Mizrahi 'Unzipped'

Isaac Mizrahi doesn't care if you think he's fat (nope) or gay (yup). This Brooklyn boy may have grown up chubby and melancholy, but he's over that. Yet, as the star of the new fashion documentary "Unzipped," he found a whole new closetful of insecurities to obsess over. Take his piano-playing: the fatuously exhibitionistic Mizrahi cringed at showing off his modest Bach prelude for the camera. "All I could think was that every musician on earth is going to think I play like a cow," he recalls with outsize horror. Then there's his mother, Sarah, who reveres Beene and Balenciaga and soothes her son's fears about competing designers, declaring, "I get Women's Wear Daily every, day, and everything you do, they copy." Mizrahi was "afraid the film would make her look like she was from Central Casting-you know, 'Send in a Jewish mother!'"

He needn't have worried. Sarah Mizrahi--along with a raft of fashion editors, stylists and models-will hardly be noticed next to her son. With a face as animated as Jim Carrey's and hair as untamed as Seinfeld's pal Kramer's, the 33-year-old Mizrahi projects fashion's theatricality OK, its insanity--across the screen. His neuroses, fashion and otherwise, are exclamation points. "He's not only willing to look at himself," says "Unzipped" director Douglas Keeve, "he's willing to laugh at himself." Mizrahi, the winner of two Designer of the Year awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, is also supremely confident in his vision. He's the kind of guy who proclaims with sweeping assurance that Mary Tyler Moore and Jackie O were the two most important figures in America's cultural history.

That silly-serious persona has made Mizrahi fashion's favorite whiz kid, ever since he launched his own label eight years ago. But even whiz kids work up a sweat. Behind the raves are his clothes--classic American themes that are anything but preppy. He's done kilt skirts as strapless evening dresses; flowered dresses with three-dimensional flowers; satin evening gowns quilted to look like tea cozies.

The buzz hasn't always translated into sales. "He's had good years and bad years," says Bloomingdale's Kal Ruttenstein, who's known Mizrahi since he apprenticed with Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein. "He never wanted to be [as big as] Liz Claiborne. He wanted to be someone special." The problem is, while Mizrahi is long on style, he's short on basics. "There are certain lifestyles he's missing," says New York retail consultant Vicky Ross. "Like clothes for a simple dinner -- I'm not going to wear a ball gown with a train." Mizrahi bristles at the rap. "I've sold well enough to keep in business," he says. True, but his company, estimated at $10 million a year, has yet to turn a profit.

"Unzipped" can only up the voltage. The film, which won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival and opens nationwide next month, is mostly adoring. Keeve, who was Mizrahi's lover, followed the designer around as he produced his fall '94 collection. It's on target in precisely the way in which Robert Altman's 1994 "Ready to Wear" wasn't. "RTW" offered an outsider-posing-as-insider's view of fashion, while "Unzipped" really understands that bitchy/brilliant industry. We see Mizrahi in bed sketching and watching "Nanook of the North" ("All I want is to do fur pants!"). We see his runway theatrics (he's determined to have a scrim curtain so the audience can watch models dress backstage). We see him at play (scolding model Naomi Campbell about her navel ring). We see his lows (days before his "Nanook" show opens, Mizrahi weeps as Women's Wear touts Jean-Paul Gaultier's "Eskimo Chic"). And his highs (as he savors his rave reviews).

His next performance won't be on film. In September, Mizrahi debuts IS**C, a line that he hopes will get his celebrity and salability in sync. The clothes will be more casual than his signature collection, and so will the prices --$275 to $850 for a jacket compared with $700 to $1,200. Will it propel him into the stratosphere? "I'm getting there." How fast doesn't worry him. "When the movie shows me reading my reviews at 6 a.m., it seems like all I care about is the result. It's essential, but I'm not obsessed." It's not like, say, playing the piano in public.