“For many photographers, fashion is the ultimate. But I’m not a fashion photographer. I’m a portrait artist who shoots fashion”
Timothy Greenfield Sanders
“For many photographers, fashion is the ultimate. But I’m not a fashion photographer. I’m a portrait artist who shoots fashion”
Timothy Greenfield Sanders
“The most stylish people are the homegirls and homeboys,” remarked Isaac Mizrahi, who, inspired by his elevator operator Arthur Hubbert, offered his own witty take: He accessorized his lineup that season with Star of David medallions recast to oversize, Run-DMC proportions.
The designer also had comedienne Sandra Bernhard open his show with a hip-hop ode of her own. “He’s got the look that’s unky-fey,” she rapped. “Big gold jewelry you’re proud to be seen in. Homegirl look is the only way.” And while the trend would pulse stronger some years over others, the industry’s flirtation with the various guises of urban street-chic style remained with designers such as Tommy Hilfiger and brands, including Rocawear, Phat Farm, Ecko and Enyce.
Isaac Mizrahi can make things out of tulle or nubuck, but his most fabulous creation is the one he has made of flesh and blood. It is Mr. Mizrahi’s hilarious, happily Napoleonic personality that makes such a treat of Unzipped, Douglas Keeve‘s crafty valentine to the fashion world in general and this irrepressible designer in particular.
And intimacy with his subject — as both a fashion photographer and Mr. Mizrahi’s former lover — only heightens Mr. Keeve’s acuity rather than compromising his perspective. Of course in terms of objectivity, it helps that Unzipped has nothing to do with state secrets and everything to do with fake fur.
A smart, spiky documentary with just the right running time (76 minutes), Unzipped appreciates not only the loony excess that makes fashion such a high-stakes adventure, but also the monomania of Mr. Mizrahi’s creative process. Who else watches The Call of the Wild (William A. Wellman, 1935) and obsesses about the lip-liner on Loretta Young? As Mr. Mizrahi explains to the camera, if you’re going to freeze on the tundra, you might as well do it with your makeup un smudged.
A little while later, he is skillfully trying out the same anecdote on Polly Allen Mellen, a fashion arbiter who is enough to out-doyenne any and all of the characters in Robert Altman‘s Ready-to-Wear. (Comparisons between the two films are invidious but unavoidable. For electricity and fun, not to mention fashion sense, this one comes out miles ahead.) Ms. Mellen listens to Mr. Mizrahi in ways that make it clear his charm is working, and that charm counts for everything in this universe. For her part, Ms. Mellen advises him to “Be careful of makeup; be careful!” She sounds solemn enough to be warning Caesar about the ides of March.
Unzipped is filled with such telling moments and lively walk-ons, not only by power-brokers and Mr. Mizrahi’s business associates, but also by the celebrities who give the designer’s world its spark. It’s no small measure of Mr. Mizrahi’s talents as a born entertainer that he can chitchat easily with gorgeous, scene-stealing supermodels (Cindy Crawford talks about her pores, Naomi Campbell about her navel ring, Kate Moss about appearing in her underwear, etc.) and leave no doubt about who is the star of this show.
Unzipped is neatly structured to follow Mr. Mizrahi through the creation of a single collection, which begins in disaster. When first seen, he is crushed by reviews of his last designs (“Certainly his sense of how a modern woman dresses after 8 P.M. failed him”) and is about to start again at square one. The film understands that this process can look silly while being deadly serious. And it enjoys watching while a man who loves his work and lives vividly in his imagination — a fun place to be — tries out ideas. He’s not even really kidding when he daydreams about a fake-fur jumpsuit, perfect for dog-walking, that could work in one of two environments: Alaska or the Upper East Side.
Mr. Mizrahi is seen auditioning models, talking fabrics, working on sketches and gossiping madly about everyone he meets. (He does a dandy impersonation of Eartha Kitt, whose real presence is smoothly intercut with the Mizrahi version.) Throughout all of this, it’s also clear that he is driven rather than frivolous, controlling his employees and the camera crew with equal precision. When one scene finds him ambushed by upsetting news — Jean-Paul Gaultier has done a Nanook look before the completion of the Mizrahi version — he simply puts his face in his hands and refuses to move. That’s not as good as yelling “Cut!,” but it’s the next best thing.
The candor of Unzipped may be as contrived as the pouf skirts, but that doesn’t lessen its appeal. After all, in what other culture can you overhear people saying “punk and Hasidic” and have the slightest idea what they mean? (They mean a fashion gaffe by Jean-Paul Gaultier.) Even the film’s carefully controlled scenes can be revealing, as in its glimpses of Sarah Mizrahi, who beams at her boy and says “My Isaac made this” with motherly pride. She is all maternal encouragement until, when teased by Isaac, she insists: “That’s not funny at all. I have a very good eye.”
(Only Mary Tyler Moore in her Mary Richards days seems to rival Isaac’s mother as a feminine influence on him. Whatever that means, this film knows enough to leave it unexplained.)
Edited to capture the mounting drama of staging a collection, and filmed by Ellen Kuras in a fluent variety of camera styles (grainy black and white to accentuate the workaday fashion world, exuberant color for the finished clothes), Unzipped builds its tension until it reaches the big day. It looks on as Mr. Mizrahi changes from life of the party into drill sergeant, frantically finishing the clothes and insisting on a see-through ballet scrim to partly shield the models who are backstage. That idea itself becomes a theatrical triumph.
Then the crowd gathers and the show begins. It is alluringly “insane with color” (as Women’s Wear Daily will later gush), and yes, it is exciting enough to make sense of this whole enterprise. You may recall that Ready-to-Wear tried to lend thrills and meaning to this crowning moment by sending models down the runway stark naked. But Unzipped doesn’t have to be that unzipped. It knows why clothes work better.
Nanook of the North (also known as Nanook of the North: A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic) is a 1922 silent documentary film by Robert J. Flaherty, contaminated by docudrama, at a time when separating films into documentary and drama did not yet exist. In 1989, this film was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Isaac, Inspired By Nanook Of The North sketches fur pants. Scenes of Unzipped reveal the designer sketching in bed as he watches Nanook of the North—“All I want is to do fur pants!”—and convincing his supermodel participants to don his designs behind a see-through scrim “so the audience can watch models dress backstage.”
There is a scene in Unzipped where one of Isaac Mizrahi’s minions tentatively approaches him with the latest issue of WWD featuring Jean-Paul Gaultier’s collection based on a similar Nanook of the North theme. Isaac reacts to the catastrophe by venting his frustration on the meek messenger. “Don’t show these things to me I’ve not been looking at it. Just don’t show it to me. You showed it to me. It’s like you took some evil pleasure in it.”
“A kind of Seventh Avenue Oscar Wilde” Time magazine called Isaac Mizrahi in 1998, after the shocking news broke that the superstar designer was closing up shop. The dimming of lights at Isaac Mizrahi & Co. marked the end of a spectacular run for the Brooklyn native, who had been a fashion and media darling since his first rave reviews more than a decade before.
Beloved both on and off the runway, the mop-haired raconteur was already a household name when he made a charmingly manic appearance in the fashion documentary Unzipped. By trailing the designer as he prepared his fall 1994 collection (conceived with the help of an Ouija board), Douglas Keeve offered a tantalizing peek behind fashion’s velvet curtain in his film. But not even the king-size force of Mizrahi’s character was enough to sustain the ride. Though his couture-luxe line of candy-color (“Pink! The new beige!”) sequined slip dresses and mink-trimmed ball skirts was admired by critics and Park Avenue princesses alike, his star was destined to fall. Isaac Mizrahi, the personality, was, it appeared, bigger than Isaac Mizrahi the brand.
But after spending several years on other creative endeavors (including a one-man stage production, Les MIZrahi, and a talk show), the buoyant designer that Vogue once called “Fashion’s Favorite Son” was itching to get back to his first love.
In 2003 he surprised the industry by announcing a multicategory deal with Target. Kicking the Mizrahi machine into high gear, he spun straw into gold, raking in as much as $300 million in annual sales for the bargain retailer and paving the way for it to forge lucrative partnerships with other high-profile designers. Meanwhile, Mizrahi was also working at the opposite end of the price spectrum, indulging in glorious fabrics and flamboyant silhouettes with a new haute couture line for Bergdorf Goodman. In a landmark 2004 show, Mizrahi helped popularize the high-low concept by pairing pieces from his two new lines on the same runway. “My goal is that you won’t always be able to tell the difference between what is Target and what is couture,” he said. “If it freaks out a few people now, it will turn them on a few months from now.” The risky proposition paid off, and a trend—populuxe, or luxury for all—was born.
In 2009, Mizrahi applied his golden thimble to the ailing Liz Claiborne brand with a fresh injection of his signature brights and prints. And in 2010 the tireless dynamo launched a collection for the shopping channel QVC, with a broad spectrum of products from jewelry and hats to cheesecakes adorned with his favorite tartans and polka dots.
Running like a thread through all these projects is a philosophy of bringing out the best and brightest from within his customers. To borrow the advertising slogan from his Isaac line: “Inside every woman is a star.”
Isaac Mizrahi was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1961, of Syrian Jewish heritage. He is the cousin of rock guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, former player in the New York Dolls.
When Isaac was eight, his family moved to the middle-class Midwood section of Brooklyn. He contracted spinal meningitis during this time and his confinement was spent eating junk food and viewing television, especially old movies. The 1961 remake of Back Street, about an affair between a fashion designer and a married man, was a pivotal event in Mizrahi’s development. The glamour of the fashion industry depicted in the movie became an inspiration to him to design clothes.
Around 1971, young Isaac steals money from his mother to buy fabric and trimmings. At eleven, he saves up babysitting money and purchases his first sewing machine—a secondhand Singer from the 1920s—and begins stitching clothes for his puppets. He later says, “I felt like a total outcast. I used to sit and make these puppets and watch a lot of television and a lot of movies on television. My mother was really worried about me. Everybody was worried about me.”
After struggling to fit in at Yeshiva of Flatbush, an Orthodox Jewish private school (where he is caught sketching fashions in his prayer books and doing rabbi impersonations), Isaac transfers to New York’s High School of Performing Arts. “It was a setting free,” he will later say. Dabbles in acting. October: At Isaac’s bar mitzvah—to which he wears “sky-blue shantung” —his father presents him with a pair of scissors engraved with his name.At 13, Isaac was designing clothes for himself, his mother, and a close friend of his mother, Sarah Haddad.
Isaac makes an appearance as Touchstone in the singing-and-dancing-teens film Fame (Alan Parker, 1980), based on the competitive atmosphere at his performing-arts alma mater.
His earliest design influences stemmed from his his mother’s all-American wardrobe, which included clothing from Halston, Geoffrey Beene, Claire McCardell and Norman Norell.
1982 Graduated from Parsons School of Design, New York. Among his fellow students is Marc Jacobs, two years his junior. “At Parsons, everyone thought he was incredibly talented,” Jacobs later recalls.
Worked for Perry Ellis, and said he was a major influence who taught him how to cut a dress, and many lessons in life. After this, he worked with Jeff Banks and Calvin Klein.
After leaving Calvin Klein, in June 1987 he and Sarah Haddad-Cheney pooled $50,000 each and opened Mizrahi’s own womenswear company. They occupied a loft on Greene Street in SoHo. Seven stores bought the first season’s collection. By the first collection show in April 1988 Haddad-Cheney had secured additional financing from the owners of Gitano Jeans company. In 1990 the company’s workrooms and showroom moved to an expanded space on Wooster Street. Mizrahi’s menswear collection premiered in April 1990.
1990 Isaac Mizrahi is presented with the CFDA designer of the year award for his women’s wear collection.
The year 1997 proved to be a milestone in Mizrahi’s career. He announced an unprecedented deal with three major Asian markets in Japan, Singapore, and Korea which included freestanding stores, in-store shops, wholesale distribution, manufacturing, and sublicenses in Japan and shops and distribution in Southeast Asia, an online ABC source reported. The deal was estimated to generate at least $150 million in retail sales by the year 2000.
Mizrahi has made appearances in numerous television shows and movies since the 1990s. In 1995, a movie was released about the development of his Fall 1994 collection called Unzipped made by his freind Douglas Keeve. In fall 2005 the Isaac show debuted on Style Network. He previously had a show on the Oxygen network. His new less-expensive line ISAAC, opens in 34 locations around the USA. Each boutique will show his new logo, a Silver Star.
He often appears on many of E!’s programs and has become well-known for being flamboyant and considered by some to be rude. He also appeared as himself in the episode “Plus One is the Loneliest Number” of the fifth season of Sex and the City.
He also guest starred on the American dramedy series Ugly Betty (based on Fernando Gaitán‘s Colombian telenovela soap opera Yo soy Betty, la fea), in which he played a reporter for the cable channel Fashion TV in the episode “Lose the Boss“.
Mizrahi also appeared as himself in The Apprentice season 1 (episode 6) as one of the celebrities auction for The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
He made a series of comic books called Sandee, the Adventures of a Supermodel, published by Simon & Schuster.
Mizrahi is currently the spokesperson for Klein-Becker’s StriVectin anti-wrinkle cream.
He is developing “The Collection,” a one-hour scripted project that draws on the experiences of the designer for The CW Network.
Known for his magnetic personality and witty style, Mizrahi has won four Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) awards. He is famous for his use of colour and the clean flattering lines of his designs. Chanel, who was financing him, pulled the plug and Isaac had closed his own fashion house in 1998. He started his own TV show interviewing celebrities.
However in February 2003, Mizrahi entered into a new partnership with New York based Hip retailer TARGET. Isaac created an exclusive collection of classically designed fashion sportswear and accessories for style conscious women. The collections are named “Isaac Mizrahi for Target” and he unveiled his debut collection in April 2003 in Minneapolis at the Walker Arts Center. Target is putting the designer back on the fashion map in a major mass-market way.
When he was interviewed, Isaac said he was very happy working with Target. Certain aspects of the couture scene and the constant rush to try and make money, just made him unhappy. Now he is making clothes for ordinary Americans at reasonable prices, and they are “racy, fun and crazy” and very popular.
But Isaac’s heart has always been with fashion shows, and in June 2004 he put on his first show in six years, and it was really successful. The show celebrates Bergdorf Goodman’s decision to devote space in its American couture collections for Mizrahi’s label.
“I have no regrets. I feel beautiful when I’m pregnant. I look at stretch marks as something I’ve earned, not as something that wrecks my appearance,” Demi told the Los Angeles Times soon after the issue came out. “I was trying to tell people I feel it’s possible to do all those things — to have a career, be a mother, still be beautiful and sexy. … I mean even on a sexual level, I’ve never felt more beautiful or sexy or more appreciated by my husband [Bruce Willis] than when I’ve been pregnant.”
Vanity Fair, August 1991 issue
“It’s hard to imagine now, but the portrait of Demi Moore nude and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair was truly scandalous in 1991. Scandalous in the sense of shocking and morally offensive to some people. The first day the issue was available, it sold out on newsstands at Grand Central Station during the morning rush hour. Newsstands in other parts of the country displayed it in a white paper wrapper, as if it were a porn magazine. Several supermarket chains refused to sell it even with the wrapper. Television crews were parked outside the Vanity Fair office for days. Editorialists and pundits weighed in. A few years later, the picture was held responsible for the rise of body-hugging maternity fashions.
None of this was my intention, although it’s gratifying to think that the picture helped make pregnant women feel less awkward or embarrassed about their bodies. It began as a shoot with a specific problem. Demi had a new movie coming out, and Tina Brown, who was the editor of the magazine then, wanted to put her on the cover, but Demi was seven months pregnant with her second child. Tina and I talked about how to handle this, and we decided to go for a glamorous, sexy look. Lori Goldstein, the stylist, brought diamond earrings and a 30-carat-diamond ring to the studio in Los Angeles where we were shooting. We had long gowns, including a green satin robe by Isaac Mizrahi.
Demi and I had worked together several times before, and I’d taken her wedding pictures when she married Bruce Willis, in 1987. I had said to her then that I was interested in photographing a pregnant woman, which at that point I never had. Demi called me when she was going to have their first child. Bruce was working on location in Kentucky and she had gone there to have the baby. I stopped off in Kentucky on the way back to New York from Los Angeles and took a few rolls of black-and-white film. Just for them. Demi and Bruce were not shy about documenting the pregnancy. Several friends and a man with three video cameras were in the room when their daughter was born a few weeks later.
At the cover sitting in 1991, I shot a few close-ups and some full-length portraits. Demi was by no means camouflaged for any of them. In the standing portrait published inside the magazine the green satin robe is pulled off her shoulders and it falls open to expose her belly and leg. In another picture she’s wearing a black lace bra and panties. But the fully nude picture was not taken until toward the end of the shoot and was intended just for Demi. I was taking some companion photographs to the ones I had made during Demi’s first pregnancy. As I was shooting, I said, “You know, this would be a great cover.” It wasn’t until I got back to New York and looked at the proofs that I realized that there really was a great cover photograph there. Tina agreed, although she thought that Demi would be furious if we ran it. She was surprised when Demi said yes right away. We all knew what we were doing up to a point, but none of us completely understood the ramifications.
A few months after the Demi Moore picture was published, an exhibition of my work from 1970 to 1990 opened at the International Center of Photography, in New York. The director of the center, Cornell Capa, wanted to blow the picture up and hang it in the stairwell. I wouldn’t let him. It was a popular picture and it broke ground, but I don’t think it’s a good photograph per se. It’s a magazine cover. If it were a great portrait, she wouldn’t be covering her breasts. She wouldn’t necessarily be looking at the camera. There are different criteria for magazine covers. They’re simple. The addition of type doesn’t destroy them. Sometimes they even need type. My best photographs are inside the magazine.”
Excerpted from Annie Leibovitz at Work, by Annie Leibovitz, Random House, 2008
Speaking in an interview with Vanity Fair – the magazine that placed the image its front cover – Leibovitz says the photograph was not one of her best.
‘It was a popular picture and it broke ground, but I don’t think it’s a good photograph per se,’ Leibovitz said in an interview with Vanity Fair. ‘It’s a magazine cover. If it were a great portrait, she wouldn’t be covering her breasts. She wouldn’t necessarily be looking at the camera.’
Ms Leibovitz has talked in the past of the genesis of the photograph, which came about quite by accident. The photographer tells how she got together with the star to shoot the Vanity Fair cover, but given that Demi was seven months pregnant, Vanity Fair was nervous about the result. The consensus was that Leibovitz would somehow disguise the pregancy, or just shoot a head portrait. But on the day, after a series of shots in various outfits, Leibovitz suggested the nudes.
‘She dropped her clothing and I started to shoot. I said, “well this looks really, I mean… maybe we should make this the cover. Why not?” And she said yes, maybe.’ ‘So we tried to hide everything the best we could. Tina Brown in New York made a decision to go ahead with it. And this is one of those things, it had a life of its own.’
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