Isabel Toledo 1960 – 2019

Isabel Toledo in 2009, at her retrospective exhibition at F.I.T.

Isabel Toledo died Monday from breast cancer at the age of 59. Born Maria Isabel Izquierdo on April 9, 1960 in Camajuani, Cuba, Isabel immigrated to New Jersey in 1968. She met her future Cuban-born husband, Ruben Toledo, in high school when she was 14 and he 13. The artistically-talented Ruben became her collaborative partner in love and business when they married in 1984.

Isabel attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.) and later, the Parsons School of Design, but left in 1979 before graduating to intern for Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Toledo presented her first independent collection in 1984 at the club Danceteria, and debuted her work at New York Fashion Week the following year. She quickly built a reputation as a “designer’s designer”, in the same vein as Charles James and Iris van Herpen. The Toledos received the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for their work in fashion in 2005.

Isabel’s couture work, which ignored semi-annual seasonal collection schedules, was more often featured in museum exhibitions than in fashion magazines. Her more commercial work appeared while she was the creative director for Anne Klein in 2006/07 and in collections she began designing for Lane Bryant in 2014.

Although well known in the fashion world, Toledo came to the world’s attention when she unknowingly created Michelle Obama’s lemongrass-coloured sheath dress and matching overcoat of wool lace for the 2009 inauguration. Mrs. Obama had bought the dress from the Chicago boutique Ikram without meeting Isabel Toledo before wearing the ensemble. Later that same year, F.I.T. staged a retrospective of her work which I was fortunate enough to see. I blogged about my impressions of the show on July 29, 2009:

“Cuban-born Toledo is difficult to define. Her work shows a lot of Spanish influence, superb detailing, intricate pattern cuts, old fashioned fabrics, and a great deal of influence from designers such as Balenciaga, Gernreich, and especially Madame Gres. Each collection grows in a different direction, sometimes bordering the ridiculous such as a brassiere designed for drag queens and her ‘pubic hair’ bikini (a ‘hairy’ fabric bikini but don’t worry, no pubic hairs were actually involved in its manufacture) to Avant-garde designs of asymmetrically draped and gathered dresses with odd folds and peekaboo seams – hardly the same style of dressmaking as Mrs. Obama’s elegantly simple inaugural suit!”

In 2012 she published her autobiography, “Roots of Style: Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion”, with illustrations by Rubin Toledo. That same year she told CNN in an interview “I’m not supposed to say I’m not a fashion person, but I’m not. I just, I love design… design is so different than fashion. That’s why design lasts forever. It’s like an engineer. I love to engineer a garment.” 

The New York Times did a lovely memoir of her life and work in an end of year tribute.

Three Days of the Condo: A Fashion Odyssey in New York

(Originally blogged July 29, 2009)

For several years now we have been enjoying mini holidays to New York when our Manhattan friends ask us to cat sit and look after their condo while they go out of town, and this past weekend was our latest journey to the Big Apple.

As soon as we arrived on Friday, we headed to the Forbes Galleries. We had missed the chance to see the Faberge eggs while they were still owned by the Forbes Foundation (they have since been repatriated to Russia and apparently Malcolm Forbes never really liked them anyway — they were bought for publicity and investment reasons.) It is a charming boutique museum that showcases Forbes’ personal collections of tin and lead soldiers, model boats, early Monopoly boards, and trophies and mementos. Alongside the permanent collections are galleries with changing exhibitions that include a display of purses entitled Pocketbook Anthology. This temporary exhibition displays handbags made from materials ranging from glass beads and precious metals to duct tape and cigarette packages. The Forbes galleries are free and the variety of its exhibitions should mean there is something appealing for everyone. We also met the nicest and most helpful security guard in all of New York at the Forbes.

‘Hermaphrodite’ dress, Isabel Toledo

‘Caterpillar’ dress, Isabel Toledo

The worst security guard award might go to our next destination – The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). This museum is a New York gem but first you have to find it, and a lack of signage and arrogant modern architecture make it difficult to locate. The snarling Cerberus guards treat you like a problem from the moment you arrive – especially if you walk towards the washroom, across the cavernous lobby without asking their permission. The three or four guards on duty have walkie talkies that are always on full volume, over which are constant ‘roger, roger, over and out’ messages that break the deafening silence within the galleries.

In the basement galleries (accessed through what look like fire escape double doors) is the feature exhibition – a retrospective of the designs of Isabel Toledo. Admittedly I knew little of Toledo until Mrs. Obama wore her green wool lace dress on inauguration day. In fact, that very garment is on loan from the White House for the duration of the exhibition. Cuban-born Toledo is difficult to define. Her work shows a lot of Spanish influence, superb detailing, intricate pattern cuts, old fashioned fabrics, and a great deal of influence from designers such as Balenciaga, Gernreich, and especially Madame Gres. Each collection grows in a different direction, sometimes bordering the ridiculous such as a brassiere designed for drag queens and her ‘pubic hair’ bikini (a ‘hairy’ fabric bikini with a vulgar name but don’t worry, no pubic hairs were actually involved in its manufacture) to Avant-garde designs of asymmetrically draped and gathered dresses with odd folds and peekaboo seams – hardly the same style of dressmaking as Mrs. Obama’s elegantly simple inaugural suit! Because of this, each of Toledo’s genres need to be looked at independently.

The upstairs gallery at FIT was a fashion timeline with the theme of Fashion and Politics. There are great garments to look at, but overall the theme falls down because the collection can’t support an even presentation of fashions influenced by politics. The collection looks to youth movements, reform movements, influences of war, patriotism and other themes to complete the timeline. However, regardless of whether the theme works or not, the clothes on display are wonderful.

Dorian Leigh wearing hat by Paulette, Paris, 1949

Saturday began with a visit to the International Centre of Photography to see the Avedon photographic retrospective. Avedon’s photography career began as soon as he was demobilized in 1945 and within five years his name was synonymous with high fashion. As a surprise, a small exhibition of photographs by David Seidner, taken during the restoration and remounting of the 1945 Theatre de la Mode dolls in 1990, was on display in the cafe, including one of the dolls in its original Lelong blue and white silk dress. This was a treat for me as I have never seen one of the dolls in real life until now and they are quite large – just over two feet tall!

Lucien Lelong Theatre de la Mode doll, 1945

After an overpriced and underwhelming lunch from ‘wichcraft in Bryant Park (sorry Tom Colichio), we went to the Central Library for an exhibition on Literary Paris under Nazi Occupation. It was overwhelming with far too much text and not enough interesting artifacts or images but in all fairness, it was put together by a library and reading is what they do… To continue with the wartime theme, we saw ‘A Woman in Berlin’ at the Angelika Film Centre that evening. The film is about the Soviet occupation of Berlin at the end of the war and one woman’s struggle to maintain her dignity. It is an important film for the subject matter, and will certainly take its place alongside other films that tell the stories of World War II like Downfall, The Pianist, and Hope and Glory.

The last day in New York began with the Guggenheim museum – I know, it’s not a fashion museum but we saw it a few years ago looking a little shabby with an exhibition that didn’t really appeal, so we decided to give it a second chance and I am glad we did. The building has been fully restored, and to celebrate its 50th anniversary an exhibition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural drawings filled the spiral hallway from top to bottom. The highlight was the one artwork on display – the curtains Wright designed in 1955 for his Wisconsin theatre; these are huge and use a abstract of green and red appliques on a natural linen ground with black lines – reminiscent of a Prairie style stained glass lampshade he might have designed fifty years earlier.

However, the highlight of the visit was a painting exhibition celebrating the original collection of non-objective art made by the curator of the Guggenheim collection in the 1950s, James Sweeney. I don’t think I have ever been in a 1950s museum filled only with 1950s artwork. When all the walls are covered with canvasses, they talk to each other. All you had to do to slip back into 1959 was imagine the T-shirt clad visitors in cocktail dresses and tuxedos, eating smoked oysters and drinking Manhattans.

We often go to the Neue Gallerie and although their current exhibition didn’t appeal we still wanted to go to their cafe Sabarsky for lunch. Although the quality of food at an art gallery is usually the same as the quality of art in a restaurant, this doesn’t hold true for the Cafe Sabarsky which offers a wonderful array of Austrian desserts. While we were talking in our booth waiting for our salads, a tall, slim woman wearing a smart black pantsuit and brown and white polka-dot scarf tied about her neck, was seated at the booth next to us. It was Diane Keaton! Kenn, who faced away from her towards the other patrons in the restaurant, said it was distracting to see people constantly glancing over. I actually felt a bit sorry for her because she, like all famous people, must live her life constantly aware of being watched. I did notice how she mastered the use of the cell phone as a means to deflect attention — with a phone in hand she could look around the restaurant and not have to acknowledge eye contact with other patrons.

Charles James Dresses, late 1940s

The final museum on our agenda was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Annoyingly, this museum was overcrowded on the day of our visit. It was difficult to see anything for people sticking their cameras in front of you with a sort of ‘photograph everything now so we can go home and admire the art later’ approach to museum visitation. Our destination was the exhibition Model as Muse. The exhibition begins in the late 1940s and quickly skips across the 1950s, recreating a couple of famous fashion photographs. Hallways between each section were at a shuffle’s pace and by the time I got into the 1960s, I had stopped reading the text out of frustration. The 1960s are shown with lighting effects that create the impression of a night club, and the couture is shown up high, suggesting gogo girls, some on twirling pedestals. Oddly, there are iconic gowns shown in this exhibition that were photographed at the time on famous models like Twiggy and Penelope Tree, but these images are not shown in conjunction with the dresses. Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines are displayed but at pages irrelevant to the garments shown on mannequins.

Giorgio Sant Angelo evening dresses, early 1990s

The entire 1970s are represented by Halston and Yves St. Laurent dresses shown in a recreated corner of Studio 54 and the entire 1980s are missing… The 1990s and 2000s are shown in department store-like window scenes with silly display techniques, overwrought backgrounds, and Tim Burton hairstyles. The exhibition has little to do with models as muses – it’s really about the history of the supermodel, and even then, there are missing gaps of information. I have seen fabulous exhibitions at the Met, like Poiret, and good exhibitions, like Chanel and Dangerous Liasons, but this exhibition just looks like it cost a lot of money, exhibits far too much new stuff, and was designed specifically for the red carpet party opening. The Met might have the best costume collection in the world (now that it has acquired the Brooklyn Museum’s collection) and I hope we see it soon because this exhibition was very disappointing…

The balance of our trip was spent eating, shopping and of course, walking everywhere, but that’s New York!