ISABEL TOLEDO: Fashion from the inside out

Fashion historian and curator Dr. Valerie Steele talks to Dazed Digital about the cultural significance of designer Isabel Toledo.

Text by Anna Battista

Isabel Toledo is considered by many fashion connoisseurs as a talented artist, a “designer’s designer” who creates works of art rather than just clothes. Yet, up until January 2009 when First Lady Michelle Obama wore on Inauguration Day Toledo’s lemongrass shift dress and matching coat in guipure lace, she wasn’t an extremely famous designer. Things have quickly changed since then and Toledo is now not only a cult designer, but a part of contemporary American history. This is the main reason why the exhibition “Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out”, recently opened at New York’s Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), is fashion and history-wise important.

Considered as a mid-career retrospective and organised by Dr. Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT, and Patricia Mears, deputy director of the museum, the exhibition pays homage to Toledo’s designs through 70 looks, spanning from the mid-1980s until the present day. Though the event also features Michelle Obama’s ensemble, on public view for the first time, and designs from Toledo’s 2007-2008 collections as creative director of Anne Klein, special attention is paid to the designer’s construction skills.

Born in Cuba in 1961, Isabel Toledo developed a fascination for sewing as a child. After moving to the United States, she met her future husband, artist and illustrator Ruben Toledo, and they began collaborating together. Isabel’s unconventional working method comes from the fact that she does not sketch, but directly works with the fabric, describing a design to Ruben who then translates it on paper. To explain what goes behind each design and the different styles, techniques, ideas and inspirations, the exhibition curators divided the different creations into themes and categories, from ‘Origami’ to ‘Suspension’ and ‘Organic Geometry’ to ‘Liquid Architecture’ and ‘Manipulated Surfaces’. Isabel’s three-dimensional approach and innovative pattern making can be seen in many of her designs: geometric shapes turn a simple coat into a perfect sculpture; a dress and jacket reproduce in their forms the silhouette of a pagoda, while the multi-faceted cut of a diamond is reproduced on white draped rayon jersey dresses. Some garments are characterised by cocooning shapes, others, like the “Convertible Lettuce” dress, by thin and ethereal layers of silk crepe gazar or by minutely draped motifs that form on the fabric a sort of waterfall-like effect, while jersey and taffeta dresses change shape thanks to thin cords of fabric or cables. The exhibition is completed by Ruben Toledo’s poetically colourful fashion illustrations.

Can you tell us more about the background of the Isabel Toledo exhibition?

Valerie Steele: We did an exhibition about Isabel and her husband Ruben back in 1998 which was called “Toledo/Toledo: A Marriage of Art and Fashion”. We thought we would have done another one, but several years ago we started an award called the Couture Council Award for Artistry and Fashion. Once a year we give an award to a designer we believe has contributed to the artistry, the craftsmanship and the beauty of fashion. The first year the award went to Ralph Rucci, the first American designer in more than 60 years to be invited to show under his own name in Paris by the French Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture since Mainbocher in the 1930s; the second year it went to Alber Elbaz of Lanvin and the third year the award went to Isabel Toledo. We offered all the designers who won the award an exhibition and a book. We chose Isabel as the award’s recipient a year and a half ago and gave her the award in September 2008. At that point she was no longer working for Anne Klein, but she was not yet famous for dressing Michelle Obama, yet we knew she was a brilliant designer.

Isabel Toledo has been in the fashion business for over 20 years but it could be said that the wider audience realised she existed only during Inauguration Day. Do you feel that it took politics to make everyone catch on?
Valerie Steele: In a way, I do. I joked with Isabel saying that she has been part of the fashion history for 25 years, but, in January, she entered history itself with that image of Michelle Obama wearing Isabel’s lemongrass ensemble that has gone down in all history books. I think it’s very appropriate that we were able to juxtapose Isabel’s show with another show at the same time such as “Fashion & Politics” at the Museum at FIT, that also features a version of the Jason Wu silk sheath Michelle donned for her Vogue cover. This somehow ties the two shows together.

What fascinates you about Isabel Toledo: her patterns, silhouettes, use of materials, willingness to experiment or her sculptor’s eye and three-dimensional approach?
Valerie Steele: I think that what makes Isabel a real “designer’s designer” and an interesting artist to people who are into fashion is the fact that she is so independent and she’s always kind of experimenting. Her patterns are not like ordinary patterns. She knows how ordinary patterns work and she has been working with them since she was eight years old, but she will ignore them. She wouldn’t put in a sleeve the way other people put in a sleeve, so she just experiments, which means that very often she needs to explain her work, because people have never seen anything like that. She jokes saying that her clothes always sell out at Barneys, partly because her clients buy them and her production is small and partly because manufacturers of other designers buy them and try to take them apart to figure out how she gets certain effects, because she does things in a new way. I think that’s the most interesting aspect of her work.

What did you learn while researching for this exhibition that you didn’t know about Isabel Toledo?
Valerie Steele: I have known Isabel since 1988 when I first interviewed her for my book Women of Fashion: Twentieth Century Designers and I ended up closing the book with a section on her designs. I’ve always been an admirer since the early days and always followed her carefully, but it was interesting going through everything she did, analysing her entire files and archive and interviewing her and Ruben again, finding out how much of a struggle there was and how she was frequently mocked by the press - Ruben still gets angry talking about how her show was once described as the “arty horror show” - their trouble with a backer who turned out to be a criminal and their financial struggles. I think their story is really powerful. So many young designers go out of business because of financial hardships and the fact that they are still working independently after all this time is really impressive.

Both Isabel and Ruben are featured in the book Style File, edited by Iké Udé. According to you, can we truly refer to them as “icons of style”?
Valerie Steele: I think we definitely can, although it’s probably ultimately impossible to disassociate their image from their artistic work: Isabel is an icon of style not just because she has long hair and a sort of aristocratic bearing, but also because she is this amazing creative designer and Ruben is the artist behind all these fashion illustrations and he’s got this sort of amusing Salvador Dali persona that is inseparable from his creative career as an artist.

What do you think visitors who will see this exhibition will bring back home?
Valerie Steele: This is a show that has a tremendous popular appeal. Many people are coming in to see the Michelle Obama dress, because that’s the sort of famous iconic dress everybody wants to see, but then, when they go into the main room, many of them are blown away by Isabel’s creativity and Ruben’s art. So I think visitors are coming in to see a piece of history, but then they end up being captivated by the artistry and craftsmanship of fashion.

“Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out” is at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology until 26th September 2009.

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