Some designers think in color; others think in story; still others think about the customer. But Isabel Toledo is one of those rare designers who thinks in fabric. Toledo's almost 30-year career has spanned far and wide, from her own independent label and a stint at Ann Klein in the 90s to, most recently of course, designing Michelle Obama's inauguration dress.
The exhibit is brilliantly curated by the inimitable Valerie Steele and Patricia Mears. (Dr. Steele is the foremost fashion historian. I'm kind of obsessed with her.) They know what the museum goer wants to see: Mrs. Obama's dress. It's smack in the center of the first room you walk into, along with a timeline of Ms. Toledo's career and an exhibit case featuring some of the designer's sketchbooks. The main exhibition room is arranged into several sections, each highlighting a hallmark of Toledo's style: Origami; Suspension; Liquid Architecture; Shadow; Manipulated Surfaces; and Organic Geometry.
First things first: The Dress. When I first entered the museum, I thought to myself, "Eh, I won't get too excited about it. EventhoughmymostfavoritepersonintheworldtodayohmyGod wore it to the inauguration, I didn't like it on her all that much." I entered the gallery. I saw it. And started grinning like a fool. The dress looks much better in person (though I still maintain that it looks better on the mannequin than it did on her), and the design is deceptively simple. It serves as a prelude to the inventiveness that is to come.
Toledo is a skilled seamstress and, as mentioned above, the exhibit focuses on her craftsmanship. But what I noticed was her willingness to play with gender. Included in the exhibit are plenty of sheer lace dresses, a "Pubic Hair" bikini (it has to be seen to be believed), a creature made of ropes and pulleys known as the "Hermaphrodite Dress," and something known as a "Man Bra." No flat-chested woman could ever pull it off. Toledo also seems drawn to certain shapes, most notably kimonos, doublets, and their military counterparts. Perhaps it's because of the strong geometric features that define those clothes, or perhaps it comes from a deeper desire to create clothing that will encircle and protect the wearer.
Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out cements Toledo's reputation as a conceptual designer. The museum helpfully provides simple flat patterns to some of the more miraculous pieces, but good luck trying to figure them out. Isabel Toledo is a genius and we are lucky to have such a talented and intelligent American designer.
Can't make it to New York to see the real thing? Check out the virtual exhibit.
All images taken from the virtual exhibit. Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out will be at The Museum at FIT until September 26, 2009. The Museum at FIT is located at 27th Street and 7th Ave, Tues-Fri Noon- 8PM, Saturday 10AM- 5 PM. Closed Sundays, Mondays, and legal holidays. Free admission.