Dr. Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT, the only museum that specializes in fashion, once proclaimed that the smartest thing she ever did was to start the Couture Council in 2004. The Couture Council works in conjunction with the museum and organizes activities and events to raise the institution’s profile and provide financial support for the museum’s initiatives.
The most important event of the year is the Couture Council’s award ceremony and benefit luncheon which unofficially kicks off NYFW and heralds in the fall season. It is during this time that the “Artistry in Fashion Award” is given to an individual chosen by the Couture Council Advisory Board
On Wednesday, September 4th, Christian Louboutin will receive this coveted award. The first well-deserved honoree was American couturier Ralph Rucci, the second one was Alber Elbaz. In 2008, Isabel Toledo became the third recipient.
About 380 guests attended the benefit luncheon at the Rainbow Room, which was held in Isabel’s honor back in 2008. Naturally, art was all around. Every guest dined on a placemat featuring a sketch of Isabel. It was hand-made by Ruben Toledo, Isabel’s husband and partner in life. Many attendees wore Isabel’s creations, kept cool and paid homage to the talented designer thanks to the 500 paper fans which were hand-painted with Isabel’s likeness by Ruben. I still have mine.
When Isabel accepted her award, she said that the most rewarding aspect of being a designer is that she gets to make a difference. The designer’s yearning to make a lasting statement was solidified with two spectacular exhibitions at the Museum at FIT. “Toledo/Toledo: A Marriage of Art and Fashion,” which could not have been more aptly named, was mounted in 1998. It was, indeed, a marriage made in heaven in every way.
A mid-career retrospective, “Isabel Toledo Fashion from the Inside Out” ran from June 17 – September 26, 2009. It was born out of the fact that this proud Cuban American worked so closely with her husband, Ruben. Isabel admitted that all she had to do was describe an idea or feeling to Ruben, and he’d sketch it. Sounds like your husband, right? No, not mine either!
The cocktail reception to fete the opening was jam-packed with friends, admirers, and lovers of fashion and included many boldface design names. Bill Cunningham declared, “Tonight is about the creative side of fashion.” The morning press preview 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.
The exhibition was divided and organized into groups representing the major themes that define Isabel’s body of work ‘Origami,’ ‘Sculptural,’ ‘Suspension,’ ‘Liquid Architecture,’ ‘Shadow,’ ‘Shape,’ and ‘Manipulated Surfaces.’ The historic yellow coat ensemble First Lady Michelle Obama wore to the Inauguration in 2009 was the first ensemble on display.
Ruben’s utterly magical illustrations and drawings decorated the ceilings and appeared to ‘speak’ to the dress forms below; the corresponding patterns showed the thought process behind the designs. I wrote at the time that though I spent only a little over an hour when I left, I felt newly energized, and surprisingly upbeat and positive about the future of fashion. Especially the future of American style.
Three years later, Isabel’s autobiography, Roots of Style: Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion was released. From the nostalgic and permanent influence of her upbringing in Cuba and the serendipitous love that materialized her vision and fueled her conviction, to the timeless mark she continued to make on the fashion industry, Isabel weaved it all together to express her true inspiration and authenticity.
The book includes illustrations by Ruben, and it is gloriously entertaining, informative, and inspirational. It is filled with innumerable wise “personal credos and observations” and includes Isabel’s thoughts on what constitutes style versus fashion. This is a subject that has been broached many times by others. But, in my opinion, almost nobody has verbalized it better or more eloquently than Isabel.
One of my favorites:
“The beauty in the quality of an object surpasses the question of taste. Quality looks good even as it decays. This is why I say that if you have the discipline, buy less, but buy better”. If you can afford to buy the best, eventually pass it on, because it will most likely outlive you.”
The poignancy of the timing of Isabel Toledo’s passing, on the heels of NYFW, is not lost on me. The fashion world is filled with inflated egos and individuals who are overly impressed with their own self-importance. Fashion designers are a dime a dozen. Isabel Toledo was an unduly modest designer who always considered herself to be a seamstress, not a fashion designer. Dr. Steele told me that Isabel was the most creative person she has ever known.
She was indeed one of a kind.