Review: ‘Unzipped’

Douglas Keeve's documentary "Unzipped" is everything that Robert Altman's "Ready to Wear" should have been: an insider's view of the fashion world that is hip, light, authentic, revelatory and always amusing. Focusing on New York designer Isaac Mizrahi, this rather uncritical film should be embraced by young, sophisticated viewers who will learn quite a bit about the chaos and exhilaration of preparing a fashion show.

Douglas Keeve’s documentary “Unzipped” is everything that Robert Altman’s “Ready to Wear” should have been: an insider’s view of the fashion world that is hip, light, authentic, revelatory and always amusing. Focusing on New York designer Isaac Mizrahi, this celebratory, rather uncritical film should be embraced by young, sophisticated viewers who will learn quite a bit about the chaos and exhilaration of preparing a fashion show.

Centering on a major figure of the international fashion world, “Unzipped” is a peculiar film, for it’s neither a chronicle of Mizrahi’s career and life nor a critical account of one of our society’s most glamorous institutions. Instead, extremely well-made docu presents a selective view of Mizrahi by following him, phase by phase, as he prepares his 1994 N.Y. fall fashion show. Still, “Unzipped” offers a fascinating portrait of a most creative artist as he goes about the long, often exciting but sometimes tedious and frustrating process of orchestrating an exhibition which, in detail and hard work, is not unlike producing a Broadway show.

Mizrahi’s eccentric, uniquely American personality is revealed through interviews with some of his staff members, but mostly through his amusing narration, which frames the film and gives it its unique texture.

Docu begins with Mizrahi’s anxiety about the critical reception to his new line. “It’s just the worst day,” he says about the day after the show, “it’s too painful.” Yet in characteristic humor, he immediately follows that comment with:”I hate mediocre things said about me … just ignore me if you don’t like it.”

Docu’s most entertaining segments deal with Mizrahi’s genius, demystifying the sources of his inspiration, which happen to be American pop culture, specifically Hollywood and its glamorous stars. Alert, energetic and quick-witted, the artist relates his obsession with the silent pic “Nanook of the North,” which stimulated him to design an Eskimo look.

Mizrahi has obviously spent a lot of time in movie houses and in front of his tube, for he can impersonate memorable lines from Bette Davis’ pictures (“What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”) and visually deconstruct some preposterously unrealistic scenes, like Loretta Young’s perfect makeup when she’s rescued from a frozen tundra in “Call of the Wild.” The fun is in seeing Mizrahi’s hilarious mimicry, immediately followed by clips from the movies themselves.

While docu lacks a clear structure, title cards, often cute ones, divide the film, which more or less observes chronologically the steps involved from initial designing through ordering fabric, cutting, tailoring and modeling. Like a good suspense thriller, the movie builds toward a climax, the big show, which is most excitingly recorded.

In contrast, some touching but always whimsical moments are provided in Mizrahi’s encounters with his proud Jewish mom, who has been an inspiration to him. There’s also a wonderful moment when Mizrahi is shown a trade magazine that features noted designer Jean-Paul Gaultier’s new line, “Eskimo Chic,” on its cover. Shocked by the coincidental similarity of their ideas, he throws the magazine away, accusing his staff of “evil pleasure” in doing this to him.

A renowned fashion photographer, Keeve, who here makes an impressive feature debut, shows his love for the fashion world without judging or glamorizing it. Tech credits are all peachy, but special kudos go to lenser Ellen Kuras (“Swoon”), who accomplishes some remarkable technical feats, specifically in the climactic big show. Kuras’ unblinking, mobile camera restlessly records the event frontstage, backstage and in the wings, showing with great panache new sights of the fashion world.

Unzipped

Production

A Fine Line release of a Hachette Filipacchi production with Elle magazine. Produced by Michael Alden. Executive producers, David Pecker, Nina Santisi, Dori Berinstein. Co-producers, Paul DeBenedictis, Keith Estabrook. Directed by Douglas Keeve.

Crew

Camera (B&W, color), Ellen Kuras; editor, Paula Heredia; post-production supervisor, Tula Goenka. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Park City, Jan. 24, 1995. Running time:76 MIN.
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