Squeezing through the crowd at Tuesday night’s preview of a fashion exhibition dedicated to the designer Isaac Mizrahi at the Jewish Museum in New York, the first thing I encountered was a dress from the designer’s fall 1991 collection called “Desert Storm.”
Of all the things we associate with Mizrahi’s illustrious career – his vibrant colors, his joyful embrace of prints, and the casual sportswear attitude he brought to eveningwear – making political statements is not really among them. And yet here was a dress that made a direct and pointed reference to the Persian Gulf War, and its reliance on a different scheme for camouflage that replaced the traditional shades of dark green and brown with the colors of sand (below). Placing this new camo in the context of fashion was provocative, to say the least, and its inclusion in the exhibition serves as a reminder that Mizrahi’s best work was not always just about fun and games, but also a reflection of New York fashion at a moment when designers here were coming into their own.
“I feel like I’m rediscovering Isaac,” said Stan Herman, the former president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and one of many fellow designers who attended the preview. (The exhibition, “Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History,” opens on Friday at the Jewish Museum at 1109 Fifth Avenue.)
“I had forgotten his sense of humor,” Herman said.
Mizrahi is widely known for his collaborations with mass retailers, his ready-to-wear sold on QVC, and his witty appearances on television, film, and theater, but the news of his first solo exhibition is bringing renewed attention to the signature collection he designed from 1988 to 2010. And the work shown here is both delightful and surprising, sometimes taking inspiration from common materials like aluminum cans and the quilted padding used to protect elevators when people move in and out of buildings. Mizrahi’s “garbage can dress” from fall 1989, for example, is made of aluminum sequins, and another dress from 1994 made for charity is composed of sequins cut from Coke cans, the logos still visible (below).
In fact, there’s quite a lot to see in the show, including Mizrahi’s ball gown skirts worn with T-shirts, dresses with blown-up images of flowers, and an evening dress comprised of neon strips of color. And for more insight into the designer’s life, be sure to not to miss our home feature with a tour of his Greenwich Village apartment from our March 2016 issue.