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Really Unzipped

For ten years, Isaac Mizrahi was fashion's master showman. But when Chanel backed out last month, it was plain for all to see: The emperor sold no clothes.

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Ultimately, it wasn't the fashion business that killed the ten-year-old Isaac Mizrahi label; it was show business. Mizrahi was such a great showman that his runway extravaganzas sometimes overwhelmed the clothes they were meant to be selling. Meanwhile, Mizrahi's company sank slowly in a sea of good publicity. At the beginning of this year, when Mizrahi's financial backers at Chanel U.S.A. pulled the plug on Mizrahi's "bridge" -- or second, less expensive -- label, because it wasn't selling, Mizrahi's irrepressible show-must-go-on spirit got up and went. And on October 1, when Mizrahi and Chanel announced they were closing his design house, it was a surprise, but it wasn't surprising.

Fashion, you see, has a dirty little secret. Though you'd never know it from reading the fashion press, the designer trade never really recovered from the stock-market crash that happened just after Mizrahi opened his business in a SoHo loft in mid-1987 and the long slow slide that followed. Indeed, Mizrahi may be both the last fashion victim of the crash of '87 and the first of the world economic crisis of '98. Chanel is one of the labels feeling the effect of the latter; Asians, now reeling where once they ruled fashion, used to be key consumers of Chanel's famous linked-C-logoed products. They no longer have the yen.

So it was, an insider says, that in the past few months, Mizrahi and his moneymen had a series of meetings at which the designer was informed that Chanel (which bought 70 percent of the business in 1992) was not going to shell out the cash for another Mizrahi megaspectacular during the upcoming spring fashion shows.

"But I'm showbiz," Mizrahi is said to have protested. Then the meaning of the moment sank in. "Okay, that's it, then," he concluded, and the curtain came crashing down on the most joyous act in fashion.

Don't cry for Mizrahi. He had a nice run. A local boy made good, he debuted his first label at 15 and worked for the late Perry Ellis (who called him Yvesaac, after Yves Saint Laurent), Jeffrey Banks, and Calvin Klein before using a $50,000 inheritance (matched by his first partner, a family friend) to open his own business.

From the first, Mizrahi was a contradiction. Having worked at big-name labels, he told people he didn't want to run one but nonetheless insisted he wanted to be a famous and powerful designer. The fashion business let him believe he could have it both ways. Mizrahi was an instant success d'estime among the editors and retailers who make up fashion's ruling class. But the clothes-buying public didn't agree; the Mizrahi signature line was never a stellar performer, topping out at a claimed (but quite possibly overstated) annual gross retail volume of $25 million, which translated to about $12.5 million a year to Mizrahi and his partners, out of which came manufacturing costs, salaries, overhead, advertising, and promotional costs, as well as those expensive fashion shows. While the partnership with Chanel initially yielded small profits, when the Isaac line failed to realize what Michael Rena, Chanel's executive vice-president, calls Mizrahi's "wider potential," the business fell into the red in 1995 and never recovered. "Successful designers have quite often to go through these awkward situations," Rena says tactfully.

The bottom line is, Chanel lost money on the "successful" Mizrahi. Not that anyone in the fashion world seemed to notice. Buyers at two high-end New York stores wouldn't speak about the label's volume until promised anonymity, and even then refused to be specific. Mizrahi sales are "great," said one; "incredible," according to the other.

But that's fashion. Everything is always great, incredible, genius. Image is all. Reality is to be enhanced or camouflaged -- whether with a Wonderbra or merino wool. And so the shuttering of the House of Mizrahi will likely be dismissed as an aberration, even though it might more properly be seen as an object lesson.

Ever since the late seventies, when high fashion entered the mass market with commodity products like jeans and underwear, iconic, brand-name designers have sat on the garment business like 900-pound gorillas whose hunger for attention, retail floor space, promotion and advertising dollars, and coverage in the fashion press is as insatiable as it is undeniable. Though the stores gave lip service to nurturing new designers, they also gave them the back of their hand. When the near-bankrupt Barneys New York stopped paying its bills, among the first victims of the policy were the fledgling design firms that could least afford to wait. The icons always came first, so designers who emerged in the mid-eighties never had the luxury of building solid business foundations, let alone marble-clad in-store boutiques. They were too busy fighting and dying for a shred of selling space.

The style press didn't do young designers any favors, either. It set them up on pedestals plunked down in quicksand. After Mizrahi's appearance in Unzipped, the 1995 documentary about him, he became a minor celebrity, much in demand, and new obligations diverted him just when he should have been concentrating on his business.

The clothes, too, needed a surer hand. Mizrahi's collections often looked like an I Love Lucy show set at the Jersey shore -- fast, furious, funny, and vastly entertaining, full of bright colors, wild plaids, swirls of sparkles, and explosions of fake fur -- but too often, they also resembled a bad Saturday Night Live sketch, a good idea that both went on too long and needed fleshing out. People liked him more than they liked his designs.

"He could have made clothes that sold," thinks Bernadine Morris, former fashion critic of the New York Times. "It became more important to attract attention. His primary goal was not making money but building a persona."

At this, he was highly successful. The press lavished him with attention but was loath to point out that his company had been plagued by problems and was failing to capitalize on his new celebrity by developing lucrative licenses. "The size of a business may not be as great as the noise that is made by the fashion press," admits Chanel's Rena.

It's become an axiom of fashion that it doesn't matter if you're successful as long as you appear to be. As at Tina Brown's money-hemorrhaging New Yorker, buzz rules. This is the principle that apparently guides Bernard Arnault, the head of LVMH, the French luxury-product conglomerate. You'd think that after losing millions on Christian Lacroix, his first press-driven designer label, Arnault would have had second thoughts, but he was among the first to see that fashion -- with its crazy designers and spoiled supermodels -- had become mass entertainment and that making noise had become more important than making salable clothes. So Arnault hired a series of brilliant but largely uncommercial designers -- John Galliano at Dior, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton -- and fawning coverage in glossy magazines subsidized by fashion and luxury-goods advertising followed. But those designers, much like Gucci's more grounded Tom Ford, were hired to revivify labels that, hoary and old as they were, were attached to well-developed merchandising machines with vast preexisting product lines. Their fashion collections function as loss leaders. "It's okay not selling dresses if you keep your perfume in business," says Bernadine Morris. And why should the press say the emperor sells no clothes when, instead, it can display fashion's astonishments in the same way circuses once boasted freak shows, titillating the rubes while burnishing the shimmering illusion of fashion's cultural centrality?

Finally, Mizrahi may have had too much personality to succeed as a modern designer. Had he been single-minded and willing to make whatever it took, like Tommy Hilfiger, he might have given Chanel a young American fragrance business and made the kind of fortune that could support the high-end design think tank he really wanted. But then he would have had to compromise his design aesthetic, surround himself with hard-selling garmentos, and give up personal control over some aspects of his business. Fashion insiders intimate that he was unwilling to do that.

So whither Yvesaac? Will he reinvent himself as a Hollywood hyphenate, writing, producing, acting in (and presumably costume-designing for) his own movies? The press is still hyping him. Time dutifully reported that The Adventures of Sandee the Supermodel, a comic book he produced, "is being made into a movie," at DreamWorks, even though it doesn't have a start date, and that Mizrahi might star in another movie he's written, even though he's still rewriting it. Nobody pointed out that that makes him, to update Jack Warner's immortal description of a screenwriter, just another schmuck with an iMac.

Six years ago, I wrote a story about Mizrahi for this magazine. It was a shoo-in for the cover, despite the fact that it said his clothes didn't sell well. Last week, the obituary for Mizrahi's business ran on the front page of the Times. How many $25 million businesses get that kind of treatment? More and more, the fashion world's primary product isn't fashion. Too bad consumers can't wear all that's left of Mizrahi's business -- his press clippings.


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