Friday, June 26, 2009

“To Isabel, With Love”


Vogue's Andre Leon Talley

It’s official. The fashion world is head over heels in love with Isabel Toledo. It’s been impossible not to notice all the love surrounding the talented creator, especially on the heels of FIT’s blockbuster ‘Mid Life Retrospective’, “Isabel Toledo, Fashion from the Inside Out”, which opened to the public on June18th. And just about a week later, on Wednesday, June 24th, Isabel and collaborator/ husband Ruben, were once again the center of attention at Barneys New York, where they made a personal appearance during an all day fall 2009 trunk show, the highlight of which was a Q &A spearheaded by Barneys always amusing and irreverent Simon Doonan.

Chicly and intelligently dressed (what else would you expect?) in a black top, eased up white cotton canvas painter’s pants rolled up at the hem (Isabel claims they are actually Ruben’s and they have a stockpile of the functional and great looking basics which serve as their uniform of choice), navy leather lace up gillies from her short lived but memorable Anne Klein Collection, and topped off with a weightless dove gray silk taffeta coat of her own design, the designer (who admits, “I never had a job in my life; I play for a living”) mingled with guests like Andre Leon Talley, Barneys' Julie Gilhart (also dressed in Isabel’s design), and loyal customers (including social fixture Yaz Hernandez who was literally in fashion heaven as she quickly tried one dress on after another, exclaiming “this is mine”). Mrs. Hernandez has quite an extensive designer wardrobe and when I asked her how many Isabel Toledo’s she owns, she sheepishly answered “a lot”. Isabel concurred that her collection could “fill a room”.


Simon Doonan & Isabel Toledo

At 2:45, Isabel and Simon took their places on stools set up in the middle of the second floor (which is home not only to the designs of Isabel Toledo, but Prada, YSL, and other similarly high end names), and Simon kicked things off by heaping praise on Isabel and congratulating her on the amazing exhibit, noting, “Those who have seen Isabel’s exhibit at FIT are probably still reeling from the majesty of it, and the incredible range of talent on display. Those of you who haven’t, should either kill yourselves, or get over there ASAP!”

Here are some of the highlights of what followed:

SD: I’m assuming that when you saw Michelle Obama in your Inaugural Design, you screamed something, probably in Spanish.
IT: I did it!
SD: What did you say at that moment?
IT: Thank God she looks good! (that got a laugh from the audience).
We (at the studio) were all taken with the moment. It seriously didn’t matter what she was wearing. To think I was part of that history is amazing. Michelle, Barack, Isabel. I’m thrilled, thrilled!

SD: Who would you want to be if you weren’t you?
IT: Frank Lloyd Wright (Actually, it was Ruben who quickly answered for her, and she thanked him and agreed)

SD: Who are your favorite designers, because I’ve heard you mention Claire McCardell?
IT: I love Claire! I love anybody that thinks of a design and can put it into a form. I don’t care what it is. You have a thought…you have an emotion…and it is really difficult to put that into a three dimensional form. Designers are all trying to dissect things, to bring meaning to them. If you’re wearing an Isabel Toledo, you’re wearing my thought; you’re wearing how I solve a problem.

SD: What designers do you admire?
IT: Geoffrey Beene, who was the master of his craft

SD: I don’t mean to be racist, but your work is intensely Latin in a certain way and yet not in a typical ‘Chi Chi’. Your sensibility is Latin but quirky and unique. I want to know where that comes from.
IT: I have no idea. I don’t know that I’m very Latin. (And then she asked her husband if she was ‘very Latin’ and he said yes, to which she replied, “I’m very Latin!”)

SD: You have a flirtatious modesty that is compelling yet alluring.
IT: It’s not revealing. Ever. I’m such a prude. It’s turtlenecks all the time. It’s all about modesty. What you don’t see.

SD: When you see something that’s very revealing and very obvious, what do you think of that?
IT: Well, if the woman is comfortable, it’s wonderful.

SD: Who’s more talented- you or your husband? (Everyone laughed)
IT: Ruben. He’s much more talented. I just make sense of it.
SD: Very diplomatic answer

At this point, Simon invited guests to ask questions.
Member of the audience: I heard that you refer to yourself as a seamstress. Is that true?
IT: Yes. That’s what I do. That’s what I love to do and that’s why I’m doing what I do. I used to make clothes. I can sew. It chose me. Fashion chose me.

One of the funniest moments was when a woman asked Isabel what inspires her as she begins a collection. She quickly retorted, “I’m going to kill you” but then joked, “I take a pill”. This had everyone in stitches. The same woman quickly asked, “Which one?” to which Isabel replied, “A pink one” (FYI, “I’ll have what she’s having”)
IT: That’s the easiest question to ask and the hardest to answer. I have no idea. I just react to life. I really enjoy the process of things. I’m probably the best, most dedicated worker. The working of fashion inspires me.

Member of the audience: How do you want to be remembered?
IT: Lover of Ruben

Member of the audience: What is the most important advice you can give to a young designer that you wish you had when you were starting out?
IT: Patience, patience, patience. If you get it easy, it goes easy. Where you’ve been is who you are.

At this point, Isabel called out for Andre Leon Talley to ask something.
ALT: What is your next big trip?
IT: I’m going to blow glass. Ruben and I are going to Pilchuck, Seattle. We’ll be artists in residence for a month and we’re really excited.
ALT: So, I suppose we can look for glass as inspiration for future collections? Glass ruffles, glass folds, perhaps? (He said this humorously and everyone laughed including Isabel, but don’t be surprised if this comes to pass, as Isabel takes her brilliant inspiration from everything around her)

-Marilyn Kirschner

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

“Holy Toledo” (yet again!)


(All photos: Randy Brooke)

"Tonight is about the creative side of fashion" - Bill Cunningham

I know I know…this phrase has been worked to death at this point, but there is no other heading that best describes how blown away I was by FIT’s brand new blockbuster exhibit, “Isabel Toledo, Fashion from the Inside Out”, (‘a Mid-Career Retrospective’, June 17 – September 26.) To say that Tuesday morning’s press preview “made my day”, is an understatement. ‘Made my year’ is more like it. The fact that it was preceded the night before by the CFDA Awards, (about which The New York Times’ Eric Wilson observed, "It would have been disingenuous to declare anyone a real winner this year, though awards were handed out for best designers in several categories during what felt, at times, more like a pep rally than a glamorous event"), made the 100+ items on display, look even more brilliant and served as a reminder of what true creative genius is, what well thought out and intelligent design looks like, how special and unique Isabel (and Ruben) are, and just how lucky we are to have them as part of our fashion universe. Oh, and I forgot to mention….how nice they are…yes, ‘nice’ as in, warm, open, and decidedly attitude free. How refreshing is that?



The exhibition is a must see for anybody who is interested in fashion, and for anyone who has become disillusioned and disenchanted with the overhyped, run of the mill, rather ordinary (if not positively demeaning and insulting) ‘stuff’ being pawned off as ‘great’. The name, “Fashion from the Inside Out” was born out of the fact that Isabel works so closely with her husband, all she has to do is “describe an idea or even a feeling to Ruben, and he’ll sketch it.” (Sounds like your husband, right?! No, not mine either).



I was happy I decided to attend the morning event, even though I knew I was going back to FIT for what would undoubtedly and unsurprisingly be a high spirited, festive, packed to the gills cocktail party later on that evening. The press preview on the other hand, was small, intimate, and low keyed (much like the Toledo’s themselves), and I had a chance to study images, sketches, illustrations, read press clips, and it provided a wonderful opportunity to speak with the unduly modest designer (who claims she never “thinks of herself as a designer” but rather a “seamstress”). When I asked about her design philosophy, she explained that her beginning “was very elementary, which was very modern for the times” (the 80’s) and it was and still is “all about 3 dimensional, amorphic shapes, circling around the body”. When I suggested that was her defining signature, she noted, “The work process of what it takes to make a garment- that is definitely what I have to offer”. “Many times I don’t know what it’s going to look like but I know that by working with the garment it becomes what it’s going to be because I work so closely with the fabric, and that speaks to me. It’s not as simple as just sketching a nice look; it’s how do I express this fabric emotionally.”


Isabel with the ensemble she created for Michele Obama

And of course, it’s always great to have an opportunity to speak with the Museum at FIT’s deputy director Patricia Mears and director and chief curator, Valerie Steele, the latter of whom was busy fielding questions from the press, especially with regards to the by now famous yellow ensemble (which Michelle Obama chose to wear on Inauguration Day and which has a special place in the exhibit- it’s literally the first item on display).



Everything about the exhibit is perfect, conceptual and informative: its location the vast high ceilinged space down in the lower level); Ruben’s utterly magical illustrations and drawings which decorate the ceilings and appear to ‘speak’ to the dress forms below; the corresponding patterns showing the thought process behind the designs; the way it’s divided and organized into groups representing the major themes that define Isabel’s body of work ‘Origami’, ‘Sculptural’, ‘Suspension’, ‘Liquid Architecture’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Shape’, ‘Manipulated Surfaces’).

I spent only a little over an hour yesterday morning, but when I left, I felt newly energized, and surprisingly upbeat and positive about the future of fashion, (especially the future of American fashion). I was so inspired, I found myself wanting to really get dressed up and celebrate at the party later on that night.

-Marilyn Kirschner

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Isabel’s ‘Fans’


Isabel Toledo

Not all the major ‘fashion moments’ over the next few weeks will take place on a runway or necessarily be in conjunction with Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. Approximately 380 celebrated ‘fans’ of Isabel Toledo (many wearing her creations) assembled yesterday at a glam benefit luncheon at the Rainbow Room. And I mean ‘fans’ literally, as some of the invited guests cooled down and paid homage to the talented designer with their black, white, red fans, (originally given out about a month ago at a cocktail party ‘chez’ Toledo in celebration of the upcoming award), which were hand painted with the likeness of Isabel by husband Ruben.


Hand painted fan by Ruben Toledo

The occasion? Ms.Toledo, whom Dr. Valerie Steele labeled as “a designer’s designer”, was the recipient of the Couture Council of The Museum at FIT’s 2008 Artistry of Fashion Award. (By the way, Dr. Steele also admitted that “the smartest thing” she ever did was to “start the Couture Council”). Talk about ‘three times is a charm’; certainly it is for Ms. Toledo. The Cuban born New Jersey native is not only the third recipient of the prestigious award (the first was given to Ralph Rucci and the second, to Alber Elbaz), but it took place on the third of September. And because in Isabel’s case, it seems as though good things come in threes, the culmination of this award will be a major retrospective of Ms. Toledo’s work at The Museum at FIT, entitled “Holy Toledo! Isabel Toledo and the Art of Fashion”, opening June 19, 2009 through September 26, 2009. According to the press release, “The exhibition will feature more than 75 looks dating from 1985 to the present, including fluid jersey dresses, seductive lace, and architectural denim. Illustrations by her husband, artist Ruben Toledo, will also be featured, as will films of Ms. Toledo’s fashion shows and other visuals that explore her creative process. A lavishly illustrated catalogue, written by co-curators Dr. Valerie Steele and Patricia Mears and published by Yale University Press, will accompany the exhibition.”


Simon Doonan, creative director for Barneys New York

Getting back to Wednesday’s event, once again, FIT’s highly anticipated annual gala luncheon (which was sold out and raised approximately $400,000) was hosted by its founding Couture Council chairs Liz Peek, Yaz Hernandez, and Sarah Wolfe, with Honorary Chairs: Harper’s Bazaar’s Editor-in-Chief Glenda Bailey and Nadja Swarovski. (FYI: all invited guests will be mailed a cameo necklace designed by Ruben Toledo with Isabel’s silhouette and signature etched onto an oval Swarovski crystal, specially created by Swarovski for the Couture council). Andre Leon Talley, American Editor-at-Large for Vogue, presented the award, and Simon Doonan, Creative Director for Barneys New York, served as the highly entertaining and irreverent emcee of the event.


FIT's Patricia Mears wearing a Isabel Toledo dress

Talk about fashion star power. Among the bold face fashion/social luminaries who turned out were Narciso Rodriguez, Cathy Hardwick, Kim Hastreiter, Fabiola Beracasa, FIT President Dr. Joyce Brown, FIT Museum Director Valerie Steele, Patricia Mears, Kelly Bensimon, Hamish Bowles, Cecilia Dean, Stephen Gan, Julie Gilhart, Linda Fargo, Cathy Horyn, Jeffrey Kalinsky, Derek Lam, Boaz Mazor, Paul Cavaco, Josie Natori, Candy Pratts Price, Arnold Scaasi, Peter Som, Dennis Basso, Howard Socol, Stephano Tonchi, Max Vadukul, Michael Vollbracht, Eleanor Ylvisaker, Iris Apfel, Joey Arias, Christine Suppes, Serena Boardman, Sandy Brant, Dawn Brown, and Dr. Patricia Wexler, among others.


Isabel Toledo with Narciso Rodriquez

Dr. Joyce Brown kicked things off with her welcoming address and enthused, “We are the only museum specializing in the art of fashion”. She also observed that there were “too many of fashion’s brightest lights” in attendance, for her to even begin to mention. Simon Doonan wasted no time in heaping praise on the talented designer, referring to her “magical creativity” and putting her in the same category as “the Balenciagas, Alaias, McCardells, and Charles Jameses of the world”. He couldn’t resist noting that while Isabel was born one year after the Cuban Revolution, “the luncheon we’re enjoying today is incredibly Un Communistic”. He narrated a video montage showing Isabel’s life from the time she was a little girl (she began sewing her own clothes at 9) and concluded, “this girl knows more about fashion than anyone, anywhere”. When he came upon an image of one of her earlier lace creations, he said “everyone is talking about lace but Isabel has been exploring lace forever!” He made mention of the “prescience of her clothes” which he labeled as “astounding” in that even decades old designs could easily "jump off fashion pages today”. “The great thing about working with Ruben and Isabel is that you get both of them”.


Right: Glenda Bailey, Editor-in-Chief of Harper's Bazaar

Andre Leon Talley took the stage and announced that “Isabel makes clothes women want to wear” and noted that a “childlike wonder defines both Isabel and Ruben”. He admitted telling Isabel, “I want to be like you when I grow up.” (Perhaps someone should tell ALT that he has indeed grown up!). Isabel was gracious and to the point when she accepted her award and said that the most rewarding aspect of being a designer is that “I make a difference; I’m affecting my time.”

Not only was this a glorious affair, which perfectly set the stage for New York Fashion Week, but it was filled with symbolic gestures. Sunflowers (Isabel’s favorite flower) decorated the tables and the menu, (yellow gazpacho followed by Cuban style sea bass with warm mango sauce, coconut rice, and black beans), was Cuban inspired and delicious at that. Joey Arias kicked things off with his rendition of the Billie Holiday song, “You’ve Changed,” dedicated to Isabel. I guess there’s no escaping the word ‘change’ these days, whether it relates to politics, fashion, or life.

Oh, and by the way, speaking of the connection between art and fashion (which is by definition, inherent in everything the Toledos do), the winner of a luncheon raffle will have his/her portrait painted by Ruben, and after the meal was over, all guests were invited to take home the laminated white, black, red placemats on the tables (boasting the face of Isabel) which were handpainted by Ruben.

-Marilyn Kirschner

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