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Special Exhibition—The Model As Muse: Embodying Fashion

Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi talks with Harold Koda, curator in charge of The Costume Institute, and Kohle Yohannan, guest co-curator, about the 1995 documentary Unzipped. In the following excerpts from the conversation, Mizrahi talks about rallying his talent, his team, and his friends—the supermodels—early in his career. A video of the entire conversation is available on the Met's YouTube channel.


Kohle Yohannan: Hello. I'm Kohle Yohannan, co-curator with Harold Koda of the exhibition The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. As part of our exhibition-based film series, we recently screened the 1995 film Unzipped.

Directed by Douglas Keeve, Unzipped was the first behind-the-scenes documentary to take a close look at the fashion design process and the relationship of fashion to models. Designer Isaac Mizrahi—who was the subject of the movie just as his career was taking off—joined us for a conversation on stage before the screening.

Here are some of the excerpts from that conversation.

Isaac Mizrahi: And the thing is, like, I didn't realize it at the time. You don't realize things when you're going through it at the time, you know? Because I had worked at all these different places before I started my company, and I ended up working at Calvin Klein for three years. And, of course, there it was a big kind of machine. Models were very, very—a big part of it there, you know? He's a real image-conscious guy. And he's brilliant at that and brilliant at finding a face and an advertising slant.

As a matter of fact, I remember the day—I swear, this is a true story, I swear—Calvin had, like, a studio on 39th Street, and one day they were looking at models, I don't remember who. I won't mention any names. And I was going up to work and in the elevator was Linda Evangelista in a top hat, like, this little Patricia Underwood top hat. And I was like, "Oh, my god, who's that girl?" So I went up to work, I was like—"Did we just see her?" And they said, "Yeah, we didn't like her." And I was like, "Excuse me? That girl's coming back!" I promise that happened. That is a true story. That's a true story. I mean, it wasn't anybody—like they were kind of just casting, somebody was casting that day. Not Calvin, not the design staff, but whoever else it was who was casting.

But what I wanted to get back to was, like, how little one knows as one is in the process of something. You don't really know until you look back on it. And then it's kind of sad, it's like, "Why didn't I know? I was such a schmuck!" You know. But I did the same thing again and again for years. You know, it's like, and like, for me, it's always like, oh, you know, like when something evolves . . . an evolution, right? It's an evolution. Like, when I first saw Linda, I thought, "She is the new Joan Severance." Does anybody remember Joan Severance?

Kohle Yohannan: Oh, absolutely.

Harold Koda: He keeps pushing Joan!

Kohle Yohannan: More Joan, more Joan.

Isaac Mizrahi: No, I know, exactly, right? Am I right about Linda being the new Joan Severance? Because she had that kind of like . . .

Kohle Yohannan: . . . almost feline, kind of boyish quality.

Isaac Mizrahi: . . . feline and also, you know, angular kind of thing about her, too, right? Yet it was like, also, oh, you know, Sofia Loren a lot, too. So you know, I mean, for me it was like an evolution, these girls, and like, so I got to know them at Calvin and I was working with them, and then—and they were nobodies then and then suddenly they were somebodies, and I was starting my company. And I kind of asked. I just asked. You know, I asked. I said, "Oh, girls, you want to be in my show?" And they were: "Yes." They did. And they showed up and somehow everybody showed up to that first show. I don't know how it happened. I will . . . I was so . . . my head was down, I was, like, making clothes. And I don't know how anybody found out about that show and came. But in fact I had, like, all of those people—all of the people from Fairchild, all of the people from Vogue. Carrie Donovan was at my first show. I mean, like, literally, all of those people made it. I don't know how.

These girls were my friends. They were not like models to me. And in the beginning, I didn't pay them, I gave them clothes. All they wanted were clothes, for a long time.

For the longest time, like, you know, my accountants were saying, like, "Oh, no, pay the girls, it's way better to pay them," you know? And I didn't care. I would prefer for the girls to have those clothes because it was meaningful, it was a meaningful exchange, between me and those girls. And you know, and there were moments—I mean, I could tell you stories, like "Iman," I thought, "I'm not going to call Iman." I'm not going to call her. Iman's the queen of the world. And also, she was slightly a generation off. You know, you're talking about Christy, Linda, you know . . .

Harold Koda: She starts in the seventies, they're in the eighties.

Isaac Mizrahi: Naomi. And you don't really think of Iman. And yet . . . I'll book Iman. She's a beautiful woman, right?

Kohle Yohannan: She could set the runway on fire, too.

Isaac Mizrahi: And she could. And at the time, it was sort of a great moment for her as well, like it was kind of like a weird revival moment for her. But I remember, like, Ellen Harth calling and saying, you know, "Iman wants to—" I was like, "You're kidding, I can't even believe that, I'm shocked!"

These girls—speaking of muses, they start to, like, really live in your head. You know who really lived in my head a lot, is Veronica. She still does. Veronica Webb. She really lives in my head, because she . . . I used to joke, "Oh, let's just leave Veronica in the room and she'll do the fitting by herself." Because she has such an incredible sense of style, you know?

Gisele Bündchen actually is really sexy. She is sexy. You know, like, she was at the Met party that night, in that dress that was really short. And the shoes were like . . . I said, "What you lack in dress you make up for in shoe." Right? It was a good line. And I was like, "Who's this guy you're with?" And everybody started to laugh, because he's like a giant star football husband or something.

How would I define fashion? Uh! Well, what do you mean, what do you mean, how would I define fashion? I would define it as something . . . it's like, you know, people wanting to look like a certain ideal and fighting for that. And they keep fighting for it, you know? That's what I would say fashion is. It's like, there's an ideal and everybody wants to look like it, for some reason.

Kohle Yohannan: You've just listened to excerpts from an onstage discussion held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on July 22, 2009, with fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, Harold Koda, who is the Met curator in charge of The Costume Institute, and myself, Kohle Yohannan.

We were introducing the 1995 film Unzipped, directed by Douglas Keeve, which was screened at the Metropolitan Museum in conjunction with the exhibition The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion, which I co-curated with Harold Koda. The Model as Muse was on view from May 6 through August 9, 2009.

The exhibition was made possible by Marc Jacobs.

Additional support was provided by Condé Nast.

You can view a video of the entire onstage conversation on The Metropolitan Museum of Art's YouTube channel.

Thanks so much for joining us.

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