Isaac Mizrahi at the Jewish Museum: Magic or Mystery?

Isaac Mizrahi at the Jewish Museum: Magic or Mystery?

Isaac Mizrahi, sketching a pattern from his 2013 luxury home furnishings textile collection for S. Harris. (©Jason Frank Rothenberg for Fabricut)

“Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History” is a puzzling name for the enjoyable exhibition on the American fashion designer, which opened March 18 and can be seen thru Aug. 7 at the Jewish Museum.

Beautifully presented, if smaller in scale than this spectator either expected or wanted, the show is a riot of color, invention, humor and cheek. The focus is on the peak of Mizrahi’s creativity as a designer, when he had his own clothing line (1987–1998) and later a line for Target (2002–2008). The show’s organizers may think their subject’s life and creative process have been (and perhaps still are) “unruly,” but it doesn’t show. The narrative here is methodical and controlled. Where’s the angst (implied in “unruly”) among the sequins, feathers and cashmere?

There is an unanswered question at the heart of the show: What is Jewish about Mizrahi’s designs? Sure, a suede-and brass Star of David belt walked down the runway in 1991 (and is on display here), but how did Mizrahi’s upbringing in Brooklyn, where he went to an Orthodox yeshiva, inform his clothes and the way he envisioned women in them? Or didn’t it, since his aesthetic education was in Manhattan at the High School of Performing Arts and Parsons? Perhaps being Jewish had/has nothing to do with his innate talent and undeniable appeal. If so, why did the Jewish Museum initiate this show? Is it only because Mizrahi is Jewish? The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology could just as easily have done the job.

Having said that, the superficial pleasures in this show are many and fun, including quilted movers’ blankets transformed into a ball-gown skirt and a handbag subbing for a hat (handles up). Mizrahi sees fashion in the unlikely and the most mundane. The highlights for me, though, are Mizrahi’s sketches. There’s nothing “unruly” about his artistic line. And certainly nothing “unruly” about the way the scores of sketches are uniformly lined up: row upon row, from floor to ceiling.

A year ago, the Jewish Museum mounted an insightful exhibition on another fashion celebrity and entrepreneur: Helena Rubenstein. Through portraits and objects that she collected and lived with, we learned a lot about her. But we learn very little about Mizrahi, the man. At the press opening, he described himself as “a minstrel inside a fashion designer’s body.” Fashionistas will have to wait until he joins Rubenstein in the great beyond for the revelatory retrospective about the protean “minstrel.” In the meantime, this is an amusing, if limited, peek into a creative force, which is thankfully still very much with us and out there.

The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., at 92nd St., 212.423.3200, www.thejewishmuseum.org