NEW YORK — You might think taking a look back 25 years to the moment he escalated from insider acclaim to mainstream appeal might evoke some poignant reflection. Yet when Isaac Mizrahi took to the stage Thursday after a special screening of “Unzipped,” the first comment was about how many Chinese takeout places there used to be in Greenwich Village: “I don’t know what Jews eat anymore!”
“Unzipped,” a self-produced, from-the-trenches documentary about Mizrahi designing and staging his 1994 fashion line was a runaway sensation when released in 1995. (It is till the 91st top grossing documentary ever made.) One does not need to know anything about haute couture to love it (I offer myself, a bonafide schlump as evidence), but the award-winning movie, directed by Douglas Keeve (a first-timer and Mizrahi’s then-boyfriend) is among the best portraits of an artist agonizing at his craft ever made.
It doesn’t hurt that every time Mizrahi opens his mouth it’s as if he’s got Dorothy Parker off-screen slipping him one-liners. The former yeshiva boy from Brooklyn’s Syrian-Jewish community trained to be an actor as he was also falling in love with designing clothes, so emerging as “Isaac Mizrahi,” the sharp-tongued character that’s been a television mainstay in the United States for decades, was a natural development.
Manhattan’s Film Forum (where, on another screen, the Jewish Soul: Classics of Yiddish Cinema series is still running, making this, truly, the Chosen Cineplex of New York) welcomed Mizrahi, and gave him a little time to pitch for his new memoir, “I.M.” The main event, “Unzipped” is 73 minutes. Mizrahi’s post-screening schmooze with Film Forum’s legendary repertory programmer Bruce Goldstein, went for for a full 46.
“Go to my YouTube channel and follow me on fucking Instagram, would you already?!” he playfully barked when an audience member said she loved watching his interviews. “And not the corporate Instagram — though that’s good, too. That’s just for what dresses are on sale. Follow me for pictures of my dog and my hamburgers!”
Being 100 percent honest at all times is very much core to Mizrahi’s success as an entertainer. (In addition to designing clothes, he hosts cabaret nights — “I am the Bobby Short of the Jews!”) He didn’t hold back during the talk. “Buyers are the stupidest people on the planet!” he cackled, followed by a “sorry if there are any buyers in the audience, but you people are stupid.”
This remark was inspired by admitting that “Unzipped”’s narrative arc — the 1993 show getting bad reviews, driving his determination to get fashion critics to love him in 1994 – was a little bit of a put-on. “I don’t care about criticism. I just care about selling clothes. And if you got a bad review, the buyers wouldn’t look at them.”
His next target was the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “I can’t bear the CFTA,” he sighed. Earlier in his career, he was able to keep his shows affordable by giving highly visible models valuable clothes instead of paying them. “The CFTA got wind of it.” Luckily “Unzipped” was filmed before this rule was enforced, so there are great scenes with Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista and every other supermodel of the mid 1990s.
There’s also, of course, the real star, Mizrahi’s Jewish mother Sarah, who kvells about the first outfit Isaac designed for her to wear on the High Holidays. The funniest scene in the whole movie is when she starts offering advice while he is in pre-show panic mode. “I have a very good eye!” she reminds him as he soaks in a bathtub, looking like he wants to drown.
Sarah Mizrahi is still with us at age 92, and was part of the inspiration for Isaac to write “I.M.”
“There was a big conflict, being gay and in that Jewish community, and when I agreed to write the book my mother said, ‘You have to be honest,'” he said. “She gave me carte blanche to tell the truth. Then I would call her to ask for details on things. ‘Do you remember the time when –‘ and she’d say ‘Oh, you can’t tell that story!’”
“Then I’d ask, ‘Do you remember this time when –‘ and she’d say ‘Isaac, darling, it’s your book, make it up!‘”
Mizrahi read some touching passages from “I.M.,” about longing to play with Barbie but being given the more masculine G.I. Joe for Hanukkah instead. (“The first thing I did was lose the little Uzi, but I made no great effort to find it, as I had no intention of sending him into battle.”)
He also read the story of how he came out to his mother, “who cried, more out of melodramatic obligation than anything else.”
Moments from Mizrahi’s love life and upbringing are not included in “Unzipped,” which works for the in-the-moment, propulsive nature of that film. It really can be categorized as a suspense picture, with the final runway show bursting from black-and-white into color as an action-adventure sequence. This makes the confessional nature of “I.M.” a fine complement.
“Unzipped”’s journey from in-house production to cinema sensation is a funny one, too. It won the Audience Award at Sundance, and a distribution company was ready to pick it up. As Mizrahi had financed it himself (“I was going to go to jail if it didn’t sell”) it was a sigh of relief — until that company started talking about re-editing it. “I said, stop, stop, I can’t look at this movie again for one more second! I’d rather go to jail,” said Mizrahi.
Harvey Weinstein bought it instead, agreeing that the movie was fine as it was. Mizrahi made a sour face at the mention of Weinstein’s name (“It’s like seeing a dirty word!” the woman behind me hissed seeing the Miramax logo in the opening credits) and didn’t dwell too much on the disgraced former mogul. He did add that, over the years, whenever he’d bump into Weinstein, the latter would say “Oh, that was a great movie we made together,” and Mizrahi would think, “What do you mean we? I made it, all you did was put it in theaters!”
It’s worth checking out “Unzipped” again (if only to see how documentaries used to look when they were shot on film, not video), and “I.M.” sounds both funny and touching. For even more Isaac, well, like the man says — go to his YouTube channel and follow him on fucking Instagram already.