There’s something striking about viewing Isaac Mizrahi’s colorful mix of street and couture fashion in the gilded Warburg mansion on Fifth Avenue, part of Manhattan’s Museum Mile.
Gold chain bling and puffy parkas don’t quite align with delicate ceiling molding and the glimpses of Central Park, right outside the windows. There’s something odd about “Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History” and its place at the Jewish Museum this spring and summer. The exhibition initially seems as if it might be more at home in the Met’s Costume Institute or the Museum at FIT.
The other galleries at the museum walk you through artifacts from Jewish history, beginning with ancient Mesopotamian stone etchings, and feature entire rooms dedicated to the diaspora, anti-Semitism in early modern Europe, the Holocaust, and the founding of Israel. Scattered between the collections are works of art that demonstrate the emotional impact of each event: paintings by Chagall and Reuven Rubin, gilded menorahs, furniture shipped from wealthy Jewish families who escaped war in Eastern Europe. How does a 21st century fashion designer fit into all this?
In an interview with the Observer, Mizrahi claimed that his religion plays no part in his artistic sensibility. “I’m an artist first and a Jew fifth,” he said. Fine. We can add his name to the long list of agnostic and atheistic Jewish movers and shakers who resist the description of “Jewish artist.” But the exhibition is at the Jewish Museum, and as you walk through it, you’re tempted to consider each Mizrahi gown, each costume and fur cape and belt, through the lens of possible Jewish influence.
You enter the exhibit amid an explosion of color. A wall welcoming you to the gallery at first appears to be made of stained glass. Upon closer inspection, you see that it’s an amusing mosaic of fabric swatches. You are led to a flock of bright multi-honed dresses and coats in pink, orange, and blue. Rich embroidery and embossed textiles are a consistent treat for the eyes.
It’s all beautiful, colorful, fun. Art like this makes you purely happy. While I took photos of Mizrahi’s gowns, a New York Times notification popped up on my phone to inform me that three police officers had been shot dead in Baton Rouge. How surreal, admiring thousand-dollar gowns in a Gothic Revival mansion on the Upper East Side while violence and tragedy erupt. But perhaps that’s why we need luxury and fashion. It’s an irony the Jewish people are used to, and explains why so many Jews have flocked to the arts for five millennia.
Escapism is on my mind as I stuff my phone back in my pocket and walk to the next room. Theater and fantasy take up their own section of this gallery, in the form of Mizrahi’s costumes for various operas and ballets from the past three decades. Most striking is a green, scaly, webbed-fingered gown guarded on either side by two masculine mannequins in velvet bodysuits and topped with oversized frog masks. “I have this fantasy that she’s the Margaret Dumont of eighteenth-century swamp creatures,” Mizrahi said of the amphibian character in Platée, the 1745 French opera for which he designed costumes. Mizrahi’s 1997 interpretation is adorned with the same matronly gold and pearls worn by the dowager in the Marx Brothers’ classic movies.
A nearby sign tells me “as a boy at the Yeshiva of Flatbush,” Mizrahi “sketched fashions in his prayer books and staged elaborate puppet shows for his neighbors.” It hangs across from another Mizrahi theater costume, this one a gigantic pink and red ostrich that reminds me a bit of my bat mitzvah dress.
There are subtle touches that nod to Mizrahi’s background: notably, a black jumpsuit that boasts a thick leather belt with an enormous Jewish star buckle. He said once about the outfit, “If crosses are everywhere, why not make the Star of David ubiquitous too?” Then there are the touches that make you wonder: Is this Jewish? For instance, every other mannequin in the exhibition wears a white headscarf, reminiscent of a babushka.
In general, Mizrahi’s gowns awe me, except for a few ethically questionable pieces, like the dress made of Coca-Cola cans collected by homeless New Yorkers and shipped to Paris to be made into sequins, then sent to India to be embroidered onto silk. Bizarre when you consider that the Indian people who made the dress probably enjoyed a lower standard of living than the homeless New Yorkers, but it’s an interesting insight into Mizrahi’s unique brand of global tikkun olam. It certainly makes a few statements.
Then there’s a Navajo-style embroidered jacket from 1991 that is borderline cultural appropriation and would catch flak from Native American activist groups today. The curators excuse it as a product of one of the many cultures that influenced Mizrahi during his upbringing by a modern Orthodox family in melting-pot Flatbush.
Otherwise, most of the designs showcase the designer’s artistry and incredible imagination. There is a gown made of elevator padding. Another gown — red lush silk — has a baby carrier attached to the front, suggesting that mothers can be part of high fashion.
Mizrahi’s efforts to create couture for the middle class also are commendable. It’s easy to appreciate his democratization of fashion through his Target collection, a five-year collaboration. He partners with QVC and regularly appears on the retailer’s television station. No doubt his decade-long work to bring fashion into the living rooms of Americans everywhere is not only a smart business move, but also a great tactic for the designer’s personal brand. By comparison, it’s hard to imagine Karl Lagerfeld appearing on daytime cable, though the two make equally beautiful clothes.
In the last room, a three-paneled film reel gushes over highlights from Mizrahi’s fashion shows, clips from “I Love Lucy” and other inspirations, reels from the artist’s stunts on “Jeopardy” and “Project Runway,” and even his dramatic roles alongside Woody Allen and Kenneth Branagh. The designer’s claim that “fashion is a form of entertainment” fully sinks in here. After walking through this exhibition, it’s hard not to agree.
The curators of “An Unruly History” do a great job of bringing you into the artist’s world. You’re engrossed in his pop culture influences and you witness the miniature cult of his personal celebrity. You see the final product in his designs: a purely American aesthetic, of course, that bares little resemblance to French or Italian high fashion. But it’s hard to deny there’s a certain New York eccentricity to Mizrahi’s clothes, and more than a hint of a manic, ironic zeitgeist that arguably only a Jewish artist can capture.
On my way out, I’m struck by one last Mizrahi quote on the wall by the exit. “As I shift into the middle of my career and as my neurosis about my work deepens, so do the pleasures I take in it.” Fashion or not, that sounds like a Jewish intellect to me.
“Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History” runs through August 7.