Unzipped April 7, 2023
1 Hr., 13 Mins.
nzipped (1995) begins as its subject, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, is experiencing, as he puts it, “the worst feeling in the world.” It’s the spring of 1994, he’s just shown off his new ready-to-wear collection, and the reviews — at least the first one he reads — are not good. He’s accused of losing his natural feel for color and fabric and, worst of all, his understanding of “how the modern woman dresses.” It’s
devastating, the kind of thing that makes him doubt his instincts. But as all obsessive creative types know, that devastation can only last as long as the next idea worth chasing emerges, latches on to you, and won’t loosen its grip until it’s been seen through.
Unzipped was directed by Mizrahi’s boyfriend at the time, Douglas Keeve, to be an inside look into the work that went into the designer’s fall collection, which, hopefully, would be well-received enough to render the movie, post-viewing, into a comeback story — a film about Mizrahi getting his groove back. Things fortunately turn out that way, but there naturally is some suspense hovering in the air that makes us have our doubts. You never can tell as a creative, after all, whether your latest idea that seems to be on the money will spark similar devotion from the critics reviewing it or a public who’ll need to buy it for you to keep going.
Mizrahi was critically celebrated, but also commercially doomed, at his peak for his disinterest in honing a definitive style. As captured in Unzipped, the newest permutation is a line inspired by two movies only a pop-culture obsessive like Mizrahi — who is the type to distinctly remember how Bette Davis pronounces a certain word in a random scene from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) — could be. One is 1922’s Nanook of the North, the groundbreaking documentary that followed an Inuk family’s triumphs and travails in the Canadian Arctic. The other is 1935’s Call of the Wild, a rosy adaptation of the Jack London novel starring Clark Gable and Loretta Young.
The inspiration lies broadly in the characters' concurrently stylish and functional fur coats. More specifically, Mizrahi is struck by an image of a lost-and-stranded Young. She’s found facedown in the snow, but when she’s rolled over, her makeup is perfect and her skin is still dewy. A wooly hat frames her immaculate visage beautifully. He thinks: what if his next line’s foundation were a series of fur-forward statement coats, shed to reveal colorful, shimmery, flirtatiously skimpy dresses?
Unzipped is barely more than an hour. I couldn’t help but wish it were longer — maybe even long enough to comfortably stretch across several episodes — mostly because Mizrahi emanates the kind of electricity that makes him thrilling to be around. He’s sharply funny, ruthless when he needs to be, and endearingly maniacal in the way only a genius who knows exactly what they want ought to be. (Often tamed with headbands, Mizrahi’s chronically unkempt hair evokes a mad scientist, only the thousands of directions in which his mind moves are guided by fabrics and patterns rather than chemicals.)
Unzipped is a compelling character study clearly made with profound love for its subject. (Though now on good terms, that didn’t stop Keeve and Mizrahi from breaking up not long after it was released). And it’s as much a fascinating snapshot of one man’s creative mind as a vivid simulacrum of what it might have been like working in fashion at the time. Cameos from the likes of Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, and Linda Evangelista (who seems particularly insufferable) add color. Memorable scenes with Sandra Bernhard and especially Eartha Kitt, who poaches Mizrahi amid it all to make a dress for her and is exactly as animated as you’d picture her to be, do too.
Nothing, though, is as touching as the couple of times Mizrahi’s mother stops by. She reminisces wistfully about how special Mizrahi has always been, remembering the time he made her an outfit to die for when he was just a kid for a wedding, or how he took notice of the ways she made budget, anonymous clothes distinctly her own as young as 4. Even the nightmares that come with designing clothes at this level feel briefly recast by her words as a dream come true. “Everything is frustrating except for designing clothes, which is really beautiful and liberating,” Mizrahi says. A