Cuban designer working in New York
Born: Cuba, 9 April 1961. Education: Studied painting and ceramics, then fashion design, at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design, New York. Family: Married Ruben
Toledo/Toledo: A Marriage of Art and Fashion, with Ruben Toledo, New York, 1999.
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The United States is better known for the mass production of clothing than for nourishing avant-garde talent. Isabel Toledo was one of the few cutting-edge designers working in New York, and financial success has been a long time coming. When she began designing professionally in 1986, Toledo was immediately recognized as a powerful talent; her clothes were featured in magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and sold in prestigious stores like Bendel's of New York. Since then, however, she has had legal difficulties with financial backers, as well as problems with American retail store executives.
Toledo did not sell a single piece of clothing at retail in the U.S. for three years in the early 1990s. She and her husband, artist Ruben Toledo, told Women's Wear Daily that they just could not afford to take orders from stores that refused to provide half payment up front. Meanwhile, store buyers worried that her line was too "experimental" for the American market. She survived on the business from sales in Japan and Paris. "It makes sense for us to sell to Japanese and European accounts because when they give you an order, they give you the money," she said. She also had the patronage of about 60 devoted private clients, who were attracted by what she calls her penchant for "practicality disguised as fantasy."
Through it all, Toledo was a cult figure among fashion enthusiasts. Her fellow designers admired her tremendously; Todd Oldham called her "one of America's greatest resources." Both Marc Jacobs and Christian Francis Roth have praised her "incredible" talent and urged retailers to advance her money. Journalists, too, agreed: "Best overall collection for our money was Isabel Toledo, who ignored the market and concentrated on a well-edited, very weird, internal vision," raved a reporter for the Village Voice. Toledo is a "great designer…traveling on that new American highway of fashion," argued Kim Hastreiter of Paper. She had finally begun to achieve the financial recognition she deserved in the middle and late 1990s, and her clothes were available in Barneys New York (Manhattan, Chicago, and Beverly Hills).
Toledo designs clothes that are structured, even architectural, and sometimes (as she says) "rather severe—a lot of black and strong shapes." She has always started with a shape, usually a circle or a curved line: a circle skirt, a curved bra, a flared apron overskirt, the sweeping arc of a coat. "I'm not a fashion designer," insists Toledo. "I'm a seamstress. I really love the technique of sewing more than anything else." She believes it is crucial to know fashion from the inside: through cutting, draping, pattern making, and sewing. Among the designers she admires are women like Madeleine Vionnet and Madame Grés, who also worked in three dimensions rather than from a flat sketch. Toledo sees definite advantages in being a woman designer, because they "experience" the way the clothing feels. Men, she believes, tend to be more "decorators of clothing."
Like Claire McCardell, creator in the 1940s of the "American look," the Cuban-born Toledo has used classic materials such as denim and cotton flannel plaid in a modern way. Although inventive tailoring is characteristic of her work, her clothes are not for "an office type of person," she admits, but for someone like herself—artistic and feminine. There is also a futuristic element in her work, which she sees as being related to her experiences as an immigrant to a new country. Unlike many designers, Toledo has never been interested in recycling styles from the past, preferring to experiment with the basic materials of her art and to explore the future of fashion.
Toledo's work has remained critically acclaimed—especially by avant-garde fashion publications such as Paper and Visionaire —but not readily adapted by the bulk of fashion consumers. Despite this lack of mass appeal, Toledo has managed to maintain a successful business by selling to an upscale clientéle embracing her nontrend-dependent creations. From her Zigzag Dress and Jellyfish Blouse to her Gym Teacher, Kangaroo, and twisting Caterpillar Dresses, Toledo's
Toledo stopped showing her collections in traditional seasonal runway shows in 1988. She believed designers rushed to get ready for such shows, ending up with unfinished pieces. She prefers to let her designs develop in their own time. In addition, to be noticed at runway shows, a designer must be "loud"—Toledo believes designs should develop organically rather than being created to attract attention. Her business even improved after she stopped showing, which she attributed to the fact that her designs were fully formed by the time they were seen by her customers. In the late 1990s, however, Toledo began to show again.
In 1998 Toledo—still without a corporate backer—opened her first store, called the Lab, in New York near Madison Square Garden. The shop featured children's clothing, menswear, home furnishings, and the womenswear for which she is known. The Toledos felt the location, atypically located on the fifth rather than ground floor and far away from other designer shops, suited Toledo well by allowing her customers privacy and by reflecting her lack of interest in following trends. The designer's latest efforts were roundly praised, by the New York Times, which had already labeled her a fashion original in 1997—"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, and the theatrics come from the improbable cuts, drapes and drawstrings that hike dresses here and there."
Toledo and her Lab shop continued to gain exposure and accolades from the fashion press. In March 1998 Women's Wear Daily commented that Toledo showed "artsy, sometimes silly pieces…[but] when she does make sense, she makes beautiful clothes." Kim Hastreiter, writing for Paper in the fall of 1998, captured the essence of Toledo's career when she noted, "Isabel Toledo is without a doubt one of America's most talented designers. Her work is so far removed from mass marketing, unfortunately, it seems she may only become recognized in museums and art books." For Toledo, however, the ambiguities of fame and widespread recognition recall a battle she won long ago.
updated by Karen Raugust
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