There’s something about fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi that is undeniably magnetic. Not just his creativity, but his innate talent to entertain and enchant. In Unzipped, a documentary released 25 years ago, director Douglas Keeve (Mizrahi’s ex-boyfriend), followed him around New York City during the making of his Autumn/Winter 1994 collection. And of course, drama, chaos, supermodels, and a critically acclaimed runway show ensued.
Mizrahi’s casualness mixed with his bubbly energy – not to mention his ability to talk and make people feel like they’re sitting on a sofa with him like friends – emits itself even during this phone interview. It’s no wonder the likes of Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss, Christy Turlington, Carla Bruni and Helena Christensen walked his show in front of noticeable faces in the audience: Liza Minnelli, Sandra Bernhard and Faye Dunaway. While Unzipped revealed the mayhem behind the scenes of producing the collection and catwalk show, moments of lightness and humour balanced the mood. Most of the film was shot in black and white with interludes of colour especially during the runway show.
So how has Mizrahi been spending the last two and a half decades since Unzipped? He has written two books and still has his hand in design, judges on Project Runway All Stars, and performs a cabaret show at Café Carlyle in New York City. AnOther spoke with him recently about what he did during lockdown and how some things have changed – or have remained the same – since the mid-90s.
1. What were you doing just before this interview?
Do you honestly wanna know what I was doing? I was peeling and chopping tomatoes for my yearly tomato sauce.
2. What are you wearing right now?
A custom-made black polo top and fake Chanel pearls.
3. How would your life be different if Unzipped wasn’t released?
I’m not sure if Unzipped opened doors or closed them. I think I got a little type-cast as the flamboyant designer and I might still be living that down. Which is also great because at least I’m remembered for something wonderful like Unzipped.
4. How many cigarettes did you smoke during the filming of Unzipped?
[Laughs] Too many. But I gave up smoking like 20 years ago.
5. Your favourite scene?
Oh [the one] with Sandra Bernhard, a dear friend.
6. Your favourite line from Unzipped?
“Even if it sucks, it’s worth it.”
7. How did you meet Liza Minnelli?
Do you know who Betty Halbreich is? She was a personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman. She called me one day and said Liza just bought one of my pieces and was heading downtown to my studio on Wooster Street to meet me.
8. In the film, you wore a variety of headbands, hats and scarves. What’s your signature accessory today?
I still wear them today!
9. What do you miss most about the 90s?
Naiveté. And the concept of privacy, which was much different then.
10. Favourite music to play on the piano?
I literally just started playing the piano like three weeks ago, and I’m playing Hanon exercises.
11. Favourite TV character of all time?
Dorothy Zbornak or anything played by Bea Arthur like Maude. But definitely Dorothy Zbornak from Golden Girls.
12. Plaids, stripes or solids?
Oh my God, are you serious? Plaids.
13. Birkenstocks or Birken bags?
14. Downtown, uptown or midtown?
15. East Side or West Side?
16. What is your favourite neighbourhood in New York City?
The West Village.
17. What’s the one New York City institution you hope will never vanish?
I would say both Il Cantinori and Elephant and Castle. I would move away if these ever closed.
18. Favourite museum in New York City?
The Frick Collection.
19. Where do you get your favourite slice of pizza in New York City?
I don’t really eat pizza, but if I had to choose, I would say John’s in the Village.
20. Your favourite New York City venue where you’ve performed?
21. When you escape New York City, where do you go?
Bridgehampton. It’s not as far away as say, Pennsylvania.
22. Which emerging designers are you closely watching nowadays?
23. What advice would you give to young fashion designers starting out?
Start with a sleeve. Always think micro before going macro.
24. Filter or no filter?
25. When you sketch, what are your preferred materials?
I don’t really sketch anymore, but I would say gouache. I love painting.
26. If you could design a garment for anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
27. How did you feel when you saw Michelle Obama wearing one of your dresses?
28. What’s on your mind at this moment?
All I think about is Sesame Street, the kid’s show I grew up watching. How incredibly beautiful and decent it was. The show portrayed a melting-pot culture, integration, neighbours helping each other, being optimistic, planning a better, fairer America. It was something I thought my generation was as deeply influenced by as I was, but I guess not. I’m alarmed at what’s happening in this country right now and I can’t understand it. It doesn’t seem to be a progression from the world I grew up in, it seems like a terrible regression, a harsh reality that I was blind to. It makes me really sad.
29. What did you enjoy watching during lockdown?
I really loved watching Babylon Berlin which was just as good or even better than Breaking Bad. And you know what else? Gilmore Girls.
30. What’s the best part about being Isaac Mizrahi?
The best part of being Isaac Mizrahi is that I have this built-in optimism that rears its head at the last minute, so that even in the darkest times I always see my way out.
31. What do you think A-listers love about you?
If there’s anything A-listers like about me – which I couldn’t ever be sure about – it’s my honesty.
32. What’s the craziest rumour you’ve heard about yourself?
I once heard that I wore a leopard thong at the gym.
33. What keeps you grounded?
My dogs keep me grounded. And cooking.
34. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve literally never received any good advice at all. The good thing is that I know bad advice when I hear it.
35. Your current life motto?
I don’t really have a life motto.
36. Do you have a spiritual practice?
I practice yoga and I memorise things. Like Shakespeare speeches and play monologues.
37. Who was the last person to make your stomach ache from laughing?
My husband, Arnold, makes me laugh the most of anyone I know. Sometimes we laugh so hard I think it’s bad for my health. Also the things we laugh about are things no one else would ever get because of our insane intimacy.