As part of SCAD Lacoste’s 20th anniversary celebrations, the school’s museum is putting on the first posthumous exhibition of Isabel Toledo’s work. “Love Letter” highlights the collaboration between the late designer–best known for creating Michelle Obama’s Inauguration ensemble–and her artist husband Ruben. Isabel, explains curator Christina Frank, encouraged Ruben, who worked extensively in black and white, to add color to his repertoire, and the exhibition represents those two spectra. Most of the pieces on exhibition are from the 2000s, an era that is being deeply mined at the present. Here, Ruben Toledo talks to us about his and Isabel’s connection to France, and what defines American fashion.
The title of the show is rather poignant.
It’s really still painful for me to even think about a future without Isabel, but I want to honor her work, and I love that SCAD is honoring her work. The sharing of her design ideas and her philosophy are important to me; that’s my mission now. I’m still mourning Isabel and I’m mourning the couple [that we were], the Toledos. That couple [is gone], so I’m their custodian. I’m here to work and make sure their archives and their body of work remain pertinent and important and shared with the next generation.
What aspects of that work do you think is most highlighted in this show?
I think [the curators] picked pieces that illustrated how [Isabel’s] engineering and her smartness in construction is always super evident, how smart her clothes are made and designed, and structured to ‘set it and forget it.’ They’re so perfectly made, you don’t have to think about them anymore; you can almost wear them inside out, front to back, and they work.
Isabel always said she dressed emotion. The way Isabel really expressed emotions in cloth and in how things were made. If something was delicate or strong or aggressive or fragile, she liked addressing everyone’s emotions. It allowed women to keep expressing themselves and [did the same for] herself. So I think that is the highlight. And the idea that we’re using Isabel’s quotes and some of my writings about Isabel; there are personal notebooks and sketchbooks involved. We wanted to touch on how fashion, at its height, and good design is more than just engineering, it’s also emotion, and it’s also personal relationships. It feeds the heart as well as the mind.[Fashion] has to live in the world and it has to serve you. I think the fact that we worked with costumes early on, whether it was our performer friends, like Klaus Nomi, or with choreographers, like Twyla Tharp or Bill T. Jones, we understood the difference between costume and real clothes. Sometimes costumes could be stunning, but it’s a costume, it’s a facade, but so much can be learned from a facade that you can then interpret for real life. [But fashion] must function, Isabel was very conscious of that. It has to live in your closet and you have to want to wear it often. Isabel [also knew how to rise to] those special occasion moments where, yeah, you’re going to wear this [look] and you want to look stunning, and you’re not going to sit down; she understood that too.
Something I’ve been thinking a lot about is the dressmaking tradition in Latin America and in Spain. It seems like a more collaborative process than couture.
Isabel considered herself always a seamstress first, then a designer. She always said, ’I’m a seamstress.’ And I remember her telling that to Karl [Lagerfeld] and Karl was like, ‘You’re more than a seamstress, you’re a couturiere!’ But her idea was that she was of service, of service to herself and of service to women and clients. There is a collaboration between the person who’s going to wear it and you, but ultimately the seamstress, or the couturiere, is of service. But I guess in our minds, since we’re artists, it’s taken for granted that we have a vision, it’s taken for granted that we have an ideal in mind. Even if your client says, ‘I just want something really simple that I can sit down in for hours,’ you’re still going to give her that other thing she doesn’t know she wants, which is your vision. That’s where the poetry comes in.
I find a lot of poetry in Isabel’s patterns.
Part of the exhibition is my ink work based on Isabel’s patterns because her patterns blow my mind, still. When I look at the pattern pieces…they’re these graphic symbols. Sometimes they resemble bugs, sometimes they resemble personages, or Afro-Cuban saints—they’re so powerful. The fact that Isabel thought about her clothes as these graphic shapes that then become these fluid ethereal, elegant things that follow your body—that always blew my mind. So I do honor her art of pattern making and the shapes. And that’s why Karl called her a couturiere, because she could make the pattern, she knew how to cut the dress, and then she knew how to sew it exclusively, that’s a complete cycle. When Isabel was making clothes, she thought they would last forever, and that they should last forever. Many of our clients would send us their clothes back if they needed repairing or reworking; that was part of Isabel’s service. Whatever we made in our studio was meant to last forever, in her mind outlive us, and that’s a beautiful way to think about what one makes.
And how does what Isabel do relate to couture?
We had incredible friends like Bill [Cunningham], and Juan Ramos and Antonio Lopez [creative director and illustrator], who taught us a lot about couture and fashion. When Juan saw Isabel’s clothes, he said, ‘Your clothes are like what old-fashioned couture was like…. What you see now in couture, that wasn’t the way it was when we first went to Paris, you went to a couture show and you were seeing these exquisite nothing clothes; it was just a woman in a beautiful dress, and you didn’t understand why she’s so beautiful, what was so special about that dress.’ He said, ‘because it was all the secrets that were inside. It wasn’t about announcing to the world that this was such-and-such brand. It wasn’t branding, it was a dress made for that woman to feel exquisite and it moved effortlessly and she looked incredible. When you took it in your hands, there were all the secrets…the pocket hidden in the seam, and the way she slouched in it was because of that construction or the way the balance of the dress was shifting this way. All those magic tricks are what Isabel fell in love with, and that’s what she was doing already, and Juan saw that in the simpleness of what she was doing back then. That [helped us keep our focus] because up until then, believe it or not, our well-meaning friends were like, ‘You have to do snappier clothes, you have to do things that stand out more.’ But Isabel was such a quiet talent. Her natural inclination was to make something secretly and mysteriously brilliant; like you don’t know why, but it just captivates. That’s the kind of person she was; she was a captivator without a spotlight, and she liked it that way.
What’s your relationship with France?
We started to show in the late ’80s in Paris to try to make some business, because New York business got really bad in ’87, ’88. Of course, when business got bad in New York, the young designers were the first to get cut from the budget. This was like a Little Rascals production, we were sewing right up to the night before in a little hotel room. Bill Cunningham is the one who turned us on to where to stay cheaply. Suzanne Bartsch was next door because she came over for Love Ball with that whole crew. You can imagine, it was a hotel of misfits.
The first years it was this crazy, beautiful, almost a dorm of fashion. I remember RuPaul was part of that crew before he had his TV show. And we were showing in small cafes, or little dungeons below restaurants, wine cellars. Of course our shows were teeny-weeny and there were also very few people in the audience, but they were really incredible people like our friend Bettina Graziani, who was the muse of Givenchy. Then we started to sell to Colette and Galeries Lafayette.
We had never been to Europe until we started to do this, so that opened a whole new way of experiencing how the French viewed fashion, and it’s really seen as a culture and as an art. It was a great fusion and that really opened the door intellectually to us at how people could perceive fashion and how you could take that leap into presenting it as almost pure art.
How were you received in Paris?
A lot of [the French] would say, ‘You’re not an American designer, you’re a Spanish designer.’ They kind of could not understand that she was coming from America, but Isabel had such an appreciation of industry. She loved sewing machines, she loved mass production, and she loved the idea of patterns that are so smart, like puzzle pieces, that you can’t go wrong, whether you make them in lace or denim or leather or simple canvas.
What is American about Isabel’s work?
I always go back to that word serviceability. Me and Isabel had a very big appreciation for army surplus and work clothes and the utility of things; layer it over with poetic fantasy, [and] that’s a whole new other territory. I think the American casualness, of sloppiness and the allowing of mistakes, and chaos as part of the given is always a fresh air. Because we get everything wrong, therefore we invent the new, because it’s wrong. And we’re open to that and that always creates something new, that friction is always new. I think the American way of dealing with life…there’s something aspirational. Even when you’re down in the dumps there’s this idea that you can tap dance your way into the future, like Hollywood wants you to do. We always put on a better, a brighter face. We don’t have much history because we’re busy inventing it, and that’s a beautiful way to look at life, you don’t let the past drag you down, you have to make the new chapter happen. And I think American fashion and design always has this kind of optimism to it that anything can happen.
Isabel’s clothes are timeless and timely at the same time. Many of the pieces in the show are from the 2000s, how do they reflect that period?
Why that period is interesting is because we were finally achieving some kind of financial stability. It took all that time, [to get] where we could work with beautiful textiles that were of a much higher level than we had ever been able to afford before. And I think American society was making more money and spending more money on clothing at that time leading up to the Michelle Obama moment, to tell you the truth. It was like this uphill climb, every season, things were getting more and more lush, and clients expected more and more beautiful treatments. So it was a license to spend more time making things really exquisite more than ever before. Isabel always put in that kind of interest, even if it was a T-shirt dress…. But the idea that now we were using luxurious textiles and layering laces. Isabel would work on the corsetry on the inside of something just as exquisitely as she would the dress that it was going to get built onto it, she was able to put that much lush care and energy and time and, of course, expense into making something because there was a clientele for it.
What else do you want visitors to take away from “Love Letter”?
For me what’s important is sharing the fact that Isabel was such a fearless creator and very conscious that she was of service. She was such a brave woman in every aspect; brave about her talent, brave about how she approached the world, and for that reason, this empowerment that she gave women was an extension of herself. I love that about her. It empowered me to watch her be that way, and to see her growth too, in, the fashion world and in the world period, that was a beautiful thing. I want the SCAD students and any visitor to feel that, that empowerment and that nurturingness happens when things are created in love and with love. It really is a ripple effect that it comes up to the audience. Your audience feels that, and she was conscious of that. She really was.