Isaac Mizrahi Speaks Candidly at the Debut of His Gorgeous Jewish Museum Exhibition

The New York fashion designer gets his first museum show.

Isaac Mizrahi. Photo: © Jason Frank Rothenberg.
Isaac Mizrahi.
Photo: © Jason Frank Rothenberg.

When Jewish Museum director Claudia Gould asked about doing a retrospective of his work, initially fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi didn’t take the offer seriously, because they are neighbors. “I thought, she’s just being lazy. She wants to have meetings across the street, that’s why she’s doing it,” he recalled at the press conference for the show on March 15.

When pressed, Mizrahi admitted that he didn’t think he would be the designer he is today were it not for his New York upbringing, telling journalist Lynn Yaeger that his career couldn’t have happened had he been raised in Ohio. “When I was growing up, [the city] was crazy, dirty, and very inspiring,” he said, admitting, “I’m not the biggest pervert in the world, but I’m one of them.”

Installation view of the exhibition "Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History." Photo: Will Ragozzino.

Installation view of the exhibition “Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History.”
Photo: Will Ragozzino.

Though New York has certainly changed quite a bit over the years, the 54-year-old designer sees it all as part of a larger, necessary cycle, and doesn’t lament the loss of the gritty, dangerous New York of old even with all its charms. “I like crazy ridiculous degenerate things. I just do. But also I like beautiful, healthy, lovely things,” Mizrahi insisted.

During Mizrahi’s candid remarks—both characteristic and refreshing—he also shared his hatred of the rigidity of mannequins and his thoughts on the female body, among other things: “I think a little shape, a little meat on someone’s butt and thigh, is quite a beautiful thing.”

Isaac Mizrahi, sketch for Extreme Kilt, fall 1989. <br>Photo: Richard Goodbody, courtesy the Jewish Museum, New York.

Isaac Mizrahi, sketch for Extreme Kilt, fall 1989.
Photo: Richard Goodbody, courtesy the Jewish Museum, New York.

The show, which has been in the works for three years, is sourced from the designer’s personal archive, including a mysterious storage locker where he keeps all his past collections. “I still don’t know where it is,” Mizrahi told Yaeger. “I’ve been driven in a car there, it’s somewhere in the tri-state area.”

Chee Pearlman, the exhibition’s guest curator, spent hours watching runway footage dating back to  1988 in preparation for the show (Mizrahi presented his debut collection at a 1987 trunk show). She was sometimes joined by designer himself, who, she noted at the preview, provided a running commentary, “both delicious and unedited” about “the inventions, the experiments, [and] the totally sick shoes,” plus gossip about the models, from those who were “a dream to work with” to one or two who were, in his words, “a real bitch.”

Installation view of sketches for the first Isaac Mizrahi New York collection show, fall 1988. On view in the exhibition "Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History." Photo: Will Ragozzino.

Installation view of sketches for the first Isaac Mizrahi New York collection show, fall 1988. On view in the exhibition “Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History.”
Photo: Will Ragozzino.

Although Mizrahi admitted to Yaeger that seeing his work in a museum gives him a bit of impostor syndrome, his work seems a natural fit for the institution. Evidence of his artistic inspiration is everywhere: a multicolored dress, inspired by the neon light sculpture of Dan Flavin; an elegantly patterned gown, a collaboration with artist Maira Kalman based on costumes Henri Matisse created for a Russian ballet; a large flower print recreating the work of photographer Irving Penn. And, of course, there is also a full room of Mizrahi’s own drawings.

“His hand is quite lyrical, quite beautiful,” said Pearlman of the works.

“I have every sketch I ever did,” Mizrahi admitted. “I don’t know why, I feel like the sketches are part of my flesh.” He’s less enamored with mocking up fashion designs on the computer, a technological advantage that Mizrahi feels dehumanizes the act of drawing.

Installation view of the exhibition "Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History." Photo: Will Ragozzino.

Installation view of the exhibition “Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History.”
Photo: Will Ragozzino.

Until the curatorial staff began working with his drawings, Mizrahi recalled, the process of putting together the show “was all easy and fun.” Seeing the sketches edited down, laid out in a museum room, was something else. “At that moment I became very emotional” said Mizrahi. “It was as though I was like Leonardo or something; they were handling them with gloves!” It was all he could do not to break into tears.

As for whether the Jewish Museum is an appropriate venue for runway fashion, Mizrahi isn’t sure where to draw that line. “I think what needs to go in museums is stuff that isn’t boring,” he said. “Visual stuff and stuff that has some sort of emotional content.” A riot of color and texture that offers a real glimpse into a great American designer’s creative process, his new show surely fits the bill.

Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History” will be on display at the Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Ave & 92nd St, New York, from March 18–August 7, 2016.


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