Unzipped at 25: Isaac Mizrahi and Douglas Keeve Weigh In on Their Iconic Fashion Documentary

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Unzipped: Naomi Campbell.Photo: United Archives GmbH / Almay Stock Photo

“Good news is good news and bad news is good news when you make a documentary,” observes Douglas Keeve, who directed Unzipped, the iconic fashion film that was released 25 years ago today. “It’s just about discovery, you know. You have to be a journalist, but you have to be innocent too. And try not to steer it, just try to capture it.”

Life might sometimes be stranger than fiction, but all storytellers—be they fantasists or documentarians—need some kind of action to propel their narratives forward.

The grain of sand around which Keeve forms his rare pearl of a movie is the negative fashion review designer Isaac Mizrahi, the film’s extrovert subject, received for his spring 1994 ready-to-wear collection. What follows is an examination of the largely associative and intuitive process by which the designer is driven to create a fall lineup that will bring the critics back around to his side.

The transitory nature of fashion makes it a tricky subject for a film, because it dates easily. Unzipped, which was well-received when it was first released, has stood the test of time. The film is ostensibly a story about the making of a collection, a subject that has been taken up by many a filmmaker since, but Keeve’s film is ultimately bigger than fashion, and that’s what has given it legs. At essence, Unzipped is an intimate and loving look at Mizrahi (who was dating Keeve at the time the movie was made), and a record of the process of creation, which is an intangible mixture of magic and madness. As an independent designer, Mizrahi is David to the industry’s Goliath. Caught in the endless cycle of seasons, he’s also like Sisyphus, pushing to the top of the hill. The goal is a fashion show—“the most wonderful 20 minutes of a designer’s life,” as Mizrahi puts it—and then it’s right back to the drawing board.

At one point in the film, Mizrahi, a dyed in the wool New Yorker, reenacts Mary Tyler Moore’s “I’m going to make it after all” hat toss. It’s recorded by Keeve, a Californian who considered himself an outsider to fashion. (He went on to make Seamless and Hotel Gramercy Park.) It’s but one example of what the director calls “an unsaid, unseen narration.” Ultimately, the camera is the stand-in for the zipper in the title.

Here, the designer and the director reflect on the film they made 25 years ago.

IN THE BEGINNING
Douglas Keeve: I was a fashion photographer. I think I’m a storyteller and so I always wanted to take fashion photography towards that. I could never tell the stories in my fashion pictures like Helmut Newton or Steven Klein [could]. Film was how I could express myself more. And I think Isaac was bigger than fashion, like he was sort of worthy outside of what he did, and that’s the person I saw; it wasn’t the fashion designer, it was the “Renaissance man.”

Isaac Mizrahi: Douglas and I made [a] film together for the CFDA when I won one year. It was this hilarious video and people really liked it. By the way, there are a million different versions of the way this [film] started, but my version of it is that cameras started rolling because of this original collaboration, and we all thought, ‘Oh, this could be great. Let’s see where this goes.’

A FINE ROMANCE
IM: I remember talking to my shrink in between the CFDA film and the first moments of Unzipped and saying, ‘I really like this guy. Do you think it will come between us working together?’ He was like, ‘Well, if you guys worked well on the first thing, what makes you think you won’t work well in the second thing?’ So that made me feel a lot easier, but of course in the end we broke up. I mean, we would have broken up eventually anyway, but we broke up faster because of Unzipped.

DK: It was life. There was like, there was a lot of really, really great stuff [in our relationship.] And I think in the book Mizrahi’s memoir, he was totally right, I was moody, and I suffered for my work just like he did. I was difficult to be around just like he was. We were all very human and very into our art. Unzipped did not cost us our relationship, but it was part of our lives.

I just loved Isaac on every level. You know, he’s a rare bird. There aren’t a lot of people like him. There may be better designers, there may be people who are other things, but he was magical. I think he still is. I just interviewed him, and nobody gets the interview out of him that I get. I know how to light the fuse in a sense and get his brilliance. I think in a way I knew how to do it in those days too; it just takes one question.

Unzipped: Linda Evangelista in the atelier.Photo: Courtesy of MiramaxUnzipped: Isaac Mizrahi.Photo: Courtesy of MiramaxUnzipped: Fashion sketches.Photo: Courtesy of MiramaxUnzipped: Amber Valletta.Photo: Courtesy of Miramax

REVELATIONS
IM: Especially when [the filming] was in my studio I just had fun. You know, that scene with Amber [Valletta] where I’m sort of up her skirt doing that fitting of the straps under her body suit? I mean, that was fun, and yet there was a huge crew… A lot was going on, but it didn’t bother me because it was just like the circus, which was the original idea.

If you had been at my studio in the 1990s where you had like the House of Mizrahi one minute, and Candace Bushnell and Julia Roberts the next minute, and my mother and Manolo [Blahnik] talking about Xavier Cugat with Shalom [Harlow] and [telling her] how much she looks like Ava Gardner—it was too wonderful. You couldn’t miss the idea to just get a camera in [there and] just start rolling. And that’s what started it.

It felt the opposite of vulnerable, it felt empowering until it became this structure, and so yes, I felt vulnerable that way. But ultimately I didn’t, because I knew there was an editing process. But then after it was edited there were so many things that were revealing about myself, [and] I thought, ‘You have to keep these in because otherwise then it’s like sickening. You’re making this thing about yourself and you want it to glorify you? Fuck no. Absolutely not. That’s just disgusting. And so I couldn’t take any of it out.

DK: We weren’t living together, but we spent a lot of time together, and I think that was part of the success of the film in a way. I think Isaac’s comfortable anywhere, anyhow, no matter what.

It’s funny, I had to bend over backwards to take myself out of the movie. I was in the movie a lot, in the footage a lot, and I didn’t want to be, so I’m mostly not in the film. I think I’m more kind of just like this pervy guy who’s looking into a world that he feels he doesn’t really belong in and wishes [he did]. I think I’ve always felt like an outsider, and I think that’s part of the key to the film. I don’t have that genius, or that madness that those people do; nor the artistic temperament, which I think is so crucial.

Unzipped: The negative review.Photo: Courtesy of MiramaxUnzipped: The good review.Photo: Courtesy of Miramax

THE VERDICT
DK:* I knew from the minute we walked to the newsstand and he got that bad review that we had stakes, and we had a story to tell. It didn’t matter to me what happened to him in his next collection—good, bad, whatever. It didn’t matter. The beauty of documentary is that it’s all good news.

IM: I will go to my grave thinking how ironic it is that the world thinks that I really was, like, hanging on every word in that review. In fact, I was just thrilled because I thought, ‘Oh, more appointments, more dresses sold, more business. Hooray!’ You know?

In those days fashion criticism was a different thing. It never hurt me personally; it was like this roulette wheel, like: ‘I like it!’ ‘No, it’s not good. Nobody go.’ ‘Everybody go.’ That’s what fashion criticism used to be. I know who I am as an artist, but mostly in those days [criticism] was about selling clothes, and that’s why I was so freaked out. I like to do what I do, and if you don’t sell clothes, you can’t do it anymore. And so if you can’t get good reviews, you don’t really sell so many clothes, and eventually you go out of business, right? So that’s why I was always so frantic about reviews, not because like what you might think, ‘What a big ego, what a big creative ego.’ It’s true. I have a massive, massive creative ego. And you know what they say, darling, big ego…

DK: I don’t know what Isaac’s clothes did…, [but] I know what he did, which is why I made the film. It’s one thing to look at a mood board and sort of think you understand a person’s process, but it’s another thing to sit with Isaac and get that education as to what they’re thinking and why. Because it has to do with things like what you learned in high school; whether or not you liked Cheerios; and trying not to repeat yourself; and having been to the Metropolitan Museum and seeing the armor on display from medieval times; and all of that comes together. That’s kind of what Unzipped helps you to get.

Unzipped: Veronica Webb.Photo: Courtesy of Miramax

BACK IN THE DAY
IM: In the ’90s [fashion] was becoming more kind of like trans personal. It was like, ‘No, this is the person I am.’ When I started at Perry Ellis, we used to have these big fashion shows, [with] Kim Alexis, Esme [Marshall], Nancy Donahue, and those girls did what you told them to do. They stood there until you pushed them and on the runway and that’s it, you know? And then somehow in the ’90s you had Linda [Evangelista] going, ‘Yeah, no. I like this shoe.’ So somehow like this dialogue [started]. I think that’s one reason the film is so influential. You had this moment where there were transgressive women.

In those days, those girls were going out into the world and conquering the world in this almost superheroic way, you know? [The 1990s] was just the edge of that. Before [the supermodels] women did what they were told in terms of the way they looked; and after them, it became this kind of almost like fetishy snowflakey thing. Like, ‘Oh, am I making a mistake?’ I think that people are inspired by that kind of raw energy that took place in the ’90s. It’s before all of those mad, huge fashion shows before, you know, the democratization of fashion, before any of it. And it just happened. I didn’t pay celebrities to sit in the front row, they would show up. It was like a fun, crazy moment that we earned. Now it’s all business, business, business.

DK: Fashion’s always looked back in terms of borrowing from the past; I think that’s the natural order of things. It’s just that the ’90s feel so close to us because things just got turned on their head in the ’90s. I’m not the biggest expert on this, but everything changed [then]. There was this quote in Vice or i-D and it was something like [the 1990s being] a time when there were all these small designers who were kind of mad geniuses doing what they wanted, and it was about the beauty of [fashion]. And it went from creativity to commerce; now it’s all commerce, it’s all about numbers and bottom line and focus groups. That’s what drives fashion now. It’s different worlds, it’s just different. It doesn’t mean there aren’t great people out there, it means that the business of fashion has superseded the art.

Unzipped: The peek-a-boo scrim.Photo: Courtesy of MiramaxUnzipped: Cindy Crawford.Photo: Miramax / courtesy Everett CollectionUnzipped: The peek-a-boo scrim.Photo: Courtesy of Miramax

SCRIM-MAGE
IM: The reason I made that show with scrim, and I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s because the woman that I dressed, I always made her the smartest and most politically correct woman; there was nothing really bad about [my] woman. It was a little after grunge, [but] it was still that sort of heroin thing, and it was, it was rampant, and that’s all anybody wanted to look at were those bad girls, you know, like skinny, skinny, skinny girls with like white, white complexions—no Black people I mean, really, it was this crazy thing, and I just could not find it in my life to even glorify such a thing, I couldn’t.

So I felt like, ‘Okay, I’m showing these beautiful women in these bodacious clothes, I have to somehow pull her down. I have to show her in this crazy vulnerable way.’ And I said, ‘If [the audience] could see her the way I see her in the fitting room, putting her clothes on, it would break it all down and it would make it alright for these girls to be like, good, as opposed to evil.’ And so I thought of the scrim idea. I thought the only thing that can save me with these people who were all just way too cool for school, who are looking for these bad girls, is to do this thing where I just show them undressed, you know, and that will get their attention. So that’s the nascence of the idea, and I stuck to it and I made that happen, you know?

I remember another reason was because I felt I had to do something to set myself apart from all the other designers showing at the [Bryant Park] tents. That was the beginning of the tent thing; it was season six or something, and I would never, never partake. I would always be like, this is not what fashion is about to me, it’s about individualism. I don’t want to show on the same runway. I think it’s unfair that these people can book the same people that I’m booking; I want my own models. You had like 25 models, [and] every single one of them did every single show, so you have to set yourself apart. And I remember Anna [Wintour] called me going, ‘No, you really have to show in the tent.’ And I was like, I do? Okay.” So I committed to the tent and I was like, ‘Now, what the fuck do I do?’ And so that was a big part of that too, was trying to keep it separate.

Unzipped: The bedroom scene.Photo: Courtesy of Miramax

GUYS ON FILM
DK: To tell you the truth, I don’t even know how I [made the film], I really don’t. There’s a scene in the film where Isaac’s lying in bed and he’s watching Nanook of the North and talking about the banana splits and the fur jumpsuit, and I was there in his bedroom by myself with a 16 millimeter camera. I don’t know how I did the sound. I don’t know how I even held the camera or focused it. It wasn’t like video today; you had these changing bags, which were these black bags you stuck your hands in and you changed the film. It was not easy and it was not simple; I don’t know if artisanal is the word, but it goes towards that. You didn’t just pick up a camera and run around.

Unzipped: Shalom Harlow multitasking.Photo: Courtesy of Miramax

Some of the film was Super 8, and that was a little more pick up a camera and run around. And the Super 8 stuff is so beautiful. It’s so tangible, all that grain, and contrast, and everything is just incredible, but most of it was 16, Super 16.

Unzipped: Shalom Harlow backstage.Photo: Courtesy of MiramaxUnzipped: The designer takes a bow.Photo: Courtesy of Miramax

IM: [The film] is much more concerned with the story, and then you get all this art direction that just comes from the clothes, comes from the models, comes from the way it was shot. And Douglas, bless him, I mean he really shot that runway thing at the end; he was just on that thing. And he didn’t do it in three or four takes, we did it all in the 20 minutes of the show; that was it. He had like a crane, he had cameras everywhere, he gave Shalom a camera, [there were] cameras backstage. And I mean, we picked up a few backstage things of girls changing, but that was it, the rest of it was literally as you see it.

Unzipped: Nina Santisi and Isaac Mizrahi.Photo: Courtesy of MiramaxUnzipped: Mark Morris in the atelier.Photo: Courtesy of Miramax

STOP AND REPLAY
IM: I love the bits with Nina [Santisi, then VP of the company], because Nina is a friend of mine and I love Nina, or like that scene with Mark Morris in my office. I adore it because that represents something of my young years. That was really the best part of my life.

By the way, I haven’t seen Unzipped in its entirety in a very long time. I went to a screening of it about five years ago, and I stood in the back for the last seven minutes and I actually started crying. Not because of the effect of the end and the way it ends with the big fashion show—I mean, that is going to make you cry—but for me, personally, it was like, ‘God, I’m old. God time has passed.’

DK: I make films to stand at the back of the theater and watch the audience laugh and cry. I’m not trying to pander to them, but I’m a showman in a way. I want to touch people and that informs every single thing I do. Good film is better than people know and realize because good film stays with you, and touches you, and changes you and very few films do that. That’s what I reach for.

Unzipped: Drama.Photo: Courtesy of Miramax

I got into fashion as a kind of dopey surfer kid who knew nothing and just had this misguided fancy, and I wound up in Milan as a want-to-be fashion photographer. The competition in those days, there was an insanity about it. Isaac being sort of scooped by [Jean Paul] Gaultier is…. I don’t even know if you understand in the film the pain of that moment. You can see Isaac’s wearing his heart on his sleeve, so to speak. We knew that was going to happen, and I was like, ‘Nina, you do not go in there until I have a camera up and ready. You are not going to tell Isaac about this.’ So I went in, I put the camera, like in a corner or somewhere, and I left the room and then she went in and gave [the paper] to him. So it starts with him being able to see that and react to it without an audience or without anybody in the room. In the middle of all his drama I went in and I picked up the camera and started moving around with it. Part of what I love about fashion is how much it matters to those people. It matters more than anything. I’m not a great believer in balance. Like today, it’s all about, you know, you can work out, and you can be smart, you can have it all. I don’t think that’s really true. And fashion is one of the best examples of how you cannot have balance. You have to be a maniac and you have to care about it more than you care about anything. And that’s just so weird cause it’s fashion; but I think that’s what makes fashion so great.

Unzipped: Isaac Mizrahi on his fire escape.Photo: Courtesy of Miramax

REACTION
IM: A lot of artists tell me that they are very inspired by the movie because it shows me kind of going, ‘No, I’m going to do it this way. I know I could lose everything, but this is my idea, and if I don’t stick to this idea, I’ll kill myself.’ And I stick with it and it’s a success. I think that it inspires people in that way. The other thing I know is that it’s a love letter to New York. Everybody tells me, ‘I moved to New York because of Unzipped.’ The other thing is I think it’s really gay, and that makes me so happy too. It’s like people are gay because of Unzipped who other otherwise would have been heterosexuals. I’m very, very proud that it’s an iconincally gay movie.

DK: It’s maybe pompous, but Unzipped was almost too big at the time. It was amazing; it was distributed by Miramax, in theaters. Over and over and over people are like, [that film is] why I became an artist, that’s why I became a designer. People like Ryan McGinley, who are like, ‘Oh my God, I saw that movie [and] I came to New York. It reached so many people.

The very first public screening was with Bergdorf’s and all the fashion people came. I was a nervous wreck and I ran out of the theater a little bit early. The first two people who came running through the door [afterward] were Paul Cavaco and Steven Meisel and they were just like, ‘Oh my God, Oh my God. Oh my God.’ It was thrilling for those people to see their world in such a way, and that was amazing. It was really an amazing feat of luck.

Unzipped: Isaac Mizrahi and Kate Moss.Photo: Courtesy of MiramaxUnzipped: Isaac Mizrahi and Helena Christensen.Photo: Courtesy of MiramaxUnzipped: Naomi Campbell.Photo: Courtesy of Miramax

LEGACY
IM: Well, I think the legacy of the film is that moment of supermodel and super fashion show.

DK: I guess in part the success of the film was because I didn’t care about the clothes at all. But I did care about the process, and I cared about Isaac, and I think that’s in the film.

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