This month, New York’s Jewish Museum rolled out a double first: Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History. It’s the museum’s first solo exhibition of a fashion designer, and it’s the first time Isaac Mizrahi’s creations step out of the world of fashion and into museum galleries. The show runs through August 7th.
It’s hard to think of a more accessible fashion icon. Mizrahi broke all kinds of boundaries when he brought affordable chic to the masses first at Target (from 2002-2008) and now at QVC where he promotes his designs for everything from cardigans to cosmetics to Christmas cards.
Sketches by Isaac Mizrahi
But before he was a major label, Mizrahi was a fearless, innovative creator, and just how unprecedented some of his work is comes through clearly in the approximately 50 “looks” on display. Handbags worn as hats, shoe heels made from metal springs, and an evening gown made of quilted elevator pads challenge ideas of beauty and force a re-think of what fashion can be.
Front, Kitchen Sink Pink, fall, 2006, a dress inspired by Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light sculptures
Most designers’ work speaks of luxury, line, material and cut. Mizrahi’s couture pieces stretch further for ideas, referencing anything from kitschy roadside attractions to Renaissance art. There’s a green and white jacket titled “colorfield” that was inspired by Mark Rothko’s paintings, a pink and orange gown that references Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light sculptures, and a flowery dress in which Mizrahi pays homage to photographer Irving Penn.
Unlikely pairings are key to Mizrahi’s vision
His designs often also speak subtly to cultural experiences and political realities. Mizrahi was born in Brooklyn, and the exhibition catalogue records his confession that he was “the very worst student in the yeshiva,” but that didn’t keep him from ascending to New York fashion royalty. He came of age in New York in the late 1970s and early 80s. Graffiti and street art were upending more established forms of expression. Punk music was exploding on the scene. Mizrahi looked both high and low for inspiration and material, blending unlikely sources into surprising combinations. There are taffeta ball gowns topped by cotton tee shirts or puffy hooded parkas. A red satin sheath carries a matching red satin baby pouch hanging from the front. And yet, even when they push the limits, the designs in the show are extraordinarily elegant and flawlessly put together.
The Real Thing, Coca Cola can paillette dress, spring, 1994
It’s unusual to think of fashion having a tie into conceptual art, but some of Mizrahi’s more complex and challenging works do. “The Real Thing,” a shimmering mini-dress, is stunning in red and white. Then we learn it’s made from punched circles of aluminum taken from Coke cans. Mizrahi worked with the charity We Can, which employed the homeless to collect cans for recycling. Snippets of aluminum were sent to France where they were turned into paillettes, or dangling sequins that were then sewn onto the garment by seamstresses in India. It took a global village to produce, but the result is dramatic and chic. It forces one to stop and realize that the woman who purchased the dress was likely far removed socially and economically, but possibly not geographically, from the needy people who gathered the cans. There’s also a hint at corporate responsibility, and the idea that high and low don’t always mingle into lovely harmonies. Several of the pieces on display speak to political, religious, economic, racial and gender issues.
Platee, Two Frog Attendants, Royal Opera, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Choreographed by Mark Morris, Costumes by Isaac Mizrahi
Mizrahi’s creations have not only graced runways and red carpets, but also some of the world’s most celebrated stages. He’s designed for Broadway, as well as for operas and ballet. One gallery presents costumes created for the Mark Morris Dance Group. Frogs and queens, ostriches and a chicken express an unbridled creative vision. They’re wildly imaginative and utterly charming.
Gallery view with Elevator Pad Gown at the front
The exhibition is expansive, covering many years’ output and a variety of types of works including complete outfits, individual pieces and drawings, as well as videos of some of Mizrahi’s appearances in film and television. Concurrent with the exhibition are a series of talks with curators, screenings of the 1995 film, “Unzipped,” and discussions with Isaac Mizrahi and Wendy Goodman, Design Editor of New York Magazine and with choreographer Mark Morris.
Get inspired by Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History
There are sketches, swatches, color palettes and complete outfits in hot pink and chartreuse, tangerine, emerald and crimson. They express challenging ideas. They relate stories about revered artworks, earlier eras and different cultures. But mostly, they delight the eye.
The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street
All Photos by Adel Gorgy
Opening photo: Gallery View – Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History