As a child, Isaac Mizrahi coveted the daisies on his mother's high-heeled mules. He stole her milk money to buy fabric. At 17, he went to Paris in a purple leather ensemble he'd stiched especially for the occasion. In 1987, this nice Jewish boy from New York started a fashion house. Now he's got his own movie.
Douglas Keeve has made the film that "Pret-a-Porter" should have been: a sexy, stylish, neurotic docudrama that splits the seams of the fashion world. At the heart of "Unzipped" is Mizrahi--primping in the camera's glow and putting on a show that should make Carol Channing hang her false lashes in shame.
Keeve follows Mizrahi day to day from his despondent perusal of the Mizrahi spring 1994 collection through the elation of the day after his fall '94 show. Along the way, the designer does a wicked Bette Davis, gabs with Sandra Bernhardt and sheds some light on a culture regarded by most of the world as nine parts madness, one part panache.
"Unzipped" subtly highlights the detail in this bizarre world. One conversation between Mizrahi and Cindy Crawford captures their wonder at the sheer brightness of the Shea stadium lights. It's as if the two of them have become hothous, plants who have trouble understanding the sunlight. And no wonder. They rush about from one fitting to another on a planet of six-foot women and bottomless champagne flutes.
Keeve peeks beneath this cover to the realities of fashion fantasy. Mizrahi explains that his collection-to-be is inspired by "Nanook of the North"; but his inner creative genius is tormented by the knowledge that big fur pants won't sell. "It's about women not wanting to look like cows. I guess," Isaac muses from between his sheets: "Actually, there's something quite charming about cows."
There's something quite charming about the designer, too. His striking resemblance to Eraserhead coupled with a penchant for chain smoking, introspective piano playing and faith in the ouiji board's design prowess make him a perpetually fetching image: Keeve never probes beyond the show that Mizrahi chooses to put on, but that's revealing in itself. At one point, the artist pauses in the middle of a Pronouncement to a studio of followers, his gaze riveted to a worktable. "Who's doing the crossword?" he asks. "Iguana!" Then it's back to the masses.
There's something to be learned from such unprozacked creativity. Like all fashion designers, Mizrahi's name is made on his near-consistent ability to turn sophisticates into slaves of his latest look. "I get this gesture in my head," he says, from which he must draw a season's worth of fashion headlines.
The fall "gesture" chronicled in "Unzipped" inexplicably has its genesis in Clark Gable's discovery of a supposedly frostbitten Loretta Young in the film "Call of the Wild." Mizrahi sets (and Keeve clips) the moment at which he discovered his new season's look: she's wrapped in fur; her make-up is "dewy," lip gloss fresh. "If you must freeze on the tundra." Mizrahi deadpans, "this is the way to do it."
It's a story you'll hear more than once in "Unzipped," because it's a good one, and Mizrahi has too many people to seduce to use a new line each time. His role is to flirt with clients, models, fashion editors and friends in pursuit of the notoriety and pizazz that will earn him his daily bread and next season's collection.
Keeve's lens roves over a host of intriguing characters, from Mizrahi's mothah, no mean fashion critic--especially to her son--to customer Eartha Kitt, whose gleeful shimmying and frothy poodles prompt Mizrahi to muse, "It's almost impossible to have any style at all without the right dogs."
Keeve also dogs all the "girls" who've lost their last names on the way to supermodel stardom. It's a role he wears well, having spent his career as a photographer for the world's high-fashion magazines. There are the requisite impromptu backstage antics--and a few staged ones. When Keeve sets up a photo shoot to capture Isaac and his favorite model, even Cindy pushes the lens back with a playful, "My pores are not that small."
It's this insatiable desire for the close-up that makes the film so watchable. While Robert Altman's recent fashion film got lost in the perpetual party most see as the style business, Keeve follows the real people Altman hired stars to play. "Unzipped" stays grounded as a documentary, despite its editing, which, MTV-quick, knows how to capture a fashion moment and move on in search of the next Big Thing.
The film's use of color is just as flippant; it moves from black and white grit to a hazy hand-colored look, and, like Mizrahi, every once in a while erupts into brilliant fushia, orange and teal. The often dreamy, occasionally crystalline focus is a product of photography director Ellen Kuras' creative use of different film and color formats. The variety ensures that we are constantly looking at something new; even if it's always Mizrahi.
As the climactic fashion show and the credits roll, we're sorry to bid ciao to Mizrahi's playful face and fashions. "Unzipped" may not be an 80-minute crash course in how to be a fashion designer, but it's a compelling "gesture" to a grand master of style.