** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Douglas Keeve.

On its surface–and what else is there in fashion?–Unzipped is a documentary about designer Isaac Mizrahi creating his fall 1994 fashion collection. And on the surface it stays–an ingratiating, hardly incisive sketch that shows Mizrahi as a dishy, driven jester with a certain bratty charm, romping among his sycophants.

First-time director Douglas Keeve, apparently doing what he thinks a documentary director ought to do, uses cinema verite cliches as he teases us with behind-the-scenes intimacy. But he has no intention of mocking the industry where he’s long made his living as a still photographer, even though he does pull a few pranks that hint at the spuriousness of the fashion scene’s mystique and the dubious taste of those lusting for a peek inside.

Other American fashion photographers who’ve turned to documentary filmmaking have brought strong design instincts to the screen. Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost (1989), the story of jazz legend Chet Baker, had gorgeous, crisp black-and-white cinematography, and Arthur Elgort’s Colorado Cowboy: The Bruce Ford Story (1993) featured a gritty black-and-white texture perfectly suited to the dusty rodeo star. But Keeve’s compositions are offhand, and his imagery is often murky. Most of Unzipped is in black and white, but the occasional shifts into color sometimes seem whimsical, sometimes just clumsy attempts at heightened realism. His most annoying tactic is to pump up the black-and-white graininess to underline puportedly meaningful moments in Mizrahi’s quest for excellence.

Keeve has clearly taken some of his cues from MTV. When the camera runs out of film in the middle of one scene the sound continues over pseudo shards of celluloid–fragments dancing across a clear screen like scraps of fabric–until the camera is presumably reloaded. This stylized effect suggests that Keeve has logged more hours watching music videos than running a movie camera or making splices, since he doesn’t seem to know what the film at the end of a spool looks like.

Unzipped also suffers from some overly slick editing. Keeve shows Mizrahi home alone with his muse, playing a bit of Debussy on the piano here, sketching an idea for a dress there. As the camera lingers on the highly reflective surfaces of his tasteful furniture, we spot him standing in the kitchen chatting on the phone with his mother about his designs. “Everything you do is copied left and right,” she says. He agrees wholeheartedly. She asks, “Why don’t you let me look at them?” and the scene instantly shifts to her son’s bathroom, where he’s sitting in a bubble bath with a cellular phone, continuing the conversation as if it were seamless. A Freudian cut next takes the action to his studio, where he fumbles around the crotch of a female model who’s struggling to peel off a pair of tight white pants.

Keeve dispenses with the documentary custom of declaring up front his stake in the story, including his personal ties to the subject. Sometimes this practice is merely self-serving, sometimes it adds intimacy, as it did in Roger & Me and Hearts of Darkness. While not much of a warranty, such a gesture does add credibility. In Truth or Dare Madonna prominently listed herself as executive producer, a way to announce who was really in control of this vanity production.

But in Unzipped there’s no clue that Keeve and Mizrahi were once lovers–in fact Keeve is never on camera, though he can be heard posing a few questions. And Nina Santisi, who appears in several scenes, is identified only as Mizrahi’s vice president. Not until the end credits do we learn that she’s also an executive producer for the film. And only in the press notes can you find out that she used to be Mizrahi’s director of public relations and advertising, and that she’s credited with “originally conceiving the documentary.”

Keeve’s idea of the kind of revelation documentaries should make involves juxtaposing Mizrahi’s impersonations of fashion models, magazine editors, and movie stars with the real thing. So Mizrahi throws off a campy bit of dialogue, then Keeve runs a clip from the film–Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Red Shoes, Valley of the Dolls–where the lines originated. When Mizrahi reenacts a visit with Eartha Kitt, Keeve interpolates footage from the original encounter–in color. The juxtapositions are testimony to Mizrahi’s memory and his knack for mimicry, and could be a poke at old-fashioned documentaries, which often make a fetish out of original sources. But it’s more likely that Keeve is just setting up easy laughs. Mizrahi expends most of his creative energy entertaining his easi-ly amused employees–mimicking model Naomi Campbell, Allure magazine creative director Polly Mellen, even his drawing instructor from art school. And Keeve is impressed. “He’s a Renaissance man–he’s the Dolly Parton of the fashion industry,” he states in the press notes. He backs up this arch puffery with scenes of his star in the throes of creative toil. “I’m sitting here–I’m watching Nanook of the North,” states Mizrahi as he talks on the phone and sketches designs. His new fashion concept turns out to be a fake furry Nanook look, though a Paris competitor apparently scoops him. Later a straight-faced fashion expert plugs a designer for packaging punk and Hasidic motifs. At such moments Unzipped seems to be drawing inspiration from Mel Brooks’s The Producers.

Mizrahi doesn’t seem the least embarrassed by how superficial his creative process sounds, and Keeve doesn’t seem to care. “I don’t need to go to Australia or India to do a collection about those places,” boasts Mizrahi. “I can do them from seeing the Flintstones episode that was set in Australia.” Keeve does track him to Paris–which Mizrahi affects to despise because he can’t find Sinutab there, but adores because the pastry shops open at 4 AM. “I just want to get here, have a really great cup of coffee, and get the hell out,” he says in a taxi. Yet at the Louvre he’s thrilled to discover 18th-century fake furs made from silk.

In Crumb, a documentary about another pop-culture creator, director Terry Zwigoff furnished long over-the-shoulder shots of acerbic cartoonist Robert Crumb sketching. But Keeve’s shots of his subject’s sketches are cursory. Mizrahi would apparently rather show off his hip pals like Sandra Bernhard than expose any vital trade secrets–or risk looking too shallow.

Unzipped never delivers the backstage detail offered by The Queen, Frank Simon’s 1968 documentary on the Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant in New York, or this year’s New York drag gala, Wigstock: The Movie. Nor does it come close to Model, Frederick Wiseman’s 1980 documentary on a New York modeling agency. But its ending recalls that of Robert Altman’s fictional Ready to Wear.

Altman’s models promenade nude down a Paris runway, wearing no fashions at all–his Big Statement. Keeve ends with a show where the models can be seen changing outfits behind a white scrim. As the house lights go up and down, black-and-white shots of backstage chaos and undergarments alternate with color shots of models strutting past a white wall wearing Mizrahi’s new line.

“It’s so old it’s true. It’s so true it’s new. It’s the oldest new look. It’s the newest old look. It’s, it’s–” babbles the American television reporter played by Kim Basinger in Altman’s film. “I mean, is there a message up there?” She gives up, and her assistant takes over to announce “a celebration of fashion in the profoundest sense of the word.”

Keeve and Mizrahi don’t aim for much more than gimmickry. Putting on a fashion show with a peekaboo scrim is shtick–no one here is yanking the curtain away from the man in Oz. Their finale comes off simply as an in-joke about the movie’s faux window on Mizrahi’s world.