The Unruly Isaac Mizrahi at The Jewish Museum

Sandra Bertrand


From the streets of Flatbush, Brooklyn to the lofty runways of high fashion, designer Isaac Mizrahi broke all the rules.  Just consider:  Adidas sneakers in place of spike heels, handbags worn as hats, a simple T-shirt paired with a taffeta ball gown skirt.  On view at The Jewish Museum in Manhattan, this mesmerizing new exhibit Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History, shows how one man turned the fashion world on its head and put it back on its feet—his way. 


With over 250 works on display—clothing, sketches, costume designs for theatre and opera productions, photo stills and a three-screen immersive video installation of Mizrahi’s runway shows, there’s plenty to gawk at.  From the first corridors of fabric swatches every color of the rainbow lining the walls to the endless exhibit sketches worthy of a first-rate caricaturist, the iconic clothing collections, the shredded chiffon and papier mache creations for  the Owl and the Ostrich from the Magic Flute presentation he did for the St. Louis Opera, but wait—there’s the gorgeous mannequin at the top of the staircase with a train that won’t quit from the award-winning 2001  production of The Women—then the inevitable bottleneck of visitors when a burst of color and sound fills one of the rooms and his leggy repertoire of models at the top of their game explode on the screen, well, it’s all really too much.  But isn’t that what we want from such an artist?



Still, there is a method to the madness.  Organized thematically, the exhibit features his own clothing label examples (1987-1998), the “semi-couture” display (2003-11) and the trailblazing line for Target (2002-08).  These “looks” exemplify his irreverent genius, such as Swirl, a collaboration with artist Maira Kalman, inspired by Henri Matisse’s hand-painted costumes for the Ballet Russe.  One of Mizrahi’s wall quotes, “If you get the color right, you have the whole thing” is proven repeatedly by such standouts as his totem pole gown, a confection of embroidered wool flannel, finished off with chamois gloves.  The contours of the masked faces, with their oversized eyes, leer out at the witness in brilliant color. 


Mizrahi’s universe of opposites—the juxtaposition of all manner of ephemera that make up the highs and lows of popular culture—is everywhere evident.  .A lumberjack-style parka is wedded to a turquoise and mauve ball gown; an ostrich feathered hood in black is paired with a wool jersey body suit.  Perhaps the most innovative costume on view is the Coca Cola paillette dress.  Designed for the We Care charity, piles of coke cans were sent to a Paris sequin maker with stunning results. 



If such phantasmagoria makes it difficult to find the designer behind the designs, don’t even try.  Just when you think you’ve summed up the predictably charming and huggable artist hovering over his flock of beauties, you’re inundated with excerpts from his work as a judge on Project Runway All Stars and Isaac Mizrahi Live!, the latter a call-in home shopping TV show from the QVC network.  You could even rent a copy of Unzipped, a witty documentary about the making of his 1994 collection, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film festival. 


In keeping with such an outsized personality, the Jewish Museum and the Yale University Press has published a 236-page catalogue by Chee Pearlman that combines essays, interviews and a lavish array of over 200 color illustrations.  It’s a well-deserved accompaniment.


Most fashion shows give us a peek into a world that’s almost but not quite within reach.  This is one exhibit that opens the doors wide and invites everyone to the party.



 Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History is on view at the Jewish Museum until August 7, 2016.


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine's chief art critic.


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