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Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out

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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."

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.

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."

This exhibition 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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