Sunday, April 17, 2016


elevator pad dress
photo by Denton Taylor

Jean has been hither and thither for quite a few days, so Valerie is posting on her own tonight.

The Jewish Museum has a real treat of an exhibition up at the moment - it's an Isaac Mizrahi retrospective.  As part of the festivities, a week ago Mizrahi spoke with The New Yorker's Wendy Goodman.  Mizrahi is a wonderful speaker - open, generous, funny, insightful, and refreshingly candid.  He is the opposite of monosyllabic, mysterious designers.  Although I can't reproduce more than a few quotes here, interested readers can watch his TED talk, Fashion and Creativity, or watch Unzipped, the 1995 documentary about him.  (Here's one of several snippets you can find on You Tube.)  That will give you some idea what it's like to be in his presence.

The exhibition is a marvelous potpourri, and it's clear that Mizrahi must have been deeply involved in  it.  It's warm, colorful, expository, well balanced, and just the right size.  On arrival, visitors are treated to a wall, probably 12 feet tall and 20 feet wide, of Mizrahi's collection of color-coordinated swatches.  Below is just a portion of it.

Twenty-four of the displays are supplemented by an audio guide that is so interesting and entertaining that the viewer could probably thoroughly enjoy those pieces blindfolded.  The audio guide explains, for example, that the 3-piece suit below, from his first collection, was preceded by a number of pieces in "subdued" "neutral" colors.  This bright, multicolored outfit, worn by Linda Evangelista and introduced by a change in the musical background, was a bold step away from prevailing trends.

Mizrahi is fond of mixing and matching in every sense of the word.  In this 1994 evening wear, he paired a taffeta silk ball gown with a cotton tee shirt.

This 1992 dress was labeled 'exploded tulip'.  Mizrahi explained that he printed this design onto a variety of different fabrics to see which material would have the most dramatic effect, and ultimately chose this silk crepe.  When seen in motion, the leaves on the tulip, which correspond to the wearer's thighs, come to life.

Mizrahi called this 1994 creation, another exercise in mix and match, the 'lumberjack ball gown'.  "I thought: make a ball gown something that she can actually have fun wearing... that she can actually apply to her life."  Thus the choice of lavender and turquoise over black and gray, and the plaid hooded anorak.

Inspired by Matisse's drawings of Ballets Russes designs, Mizrahi asked artist Maira Kalman to draw some checks and stripes for him.  Two of the results are below.  The jacket below (1990) is constructed of wooden beads; the gown of chiffon and linen.

In the photo below, you can see Kalman's interpretation of stripes in the beaded jacket (left) is very free and natural.  A close look at Kalman's harlequin design shows that there are no straight lines at all.  The lines all appear to be hand drawn - close to straight, but with just enough imperfection to give them a unique flavor.

The exhibition is divided into two rooms, with a narrow connecting hall.  As one makes the transition, first there are two additional walls of color, this time lined with Mizrahi's sketches.  Below is one of the two walls.  Mizrahi's first job was with Perry Ellis.  In many of these sketches, the kinship with Ellis is visible.  Mizrahi's love of color is also evident.

One display table shows designs not only with swatches attached, but with the name of the model expected to wear the design.  In each of these sketches, a variety of fabrics is used.  Even when the colors are more or less the same, they are combined with different textures and weaves.  The harmony of these multiple textures, colors and weaves is very subtle and very sophisticated.  Readers will note that one of the designs is intended for a then-future first lady of France.

These are followed by a small selection of theater costumes.  Mizrahi said that he came to fashion design through his first love: theater.
Mizrahi had a bit part in the 1980 movie FAME.
(Puppet by Mizrahi.)

In 1997, he collaborated with his friend choreographer Mark Morris to create three frog costumes for Platee, a comic opera.  Said Morris, "Being friends, I was very, very hesitant to ask him to design costumes for me because what if I didn't like them?  And I was more interested in us being friends than I was in working with a super, super famous fashion designer."  When he did ask, however, the results were as below, and gave the designer an opportunity to stretch his imagination and use zany colors, materials and designs.  Morris pointed out that in addition to being flattering to a body in movement, dance costumes must also be flexible and washable, further challenges to a designer.

Here's a still from the production:

In 2014, Mizrahi also designed costumes for a production of Mozart's The Magic Flute.  Below, the owl and the ostrich.  Interestingly, the ostrich's color palette of black and white has been entirely reinterpreted, with riotous colors appropriate to the fantastical nature of the opera.

The riot of fashion continues in the next room.  One of the most interesting dresses, the 1998 Baby Bjorn ball gown, comes with a matching baby sling.  Although the label reads "The birth of a child should be integrated into a woman's social life," probably quoting the designer, so much more could have been said about it.  Was this a special order?   For whom?  Was it commissioned by Baby Bjorn, or is that the designer's sense of humor?  Was it in response to a real life situation he was confronted with?  Any significance to the color?   This is the only instance where the viewer is left with more questions than answers.  The audio guide, which would have been the perfect vehicle for additional commentary, unfortunately makes no mention of this thoughtful and amusing gown.

The label for this 1994 dress reads: "Mizrahi worked with the charity We Can, which employed homeless New Yorkers to gather and flatten Coke cans.  These were then shipped to the luxury Parisian sequin maker Langlois-Martin, who cut the aluminum into paillettes.  The paillettes were sent to India along with the dress patterns, where they were hand-embroidered onto silk..."

Close-up of the paillettes.

Mizrahi explained that he made pants like these for himself when he first started working at Perry Ellis as a teenager.  He noted "they make the wearer feel like they have a waist, even if they don't" and "[the gathers at the waist] are quite pretty when they're folded down... They look like a little flower arrangement around your waist."

Another dress made in the spirit of turning convention on its head was his 2005 elevator pad gown.  "I've always been obsessed with elevator pads, always, as far as I can remember," says the designer.  "I also love the randomness of it. They just make elevator pads out of whatever the hell is lying around."  Unlike most elevator pads, however, this skirt is made of quilted silk and lamb's wool.  (This skirt resonates with me as I have an elevator pad dress, which you can see in the opening photo.  It's NOT made by Mr. Mizrahi, and until I saw this skirt, I foolishly thought I had something rather original.  Sigh.)

Mizrahi expressed surprise that no one had ever reinterpreted the classic kilt.  This 1989 dress adheres to tradition by using wool tartan, and leather and metal buckles closures at the sides, but upends tradition by making the gown body-conscious, and relegating the pleats to below the knees.  On the mannequin, the pleats are barely visible, but when the dress is in motion, the pleats come alive and accentuate the legs.

The workmanship on this 1991 show-stopper, paired with chamoix gloves, is so stunning that one wishes it might have been placed where it could have been better examined by the naked eye.  Seen from a distance, it might appear to be a print, or a computer-generated weave, but it is intricately hand embroidered, with a single totem pole motif that never repeats and continues on to the back.  The audio guide reveals that Naomi Campbell wore it on the cover of Time magazine, but there is no information about ownership, or where it was worn, which would be especially interesting in this case.

Most of our readers probably know that Mizrahi now does a line of clothes for QVC (and that he's a judge on Project Runway All Stars), but he continues to create couture designs from time to time.  The exhibition ends with three such coats, created expressly for this show.  The most splendiferous of those, below, is made of "sequined and beaded tulle veneered to neoprene".  The coats "are so not art," says the designer.  "They're just clothes."  But everyone who sees them will disagree.

The exhibition closes with a frenetically paced ten minute mini-documentary with three screens showing different photographs, changing at different rates of speed, all voiced-over with commentary.  Try as you might, you will not be able to take in everything at the same time.  My advice to you: sit through it three times, and watch one third of the screen each time.  Or, you might want to see the exhibition three times.


From Los Angeles, Jean sent this update on the Baby Bjorn dress that she found in The New York Times:

In his last runway show before the closure of his first label in 1998, Mr. Mizrahi presented another signature image: an elegant satin gown for new mothers.

“She just had the baby, she can’t leave the baby with a babysitter, and she’s just desperate to go to the party, right?” he said. “The kid’s going to have a good time, you know?”

Gisele B√ľndchen wore the dress on the runway with an infant cast by Mr. Mizrahi. “He was wearing earplugs,” Mr. Mizrahi recalled. “No harm was done to that child.”

According to my interpretation, Mizrahi made it for a theoretical mother and child, and Bundchen had the fun job of presenting it on the runway.  It seems doubtful that Gisele Bundchen is ever desperate about anything.


  1. Wow, what a show! Such vitality, such creativity. Thank you for your coverage of it.

  2. Great review Valerie! I want the high waisted pants! And you look fab!

  3. Girls, I was at the exhibition yesterday and I thought it rocked! The theatre costumes where amazing, good review Valerie!