Designer Isaac Mizrahi returned to the runway this week after a six-year absence with a stylish mix of sable coats and cotton T-shirts, hand-painted jackets and bargain-basement tweed skirts, lace embroidered petticoats and cheap denim redingotes. The free-spirited pairing of his signature couture creations with throwaway trends that he designed for Target was virtually seamless.
Along the way he made an eloquent argument for never paying more than $20 for a T-shirt. But he inadvertently proved that one should never skimp on a good pair of shoes. Better not get caught in the rain in those chintzy-looking flats! Are you sure that's leather?
There is a certain kind of fashion-consuming woman who comfortably mixes high-end merchandise with cheap treats. She has no problem pairing a skirt that costs a month's rent with a T-shirt worth little more than a grande vanilla latte. But that woman is rare. She is Sharon Stone at the Oscars. Jennifer Lopez in a music video. A gangly model in the party pages of Vogue.
The average woman, while disinclined to dress head-to-toe in a single designer brand, typically is loath to pair her splurge of a skirt with a lightweight T-shirt that comes three to a pack.
Designers tend to validate this compartmentalized way of thinking. Giorgio Armani, for instance, does not mix his high-end collection with pieces from A/X Armani Exchange. Donna Karan does not toss DKNY onto the runway with her signature collection. Ralph Lauren certainly is not mixing and matching his marquee label with the lower-priced Lauren collection. The lines are kept separate in the same way that a VIP is protected from hoi polloi.
The average woman -- whose wardrobe is not orchestrated by a stylist -- does not mix daywear with eveningwear. She does not take a cardigan that she purchased for a formal dinner and later toss it over a pair of jeans. So Mizrahi, simply by being a designer who advocates pairing a sheared mink jacket with a pair of wide-legged Target khakis, has been, in his own small way, a fashion revolutionary.
The mass market has been good to Mizrahi. After his signature business closed in 1998 when his financial backer pulled the plug because of poor sales, Mizrahi consoled himself by dipping into the entertainment industry. He continued to dabble in fashion with a shoe license. He established a couture business that had him dreaming up special event ensembles for the charity circuit regulars for whom price is not a concern. But Mizrahi saw the benefits -- money, name recognition, money -- in being associated with a mass merchant. He came to Target, which already had a stable of name-brand designers, with the idea of creating a line that would appeal to a wide range of women. The Isaac Mizrahi for Target line was launched last year. It quickly proved that there is no obvious reason why a $39.99 suede skirt can't be well designed.
But even within the fashion industry there still is a certain amount of startled admiration for a nice frock that does not cost a fortune. Editors still ogle a Target seersucker jacket ($29.99) that has a stylish silhouette. They are amazed by the generous sizing, seemingly oblivious to the reality that most women are not a size 2.
With this presentation, Mizrahi showed that he still possessed the spirited color sensibility and eye for classic design that charmed the fashion industry when he was producing a ready-to-wear collection. There were evening gowns in what he described as blocks of "jawbreaker" colors such as orange and grape. He combined charcoal flannel lace trousers with a Fair Isle crewneck. And he topped a navy embroidered evening skirt with a denim coat.
Mizrahi took his bows in the usual way, tripping onto the runway with an expression of surprise at the sight of the audience -- as though he thought the models were twirling and pivoting in an empty room. He waved the crowd backstage to join him for a celebration. Mizrahi had shown that a designer's singular aesthetic could be interpreted at opposite ends of the pricing scale and remain undiluted.
He had shown that cheap fashion can be designed with enough panache that it can stand up to couture. It won't have the same luxurious hand. It will not have the same artisanal details. But it can be stylish just the same. And more important, he had shown that there's no reason not to wear both the high and the low at the same time. There's no need to be a price tag snob.