NEW YORK —?Even at Target, there’s a difference between runway and reality.

Isaac Mizrahi staged his big, bold experiment of pairing his new stratospherically priced custom collection for Bergdorf Goodman with his inexpensive clothes made for Target on Monday night, and proved his point that the high and low can coexist peacefully on one runway, or at least match. For some in the audience, it wasn’t until after the first few looks, or maybe halfway through, that they could figure out just which look was which.

A herringbone tweed jacket, khaki suede jodphurs or a black bouclé suit would seem at odds with the taste level of the average American woman shopping for household supplies, but that has been the mantra of Target’s design-driven philosophy across the board —?“expect more, pay less.” Yet some pieces, such as Mizrahi’s so-called “superjeans,” those with the width of a palazzo, or a white cotton sash of a shirt, seemed a stretch for mass consumption at the 1,249 Target stores nationwide that carry the Isaac Mizrahi for Target collection. Such reach raised suspicions that perhaps a little nip and tuck had been applied for stage appeal, although Mizrahi later denied it.

In many ways, Mizrahi and Target were looking to provoke the fashion audience with the high-low concept: Would the mixed metaphor work? Would the Target merch drag down the image of his work for Bergdorf Goodman? Would anyone who could afford a $25,000 gown set foot in Target? Would Mizrahi’s embrace of Target destine him for a fate similar to J.C. Penney-loving Halston?

“People can criticize me for this, and I expect it,” Mizrahi said after the show. “People can make it easier or more difficult for me because of this, but this is who I am.”

Mizrahi argued there has been a conceptual shift in the shopping patterns of affluent customers, giving rise to what he described as “bipolar shopping disorder” —?the compulsion to buy $9.99 cotton tanks along with $20,000 ballgown skirts.

It had been six years since Mizrahi last staged a runway show, having closed his business in 1998 in a dispute with his former financial backer, Chanel, and Monday’s event felt like a comeback, even though Mizrahi has hardly strayed from the limelight.Apart from his numerous television and stage projects, Mizrahi’s Target collection has been in stores for about a year, and its success in sales and as a marketing vehicle for the retailer inspired Target to finance the show in the elaborate venue of Cipriani 42nd Street. That the cost was reported to have reached the neighborhood of $1 million, and an audience full of celebrities — Iman, Bebe Neuwirth, Candice Bergen, Bruce Weber, Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols — contributed to the impression that Mizrahi was working his day job at Target to finance loftier ambitions, but Mizrahi described the two collections in equally passionate terms.

“These days, don’t you have a 7 Series BMW and a Range Rover?” he said. “Don’t you have something from the Barefoot Contessa along with pizza? You don’t contain yourself to just expensive or inexpensive products. Those who can afford expensive clothes need to make it interesting now. When you see someone wearing only expensive clothes straight from a runway, it just doesn’t look good. They need to mess it up a little bit and make it real.”

In his show, styled by Vogue’s Camilla Nickerson, that vision of reality was torn between two worlds. Often Mizrahi’s elaborate custom pieces — a painted linen coat, a mink jacket sheered to the thickness of a pancake, a golden sable lined raincoat or a doubleface cashmere dress — were accessorized with a touch from Target, like a T-shirt underneath or topped with a shrunken cardigan made of a cashmere blend called “cashmine.”

For the most part, this flaunting of the most far-flung range in fashion worked so seamlessly that even after the last exit, some audience members were still pondering which was which, a reality many expected would ruffle some Bergdorf feathers. No matter. Mizrahi thought to prove the fashion thesis du jour (advanced elsewhere by Ralph, Calvin, Oscar) not in separate but sort of equal presentations, and the occasional tank or cardigan might have swung either way. His lavish lace embroideries and furs, meanwhile, oozed opulence at every turn.

These clothes also radiated the designer’s long-held belief that the fashion system too often plays to itself rather than to a larger audience of plastic-wielding women eager to spend as long as they could find something to love. But these clothes were neither young nor trendy. Rather, they picked up right where Mizrahi left off before Chanel pulled the plug.The show featured all that Mizrahi loved, including bold color — which just happens to look so of-the-moment right now — and well-bred tailoring delivered in a “one piece trompe l’oeil suit.” And remember those ball skirts that looked so fresh back when? Mizrahi updated them here with contrasting obi sashes and crisp, small white Target shirts tied tightly at the waist. His mixing weighed throughout: a beautiful indigo lace petticoat with a thrifty denim coat; a painted mink cardigan with a denim and horsehair skirt.

True, some of the old Mizrahi favorites looked, well, old. One does not recall a major run on those giant elephant pants in the early Nineties, a bit of style history bound to repeat itself. Similarly, in this age of fashion enlightenment, length is supposed to be a non-issue, but it’s not if it’s awkward. So when it comes to those below-the-knee skirts...oh the joys of custom seamstresses, please.

But even in his few missteps, Mizrahi made a point, as he said recently: “I don’t look at insider fashion stuff; I look at outsider fashion stuff more now.”

Real clothes for real women, and provided the custom prices don’t get out of hand, many of those women should respond gleefully, and not just tony types in Texas and Long Island. Mizrahi is also thinking red-carpet babes and showed several full-skirted soft-cut numbers that might have been designed for everybody’s favorite fashion girl, Sarah Jessica Parker. (Too bad she was a no-show.)

Not surprisingly, Bergdorf executives were sensitive to the Target connection as they unveiled the custom line on the store’s fourth floor on Tuesday, where a host of young social types converged for a personal appearance by Mizrahi. But the show, and the reaction afterward by customers like Nan Kempner, who had picked out a look from each line that she said she had to have, assuaged their initial concerns.

“I thought it was Isaac at his best,” said Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director for the store, on Tuesday. “Nan said this was the closest you can get to couture in America. I am not at all concerned about the Target collection, especially after seeing the show last night. I didn’t realize how much we had missed him and his sensibility, which is so much about that American fashion consumer. It was just chic, American-style.”Target executives were equally enthusiastic about the results of the show. John Remington, vice president of events marketing and communications for Target, said the retailer viewed the production as “a way to continually surprise the guests who walk into our stores. They never know what we’re going to do next. It’s that ‘expect more’ side of the equation. Even the customers who can afford Isaac’s custom designs are going to come into Target and buy the purse that goes with the $5,000 dress.”

Some pieces that were shown on the runway, he said, will be presented in a “less revealing” version when they arrive at Target later this summer, noting that “Isaac worked it a little bit, as theater for the show.”

Mizrahi, however, said he made no adjustments to samples as they are planned for Target, noting that some of the more bare looks were from lingerie he designs in the collection.

“That’s one thing about the Target people, they won’t let me show something different than it will appear in the store,” he said. “Whenever I asked, they’d say, ‘Sorry,’ and they hang up the phone. It’s ‘goodbye,’ and click. Everything you saw was verbatim Target.”

As for the presentation’s potential for creating high-low confusion, that’s likely to be cleared up once a consumer walks into Target and sees what the designer actually sells there, or conversely in Bergdorf Goodman, where Target-ophiles are destined to experience a little sticker shock.

Mizrahi gave his own last word on the subject in his line notes, closing the show with a midnight blue tutu from his custom line, paired with a wrap cotton halter for Target: “Is it wrong to mix a skirt that costs in the five figures...with a top that barely costs in the two figures? Is it a bipolar shopping disorder? Is there a pill to take for the condition? A support group? To quote Diana Ross, ‘I don’t need no cure.’ I like going to extremes. And I never judge. For some, this kind of thing is a lifestyle.”

— With contributions from Bridget Foley

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