When Unzipped, Douglas Keeve’s documentary about designer Isaac Mizrahi, came out in 1995, audiences had never been given such a personalized peek into the world of fashion. Before films like The Devil Wears Prada, documentaries like The September Issue, and a slew of reality TV shows like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, designers were seen as aloof and unknowable, the industry a walled garden. Sure, many designers displayed themselves as the personifications of their lines, allowing their likenesses to grace magazine articles and ads, but no one had opened themselves up to the cameras the way Mizrahi did.
The film, which follows the creation of his fall 1994 collection, is bursting with Mizrahi’s talk, from his style maxims (“It’s really impossible to be chic without the right dogs”), to his reciting campy quotes from old movies, to his moaning about the stresses of staging a runway show. Most upsetting is the discovery that Jean-Paul Gaultier had also mined Inuit culture (what Mizrahi problematically calls ‘Eskimo-chic’) for his collection and, as his assistant reminds him, “they show before us!” Canadian supermodel Shalom Harlow informs Mizrahi that ‘eskimo’ is a slur meaning ‘raw fish eater,’ to which Mizrahi shoots back, “If there’s a word for gefilte fish eater, that’d be me!”
Despite the drama along the way, the runway show goes off without a hitch and the collection, an eclectic mix of vibrantly coloured fun-fur chubbies, corsets, ball skirts and American sportswear by way of Mary Tyler Moore, is critically acclaimed. The film itself, helped by a supermodel-heavy ad campaign, was a minor hit and Mizrahi became the go-to celebrity designer, appearing in his own talk show, cameos in TV and film, and performing respectively on celebrity Jeopardy.
But his fame could not save his financially-troubled company and, after backer Chanel pulled funding in 1997, he closed shop.
Keeve’s second documentary about fashion, Seamless (2005), directly addresses the trouble designers have staying afloat. In the film’s first few minutes, model Karen Elson explains that many who work in high fashion lead lives that are anything but luxurious, working for free and sleeping on the floors of one-room apartments. Vogue’s editor-in-chief of Anna Wintour explains that a way of nurturing start-up designers was needed, so the magazine teamed up with the Council of Fashion Designers of America to start a fund. Seamless follows three of the ten finalists for the sponsorship, each of whom represents a different aspect of the American experience: men’s wear designer Alexandre Plokhov, a Russian expat; daughter of Korean immigrants Doo.Ri Chung, who makes all her clothes in the basement of her parents’ laundromat; and twenty-something gay couple Lazaro Hernadez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler, boy prodigies whose entire senior collection at Parson’s was bought by Barney’s department store.
Smack dab in the middle of the reality TV decade, the designers in Seamless have little doubt that their public personas and their brands are one and the same. “They asked, ‘Could I handle fame?’” Doo.Ri tells her family after the council representatives visit her workroom. “I just said that my generation understands that this is part of the whole business.”
In a cameo appearance, designer turned film director Tom Ford explains this phenomenon: “If you stay in fashion long enough, you become a creature. You start to depend on your sunglasses and all the sort of idiosyncrasies that you can indulge yourself in because you are, in a sense, a performer… All of us have our personas that we cultivate, that are part of our brand, that represent something about what we want to say. The Prozena Schouler boys [he stumbles over the pronunciation]… They’re these cute, attractive, appealing guys. Not to say they’re not good designers, but it’s part of it, it makes you want to buy into that.”
Each of the designers present their creations and business plans to a panel of judges, fashion insiders like designer Narcisco Rodriguez and Anna Wintour, bringing to mind the nerve-wracking evaluations of reality TV. The idea that the appearance and personality of the designers is important is mentioned again and again by the panel, as they repeatedly refer to the applicants they like as “so charming.” Ultimately, the council rewards the designer who best presented the whole package for a successful brand: talent, originality, business acumen and an engaging personality. The process that started with Mizrahi has been completed: designers are the product as much as their designs.
- Max Mosher