The new Russ & Daughters at the Jewish Museum is reason enough to visit the institution, but strolling through Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History is the perfect way to work up an appetite for your bagel and lox (get the babka too — trust us). Mizrahi, who demanded one of the eatery's pastries during this week's press preview, would probably approve.
The fashion designer with nine lives and the fashion editor/journalist/icon, Lynn Yaeger, were speaking onstage about how the museum's exhibition — opening to the public on the Upper East Side today — came together, what kinds of things museums should show, and why museum exhibitions are like children (because you forget the pain of having them after the fact).
Just watching the pair interact was a treat: Yaeger draped an oversized black shawl over a sparkling skirt and sported her signature short-cropped red hair, under-eye blush swaths, and painted-on pointed lips, while Mizrahi wore a black suit and Nike sneakers. Both native New Yorkers, they glowed with an eccentricity and individuality distinct to the city's biggest characters, and they riffed off each other with ease.
"What was the most poignant moment for you?" Yaeger asked Mizrahi. "When you were unearthing things, was there something that you were like ‘Oh my God' when you saw it that you were just flooded with memory or with angst?"
"I think it was when we first had lunch at Russ & Daughters," responded Mizrahi. "As a matter of fact, if I don't get one of those black & white cookies, I'm going to kill somebody."
All jokes aside, Mizrahi said that viewing his sketches in the museum environment — under glass, handled by conservators wearing gloves — prompted him to nearly burst into tears. He's been sketching since adolescence, and seeing the care taken
with his works was a revelation.
Indeed, the room that showcases more than 100 of Mizrahi's sketches evidences the designer's talent, imagination, and ability to create a narrative with a few quick strokes. Floor-to-ceiling panels and a case in the middle display Mizrahi's sheets of paper as they would drawings by any fine artist. A sketch for Kitchen Sink Pink dress (fall 2006) features a woman wearing a garment realized in pink crosshatched markings. Mizrahi attached swatches of fabric and wrote "THE PINK DRESS" in different shades with the phrase "Part I 2006" marked in pencil below. It looks like a storybook cover, and Mizrahi's process begins to shine through: creating a drawing, determining appropriate fabrics, and then finally beginning to construct the garment.
Other sketches include the names of the models that wore the designs. Across the top of one wall, six drawings reveal clothing once worn by Josie, Chris, Cindy, Famke, Naomi, and Yasmine — first-name basis, of course. The names alone conjure some serious 90s nostalgia. Speaking of which, remember when Mizrahi was on Sex and the City, telling Carrie Bradshaw that "books are back"? That scene plays on a television in the next room.
Curators Chee Pearlman and Kelly Taxter declared the importance of Mizrahi's process, not just his completed constructions, at the very beginning of the show. To enter the exhibition, viewers first encounter a wall of yarn and fabric swatches behind glass, organized in what Pearlman describes as "a taxonomy of different types of fabrics and different colors."
At the preview, she called the wall "Isaac's toolbox, the palette of colors that he has" and noted that many of the fabrics are now "extinct," that it's impossible to now find many of the colors Mizrahi once used. It's a celebration of material, an invitation for visitors to wander further into the exhibition and more fully appreciate what such disparate materials can become with work and care.
Pearlman also described her initial visits with Taxter to Mizrahi's downtown
studio. Together, they watched footage of his runway shows from 1988 through about
2010 as the designer provided "delicious and unedited" running commentary. He'd
gossip about the models, about how "this one was a dream to work with and that one was a real bitch. This one went on to marry someone super rich and that one went on to become the first lady of France." Ah, the life of Carla Bruni.
Pearlman emphasized the storytelling narrative at the heart of Mizrahi's runway shows. His interest in these larger productions and grander tales resonates throughout a room in the exhibition that focuses on his work in theater and opera. Taxter echoes these thoughts, describing the exhibition as a story in which color, which is "almost like a protagonist itself," plays a starring role.
After the initial "toolbox" wall, visitors walk into a room of mannequins wearing Mizrahi's designs. His quintessential blend of high and low culture are evident in such ensembles as Ball Gown Sport (fall 1994), which pairs an orange silk taffeta ball-gown skirt with a cotton T-shirt. Next comes the room of Mizrahi's sketches, followed by a gallery celebrating his cross-disciplinary work. Mizrahi has designed costumes for Clare Boothe Luce's The Women (revived at the Roundabout Theatre, New York, 2001), Mark Morris's production of Rameau's Platée (Royal Opera, 1997), The Magic Flute, which Mizrahi also directed (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, 2014), and others. The curators have displayed Mizrahi's designs alongside televisions that play footage of the performances (this is also where you can see that Sex and the City clip, in addition to the Mizrahi sweater with a large capital "C" that Carrie wore on the show).
From there, viewers continue into another room of clothing. Again, the blend of high and low culture is evident, particularly in a dress made of metal from Coke cans. The final room includes three coats that Mizrahi designed specifically for the exhibition and a multi-screen video installation that showcases content from film and television cameos and runway shows, as well as from the award-winning documentary Unzipped; the television program The Isaac Mizrahi Show; scenes from the cabaret LES MIZrahi; appearances on Project Runway; and the current QVC network show IsaacMizrahiLive!. The guy has accomplished a lot, and the curators make sure that you know it by the end of the exhibition.
"What needs to go into museums is stuff that isn't boring," Mizrahi proclaimed at the preview. This show, which successfully lauds not just Mizrahi's clothing but also the exuberance and spirit of the man behind them, is anything but. It's difficult to see this exhibition without beginning to wish you were friends with Mizrahi, and that he'd confide in you all his industry insight. Taxter reminds us, however, that Mizrahi is never that far away, as long as you have a television. "The crazy thing about him is he's on QVC twice every week."
Whether they're living in a farmhouse or an urban center, his fans can tune in and hear that distinctive Brooklyn accent, making the world of fashion a little more accessible to all.