About halfway through Unzipped, Douglas Keeve’s thrilling 1995 documentary, which follows fashion designer extraordinaire Isaac Mizrahi as he puts together his fall 1994 collection following a critical disaster, Mizrahi says, “Everything’s frustrating; every single thing is frustrating. Except designing clothes. That’s not frustrating. That’s really liberating and beautiful. I don’t know, being overweight and not being able to lose weight, you know, that’s a problem. Anything you’re really working hard at and that’s not working, that’s a problem. But frankly, designing clothes is never a problem.” Of course, the statement doesn’t exactly ring true as Mizrahi, usually with his trademark bandanna wound around his wild, curly hair, encounters his fair share of difficulties as he meets with Candy Pratts and André Leon Talley from Vogue and Polly Mellen from Allure, expresses his hopes and fears with Mark Morris, Sandra Bernhard, Eartha Kitt, and his mother, and works with such supermodels as Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Shalom Harlow, Linda Evangelista, Carla Bruni, Christy Turlington, and Amber Valletta. Along the way he makes endless pop-culture references, singing the theme song from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, citing scenes from The Red Shoes, Marnie, Valley of the Dolls, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and using Nanook of the North and The Call of the Wild as creative inspiration.
Mizrahi is a ball of neuroses throughout as he consults Ouija boards and Tarot cards to peek into his future and plays classical piano (Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”) to calm himself down. “I’m not that stressed out,” he says. “I hate when people tell me I’m stressed out.” In his first film, director Keeve (Seamless, Hotel Gramercy Park), who was dating Mizrahi at the time, and Oscar-winning cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Betrayal) switch from grainy black-and-white to color to sharp b&w as Mizrahi’s big show approaches, in which the major point of conflict is the designer’s desperate desire to use a scrim that will allow the high-powered audience to see the backlit silhouettes of the models as they change backstage, something not all the women, or his colleagues at Mizrahi & Co., are in favor of. The film opens with Mizrahi devastated by the reviews of his previous show and closes with him quietly examining the reviews for his fall collection; in between is a delightful look inside the crazy world of fashion. And then Mizrahi will have to do it all over again for the next season. Winner of the Audience Award at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, Unzipped is having a special Pride Month screening at Film Forum on June 13 with Mizrahi present for a Q&A.