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Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out

Special Exhibitions Gallery
June 17 – September 26, 2009
Online Exhibition

The Cuban-born fashion designer Isabel Toledo is often described as "a designer's designer." Although she is little known to the general public, her work is greatly admired by members of the fashion community. As the late fashion journalist Amy Spindler once wrote, "Only great designers can dispense with themes and theatrics and let the work speak instead. Ms. Toledo does just that, letting fashion itself be the theme."
Diamond Draped bodice dresses, finished and unfinished, fall 2005 White rayon jersey
Diamond Draped bodice dresses, finished and unfinished, fall 2005, white rayon jersey.
Blossom Sleeve bolero and Balloon dress, spring/summer 2005  Garnet silk paper taffeta, chiffon
Blossom Sleeve bolero and Balloon dress, spring/summer 2005, garnet silk paper taffeta, chiffon.
 Hermaphrodite dress,  circa 2005, garnet silk taffeta
 Hermaphrodite dress, circa 2005, garnet silk taffeta.
Isabel's focus on technique, her willingness to experiment, and her strong personal vision make her work stand out. But other aspects of her career—her early rise to fame and subsequent years of struggle, her brush with organized crime, and her rollercoaster ride at a big fashion company will be familiar to many in the modern fashion system.
Isabel works closely with her husband, the illustrator Ruben Toledo. As she begins to construct her visions, Isabel engages in intense discussions with Ruben, gesturing to show, for example, how the fabric should drape. "I think of it as fashion from the inside out," she explains. "I can describe an idea or even a feeling to Ruben, and he'll sketch it." Officially, Isabel is the fashion designer, or as she says, "the seamstress," and Ruben is the artist/illustrator, but the reality is much more complicated. "We're so meshed, it's impossible to separate what we do," says Ruben.
Double Tier Pagoda dress and  jacket; fall/winter 1996-97, blue and white brocaded cotton and silk
Double Tier Pagoda dress and jacket, fall/winter 1996-97, blue and white brocaded cotton and silk.
Half Moons Blossom into a Cornflower dress, fall/winter1998, black rayon jersey
Half Moons Blossom into a Cornflower dress, fall/winter1998, black rayon jersey.
Armadillo Sleeve shirtwaist dress, fall/winter 2008, black pleated silk taffeta
Armadillo Sleeve shirtwaist dress, fall/winter 2008, black pleated silk taffeta.
Isabel Toledo told Dr. Valerie Steele in a 1989 interview, "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." Isabel has said that she doesn't "want to be radical," and she insists that "weird is not smart." But her clothes are undeniably different. None of them have traditional construction. Her patterns, silhouettes, use of materials, and methods of draping are all highly experimental.
In 2008, Isabel received the FIT Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion. Her work exemplifies the highest standards of creativity and craftsmanship. "Isabel Toledo is proof that an American designer can do conceptual work of international significance, yet with the kind of humor and pragmatic cheekiness that is distinctively American," says Vogue editor, Sally Singer. "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."
Apron dress, spring/summer 1997, purple, azure blue ombre silk chiffon
Apron dress, spring/summer 1997, purple, azure blue ombre silk chiffon.
Cigar Rolled Gowns, fall/winter 2007-08, emerald green and beige silk jersey
Cigar Rolled gowns, fall/winter 2007-08, emerald green and beige silk jersey
Left: Waterfall dress and matching jacket, spring/summer 2007, lilac, assorted pinks, cranberry, and nude silk tulle. Right: Waterfall dress, spring/summer 2007, nude silk tulle
Left: Waterfall dress and matching jacket, spring/summer 2007, lilac, assorted pinks, cranberry, and nude silk tulle. Right: Waterfall dress, spring/summer 2007, nude silk tulle.
Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out was organized by Dr. Valerie Steele, Director of The Museum at FIT; Patricia Mears, Deputy Director of The Museum at FIT; and Ruben and Isabel Toledo. Support for this exhibition was provided by the Couture Council of the Museum at FIT. Additional support was provided by Nordstrom.
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