beautiful, euphoric photos of new york's early-90s fashion scene

For four years, photographer Nick Waplington spent his days documenting Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell during fittings at Isaac Mizrahi’s Soho fashion studio, and his nights (and early mornings) shooting the drag queens and DJs of New York’s...

by Alice Newell-Hanson
03 March 2016, 6:25pm

Richard Avedon introduced Nick Waplington and Isaac Mizrahi. Avedon had seen the then 22-year-old British photographer's work while Waplington was still a student at the Royal College of Art and, as Nick recalls, "Dick decided that Isaac and I should work together because, well, we were both kind of young." The idea was for Waplington to document the inner workings of Mizrahi's studio as the then up-and-coming New York designer prepared for fashion weeks.

Now, over 20 years later, Waplington is publishing the images in a new book, The Isaac Mizrahi Pictures: New York City 1989-1993 (Damiani), to coincide with a retrospective of Mizrahi's work at the Jewish Museum, opening later this month. While Isaac's brand has gone through many incarnations, Waplington's images capture what was so inspiring about its first eruption onto the New York fashion scene: the head-spinning colors, fearlessness, and glamorous theatricality. They also show the energy and intimacy of Mizrahi's studio in an era when Michael Hutchence would stop by with Helena Christensen, Spike Lee with Veronica Webb, or André Leon Talley ("they would sing Doris Day songs together") with Sandra Bernhard.

"I'd never been to a fashion fitting before," Nick tells me over the phone from LA. "And when I started apparently I was on some sort of trial for a couple of days because they were worried about having a straight dude in the room with all the naked models. But I passed: I wasn't lecherous. I was relaxed and everyone was fairly relaxed with me."

In between moments of frenetic energy — herding models, going to work on mountains of silk shantung with scissors and pins — there was all the waiting around and late-night delirium that comes with working long hours towards a deadline. "There'd be music playing, lots of joking. Then the serious bits. It was long days, when there was only a week left until fashion week. That was interesting: the buildup and the buzz, the running around, but there were also long waits — and this was long before smart phones, so I'd read."

Mixed in with the images of hot-pink PVC capes and waterfalls of tulle are Waplington's snapshots from his other focus at the start of the 90s: New York's house and techno scene. "It was an interesting time in New York then. It was before the Giuliani cleanup started, and Manhattan wasn't the fortress of the wealthy that it's become," Waplington says. "I wanted to make a book about New York at that time, not just about working with Isaac. And I think the dynamic of the two sets of pictures together works really well. It makes it a historical record of a really great time to be in New York."

In the mornings, Waplington would walk from his apartment on lower Fifth Avenue across Washington Square Park to Isaac's studio in Soho ("the Apple store was still a post office then") and after late-night fittings he'd continue on to The Sound Factory or Save the Robots, "a funny place with sawdust on the floor." 

"The Sound Factory was a gay after-hours club that only opened on Sunday morning. The rest of the time the building was locked. And the DJ, Junior Vasquez, only DJed there. It was the best. It was crazy, it was so good," Nick says. "This was a time when you could still smoke inside buildings. So these clubs had a dense, thick layer of marijuana smoke in there at all times." On Thursday nights, Save The Robots would run on until another party started near the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which would rage until it was late enough to go to Boy Bar. "Then of course I also went to Limelight, and The Tunnel."

Homemade platform shoes so high you wore kneepads, drag queens shiny in sequins and lamé, and a communal, sweaty, joyful lack of inhibition — Waplington's images set Mizrahi's clothes against an era of New York's downtown history that is already subject to obsessive nostalgia. And while Isaac himself was not a regular at Sound Factory — "that was my thing," says Waplington — his designs demonstrate the riotous fun and experimentation of, say, a night at Jackie 60.

When Chanel bought a stake in the Isaac Mizrahi brand in 1993, Waplington wrapped up his project. "I guess they wanted something more glitzy," he explains. But he didn't abandon the fashion world all together. His subsequent project capturing the work of Alexander McQueen has become one of the lasting documents of the late designer's legacy. 

Shooting fashion designers at work, says Waplington, is like running a ten-kilometer race: "There are moments when you feel fucking shit, but if you put in the hours, putting together that body of work at the end is fantastic."

'The Isaac Mizrahi Pictures: New York City 1989-1993' comes out through Damiani on March 22.


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Nick Waplington, courtesy D.A.P.

Richard Avedon
photography interviews
Alice Newell-Hanson
Nick Waplington
Isaac Mizrahi
fashion interiews