By Teri Agins
WHAT HAPPENED TO FASHION?
PARIS: THE BEGINNING AND THE END OF FASHION
FASHIONING A MAKEOVER FOR??A?U?L U?GARO
BOUND FOR OLD GLORY: RALPH LAUREN AND TOMMY HILFIGER
WHAT BECOMES A LEGEND MOST? WHEN GIORGIO ARMANI TAKES HOLLYWOOD
GIVING THE LADY WHAT SHE WANTS: THE NEW MARSHALL FIELD’S
GORED IN A BULL MARKET: WHEN DONNA KARAN WENT TO WALL STREET
OUTSIDE OF THE BOX: ZORAN
a note on research
About the Author
Praise for The End of Fashion By Teri Agins
About the Publisher
WHAT HAPPENED TO FASHION?
Supermodel Naomi Campbell has a killer body, a sassy strut, and a $10,000-a-day attitude. Famous for being fashionably late for work, she has left more than a few designers in the lurch right before a big show, wondering when —or if—she would appear. But the supermodel wasn’t quite so cavalier when it came to Isaac Mizrahi, her buddy and the darling of America’s designers. Nobody lit up a runway the way Isaac did during the 1990s. His witty, high-energy fashion shows were always the highlight of the New York collections.
On the evening of April 10, 1997, Mizrahi’s fashion spectacle took place near Madison Square Garden, at the Manhattan Center on West 34th Street. At a quarter to six, with more than an hour to spare, the diva of the catwalks made her entrance, in sunglasses, $500 Manolo Blahnik stilettos, and a stunning spotted coat. On cue, bounding down the stage steps, emerged the man in black, Isaac Mizrahi, brandishing a Camel Light like a conductor’s baton. “There she is! Na-o-mi!” he exclaimed, swooping in to buss her on both cheeks. “Fab-u-lous.” Mizrahi ooohed and ahhed, checking out her genuine leopard wrap. Evidently, the antifur era was over and out. Campbell was sporting the most politically incorrect of furs; leopards had been an endangered species since before she was born.
Naomi did a little pirouette, then swung open her vintage coat. The bronze satin lining was embroidered with the name of its famous original owner: Ann-Margret. “I got it in Los Angeles from this dealer,” she explained in her girlish-British lilt. Suddenly, André Leon Talley, Vogue’s main man-about-Paris, stormed in to boom: “Girl, that coat is major!” The trio huddled for a dishy chat, then Mizrahi scooted her o backstage to get made up with the rest of the “girls,” models like Kristen McMenamy and Shalom Harlow. As Campbell slipped away, her Hermès tote let out a “brrring,” from her cellular phone. A cigarette ash fell to the oor as Mizrahi spun around, his arms ying as he jabbered some directions to his backstage crew.
“I just love this,” he muttered to no one in particular. This drive-by vignette from fashion’s fast lane harked back to Unzipped, the lively 1995 documentary that followed Mizrahi through the exhilarating ts and starts during the months when he prepared his 1994 fall collection. Unzipped, which won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, captured all the hyperbole, razzle-dazzle, and parody of high fashion, juiced up by the ebullient Mizrahi, a showman so delicious you couldn’t make him up. Straight out of Brooklyn’s well-to-do Jewish enclave, Mizrahi got xed on fashion early in life. His elegant mother decked herself out in Norman Norell and Yves Saint Laurent, while his father, a children’s-wear manufacturer, bought Isaac his rst sewing machine when he was still in grade school.
By the time Mizrahi was fteen, he was stitching up a storm, designing a collection called “IS New York” which he sold to friends and a few neighborhood boutiques. He was also an imp and a cutup who in the 1970s starred onstage at the High School of Performing Arts and as an extra in the movie Fame. After studying fashion at New York’s Parsons School of Design, he moved on to Seventh Avenue, where he became an assistant to designers Perry Ellis, Je rey Banks, and Calvin Klein.
Ambitious and fast-tracking, Mizrahi was ready to do his own thing by the time he reached twenty- ve. He invested the $50,000 trust fund his late father had left him to launch his eponymous fashion house in a brick-walled loft in downtown SoHo. His March 1988 debut runway show was one of those rare and unforgettable moments that left fashion editors agog. They knew they had just witnessed the start of something big.
That spring, Bloomingdale’s rushed to put Mizrahi’s debut collection in its windows on Fifty-ninth Street and Lexington Avenue, where Mizrahi showed up in person to greet shoppers. The most enthusiastic fashionistas swallowed the hype and splurged on their rst Mizrahis. Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomie’s fashion director, remembered: “We sold Isaac1 to the customer who was aware of what he was doing.”
What Mizrahi was doing was cool and high-concept. He had a sophisticated take on American sportswear, inspired by fashion’s modern masters, Claire McCardell and Geo rey Beene, with a nod to Mary Tyler Moore, Mizrahi’s favorite TV muse. But he also pulled a few tricks from up his own sleeve. Throughout the 1990s, Mizrahi stood out as America’s most proli c idea man, turning out one innovation after another, in a splash of Technicolor delight: paper-bag-waist pants, a tartan kilt strapless dress, fur-trimmed parkas, and boxy jackets. He spiked his fashion-show programs with puns to describe fabrics and colors: “Burlapse,” “Fantasy Eyelet,” “Lorne Green,” and “James Brown.” The fashion editors lapped it up, with page after page of pictures and kudos. But among retail buyers, there was decidedly less of a consensus. Barneys New York and Ultimo in Chicago were among the handful of stores whose fashion-forward clientele craved the labels with the most buzz. Accordingly, such retailers could move a few racks of Mizrahi’s $800 jackets and $350 pants most every season. But Mizrahi barely caused a blip at chains like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, where his spirited fashions got buried in the broad mix of up-and-coming designer brands.
Gilding the Mizrahi mystique was his colorful, megawatt persona. With a bandanna headband taming his frizzy black hair, he was an adorable cartoon. Isaac was fashion’s funniest Quotron, who chirped frothy declarations with the push of a button, just like Diana Vreeland, the legendary Vogue editor of the 1970s whose snappy sound bites (“Pink is the navy blue of India”) have entered fashion’s lexicon. “Le Miz”—as WWD dubbed fashion’s wonder boy—once exclaimed about a chubby fake fur jacket: “It looks divine2 in beast.” He held forth to WWD about his 1992 spring collection: “It will be all about irresistible clothes. The only kind that will sell.”