Wednesday, Sep. 09, 2009

Isabel Toledo: Hands-On Visionary

Written on the wall at the entrance to the exhibit "Fashion from the Inside Out," a midcareer retrospective of Isabel Toledo's work at New York City's Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, is a quote from the designer: "I never thought of myself as a designer. I'm a seamstress."

It's a challenging concept when you consider that Toledo, 48, is regarded as one of New York City's most creative designers, recognized as much for her technique and vision as for her independence from the fashion system.

"That quote has always haunted me!" Toledo says with a laugh, remembering that she was just 23 when she uttered it. But Toledo, who collaborates with her illustrator husband Ruben in a luminous 10th-floor studio in midtown Manhattan, still considers craftsmanship and working with her hands to be the heart of her aesthetic and the essence of luxury.

"Craft takes time, and therefore it is luxury," she says. "You cannot do an amazingly well-made garment without taking time — not just the time it takes to make something but also the time it took the maker to come up with the idea. That is all luxury, and that has been lost because we're trying to make things faster and faster, cheaper and cheaper. The consumer tends to lose track of what luxury is." Her answer to the conundrum is home-sewing. "That will bring back the love of craft and the knowledge of good quality and luxury," she says.

Born in Cuba and raised in West New York, N.J., Toledo has made her mark on the fashion industry with ingenious patternmaking and innovative fabric development. Her love of design comes from her penchant for problem-solving. "I'm constantly looking at things and trying to figure out how to solve them or how to get from A to B," she says. "I will always be looking at things that way — even when I walk down the street, I think, What's the fastest way to get there, what pattern? It drives Ruben crazy!"

Toledo attributes many of her technical advances to a fascination with machines. "That's my thing," she says. "Machines are where I get a lot of the inspiration." Many of her fabric innovations have evolved from her search for old machines in little shops along Seventh Avenue. One such discovery many years ago led to her ingenious use of matte jersey for day dresses, an idea that is common now. The themes running through the FIT retrospective, including origami, suspension, shadow and shape — all concepts that continue to inspire Toledo — illustrate the designer's preference for pure technique as opposed to trends.

When she first started out in 1985, Toledo took the traditional route of showing her clothes at biannual runway presentations. But since 1998, she has stopped holding fashion shows and instead sells her designs to stores like Barneys, Nordstrom and Ikram on her own schedule.

Although Toledo has worked in fashion for 25 years, global recognition finally came her way when Michelle Obama wore Toledo's now famous lemongrass etch-lace ensemble to her husband's historic swearing-in ceremony. The dress, which will be part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian in Washington, is the perfect example of the emotions and technique that inspire Toledo's work: "I wanted to create something that had depth," she says.