Wednesday, September 23, 2009

American Couture

Alek Wek wearing an Isabel Toledo design for a Nordstrom
advertisement in Harper's Bazaar, June 2009

We saw some good shows while we were in New York at the beginning of the month (Richard Avedon at ICP, a terrific show of works on paper at MoMA - more on that later), but among the most inspiring to me was the Isabel Toledo exhibition at the F.I.T. museum, Fashion from the Inside Out, which closes this weekend. If you're in NYC between now and Saturday and haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend a viewing.

Isabel Toledo at F.I.T. Photo by Patrick McMullen, via

Toledo is a Cuban-born designer who held her first show in 1985, and who shot to national prominence in January when Michelle Obama stepped out in her dress and coat on Inauguration Day. Toledo's design process involves a collaboration with her husband, Ruben, who sketches her designs on paper as Isabel conceives them.

Illustration for Tequila Sunrise dress by Ruben Toledo.
via The Museum at F.I.T.

Isabel and Ruben Toledo in their flower district loft.
Photo by Max Vadukul for The New Yorker

The show is organized around several different themes, with the designs selected for each part of the show ("Liquid Architecture," "Manipulated Surfaces," "Origami," etc.) emphasizing a different aspect of Toledo's creative aesthetic. Many garments are displayed along with a graphic rendering of the pattern pieces that enables you to see (if you have the necessary spatial reasoning skills, at least – I do not) how Toledo's often ingeniously simple cuts create their complex sculptural shapes as the fabric drapes on the body.

Packing dresses, Spring/Summer 1988.
Photo by Karen L. Willis, via
The Museum at F.I.T.

Tube jacket, Spring/Summer 1995.
Photo by William Palmer,
via The Museum at F.I.T.

Harness dresses, Spring/Summer 2003.
Photo via

Denim Pie coat, Spring/Summer 1995.
Photo by William Palmer,
via The Museum at F.I.T.

I was struck by the originality of Toledo's vision – many of these designs look like nothing else I can call to mind. And there is a true sense of romance and preciousness (in a good way) about the clothes; the line, color, fabric, and often breathtaking details of each piece practically radiate the thought and care that has gone into their conception and execution. Toledo has said that she thinks of herself more as a "seamstress" than a designer, and her love and respect for the technique of sewing is clearly evident in her finished creations.

Cornflower dress, Fall/Winter 1998.

Waterfall dresses, Spring/Summer 2007.
Photos above by
William Palmer, via The Museum at F.I.T.

Broomstick Librarian shirtwaist dress designed for Anne Klein
Spring/Summer 2008; hand-painted by Ruben Toledo.
Photo via

Beyond the sheer beauty of the clothes, though, I was most impressed by the timeless quality of Toledo's work. The garments in the show represent the full span of Toledo's career, but – with the exception of a few dresses from the 90s that betray a kind of Tom Ford influence – Toledo has clearly never been about chasing trends, and I would be hard-pressed to date most of the designs: they manage to appear at once sweetly old-fashioned and fashion-forward. With the Bryant Park shows following fast on the heels of our visit, it was a lovely way to start the Fall fashion season.

Hermaphrodite dress, ca. 2005.

Felted Pie coat with Arc pockets, Fall/Winter 1995.
Photos above by William Palmer, via The Museum at F.I.T.

Fashion from the Inside Out runs through Sept. 26 at The Museum at F.I.T. (admission is free; more info here). You can watch a short clip of Toledo discussing the exhibition and her work with New York's Harriet Mays Powell below, and a 2008 article about Isabel and Ruben can be found at The New Yorker website, here.


Ruben Toledo adds his fanciful sensibility to covers for the
recently released Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions of (from top)

The Scarlett Letter,
Wuthering Heights, and Pride and Prejudice.

1 comment:

Rocio Rincon said...

I love the video! I'm a big fan of Ruben and Isabel Toledo, it's great to see a peek of her fashion collection. Thanks for sharing!

Rocio R.