial backing. "Youth is so funny, when you're young is the time to strike. You run on instinct, not knowledge, and in my case it really worked."
He's a quick study, plucking ideas and cues from memory, movies and friends. "I don't really file things, the only file cabinet I have is my brain and I have an incredible memory of looks that I love." Those looks include Jackie's shifts, Mary Tyler Moore's capris and flashbacks from old movies.
He once worked for Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein and still takes great interest in the work of other designers. "In the sense of kindred spirits I admire Rei Kawakubo and Azzedine Alaia. Ralph Lauren, too. I love the idea of the world he creates -- the sheets, the clothes -- everything is so sterling. It plods along in a most agreeable way," he says.
Mizrahi's own clothes
No plodding along in his own world. He's all over the place and eclectic. "I have clothes made here from patterns left over from when I was doing men's clothes. I buy cashmere sweaters from London and T-shirts from wherever," he says.
Bespoke suits from Savile Row are a new thing. "I said to myself, 'Look, you're 33 years old, it's time to start dressing like an adult.' " Not too adult. "I couldn't bring myself to order a tux. Cary Grant in a tux, OK, Harrison Ford in a tux OK, Isaac Mizrahi, no."
A tux does seem at odds with the bandanna which has become his signature. "My hair grows straight up, in the morning it tends to be crazy. So I keep it tied down and that lasts until about noon."
The kerchief, cigarettes, nail-biting and sulks are also at odds with the glamour he wrings from his imagination every season. Clothes for Liza Minnelli on Broadway, Candice Bergen for Emmy night, Oprah for the Essence Awards.
He is young enough to believe there will always be room for
"John Waters lives in my building and left me a note that he loved the movie. He gets it." They share an admiration for big hair and old movies. "Waters is a visionary and he gets it for the next generation. They are my real customer, my future customer.
"We're over the Generation X thing and putting it back in the fringes where it belongs -- nipple rings, pierced body parts and shaved heads are merely interesting in a real depraved way. When the ad agencies get a hold of an idea it's over."
Isaac Mizrahi puts his faith in Generation Y, a generation that may rediscover drop-dead glamour and sequins.
Models from Femme will present fall looks before the opening of "Unzipped" at the Senator Theatre. Clothes at 7:45 p.m.; movie at 8.