January 20th 2009. It was a day that no one, American or otherwise, will forget. On this day so many of the dreams of so many people came true, and Barack Obama was sworn in as our 44th President. However, while history was being made on one part of the stage, headlines were being made on another. Michelle Obama, unlike her more conservative predecessors (Mrs. Bush, who dressed in a teal green suit with black accents and Senator Clinton, who wore a navy blue suit), stood by her husband in a glittering gold sheath with matching coat.
The minute the First Lady stepped out onto the stage, the fashion critics went crazy. Some praised the gorgeous embroidery and edgy color; others hated the outfit, claiming it added bulk to a usually slender frame. Personally, I thought that both the outfit and the lady in question looked spectacular. The color of the ensemble suited Mrs. Obama's complexion perfectly, but more importantly, it managed to do the impossible - successfully combining classic and modern styles - and all in one outfit! To whom do we owe this golden ensemble? One hitherto unsung fashion talent: Isabel Toledo - a Garden State designer and entrepreneur who achieves both with flair.
Isabel Toledo splays the stage with color in her costumes for "Comedia" by Christopher Wheeldon. (photo by Bill Cooper.)
* Moving on Up. Born April 9, 1961 in Cuba, Isabel Toledo and her family eventually moved to West New York, New Jersey. The move would end up fulfilling this designer's destiny, as it was at Memorial High School that she met her future husband and collaborator Ruben. Ms. Toledo's love of fashion and design began at a young age, and after graduation, she moved to New York and enrolled at Parsons School of Design. Success seemed to follow the young designer, and by 1979 she dropped out of design school to pursue an internship with Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute at the Met.
Then, five years on, Toledo began two of the most important journeys in her life; she started her own line, which was quickly picked up by Henri Bendel and Patricia Field, and she married her longtime boyfriend, Ruben Toledo.
Together, Toledo and Toledo took the world by storm, with Isabel continuing her line and selling to iconic New York stores like Barneys, while Ruben mastered the media, designing for big brands such as Nordstrom, Tiffany and Co, and Estée Lauder. In fact, the couple also collaborate on jobs, working together to create costumes for Christopher Wheeldon's Commedia, originally performed by the Morphoses dance company in 2008, and scheduled for a repeat performance at the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in March of 2009.
* A Designer's Designer. Some rather envious entrepreneurs may now be heard to quietly mutter, "How can one woman be so successful if I only learned who she was on January 21st 2009?" The answer is simple. It is true that as far as the rest of the world is concerned, Toledo had a relatively low profile. As said earlier, she did sell to some of New York's biggest stores, but her lines, while popular, did not elevate "Isabel Toledo" to a household name. That is, unless your name happened to be Donna Karan, Karl Lagerfeld or Marc Jacobs. These are just some of the fashion greats who have championed the designer over the years.
Isobel Toledo fits form and grace to figure in "Comedia" by Christopher Wheeldon. (photo by Bill Cooper.)
In fact, Karan is reported to have lent the Cuban designer footwear for her early runway shoes. Celebrated for her individuality and creativity, what sets Toledo most apart is perhaps her focus and devotion to the technique and construction behind fashion. In a 1989 interview, she told the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology's Creative Director Valerie Steele, "I really love the technique of sewing more than anything else...the seamstress is the one who knows fashion from the inside! That's the art form really, not fashion design, but the technique of how it's done."
Dedication to the design is what also sets Toledo apart from so many others. Of course it is important to have a good base from which to work. Toledo has said that as she begins to construct her visions, she works closely with husband Ruben, who using his skill as an illustrator, can listen to his wife discuss the most minute of details and then transfer the description to paper.) But more than sketches, it is necessary to commit yourself wholly to your clothing, focusing on every aspect of a design from conception to finish. This dedication is evident in Toledo's work as she repeatedly turns out apparel that is both beautiful and yet completely individual, somehow managing to combine her playful thoughts on life and fashion with American popular culture.
As “Vogue” Editor Sally Singer said, "At the heart of her work is a love of American sportswear, but not sportswear in terms of separates that can be mixed and matched. It's sportswear in the sense that these are clothes that function." Clearly, the rest of the fashion world is in complete agreement with Ms. Singer. Over the course of her career, Isabel Toledo has received many accolades and awards, the most recent of which occurred in 2008, when she received the FIT Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion. In addition to the FIT award, Toledo was also the recipient of the Cooper-Hewitt Design Award (2005) and had an Otis Critic's Award named for her from the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.
"Keep your enthusiasm...never be surprised which style in a collection will become the most influential,” said Toledo to a collection of colleagues at the Los Angeles Pacific Design Center. Who knows, perhaps she foresaw that on January 20th 2009, one dress and matching coat would transform her into a designer, not only recognized by the fashion community, but by the nation at large. Her ingenuity and imagination enable the artist to turn out clothing that represents both a classic look, and through experimental draping and use of material, a totally new style. One thing is for certain, while we never know exactly what to expect from the Cuban designer, when it comes to Toledo, anything is possible. Biz4
Isabel and Ruben Toledo live in their dream penthouse in the Flatiron District. The subject of many exhibitions over the years, the latest will take place at the Museum at FIT. Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out, will open in June 16th, and is scheduled to run through September 26th 2009. For more information visit www.fitnyc.edu.