All photographs © 1989 by Dawn Derrick.
Isabel Toledo works in an immaculate white studio with large windows overlooking the peep shows and burlesque theaters of Times Square. In her fifth year of business, she works closely with her husband and business partner, Ruben Toledo. To the tropical rhythms of Latin music in this peaceful oasis, she produces her fanciful, eccentrically romantic clothes.
Elizabeth Cannon You presented your show three days ago. How do you feel?
Isabel Toledo Oh, rested. I didn’t sleep for two days before the show, getting everything prepared. Once it’s over, it’s the biggest relief. Everything is perfect. Even if it all went wrong, it was wonderful. I always feel great afterwards.
EC In your collection, there were a remarkable number of ideas presented in a relatively small collection of clothes. Was this consciously more ambitious than your other showings, other collections?
IT My thing is to express an emotion. Later on comes the business. I’d rather be respected for talent, for really trying to do something. I always have a lot of ideas. As a matter of fact, I don’t even think 50 percent of the things get out.
EC Do you get your ideas from sketching? How do the ideas come to you?
IT Actually, from my own needs: things that I want to see, things that I want to wear. And from technical patterns: shapes that I see flat, shapes that I want to incorporate into the body, to shape the body in a certain way. That’s why I work with the circle, because depending upon where you place it on the body, it drapes differently, it takes a different form. I like to work with patterns a lot—it’s almost a science to me.
EC It is a science. When you look at a flat pattern, can you visualize what it’s going to look like as a three-dimensional shape?
IT Oh yes. As a matter of fact, that is how I work, very three-dimensionally. I don’t work flat. These sketches are my husband Ruben’s. When I tell him what I want to see, he puts it down. We work very closely. I would say I’m more of a sculptress than I am a painter or an artist. I work, I mold the body, I look for a shape, as opposed to interpreting a line. My pieces usually don’t have two seams down the side. The seams curve and go around the body, as opposed to up and down. The circle’s been with me from the from the beginning. To me, it’s very feminine, very imposing, but very soft.
EC I’m intrigued by the fact that you can communicate your ideas to Ruben in such a way that he can sketch them.
IT Sometimes even before I speak. That’s how close we are. We’ve been married now five years, and we’ve known each other for over ten. He’s a very spiritual partner. We’re very close, it’s like one.
EC I find your clothes both modest and aggressive. You do a lot of covering of the body. Sometimes the only part of the body you can see are the ankles and the feet. And yet your clothes are not passive. The shapes…
IT …Are aggressive. To me it’s the attitude, the presence of a monk. They’re covered, but they’re there. It’s an aggressive shape. They take up room. I’m not very classically sexy—I don’t really undress the body. You know you have a good body; no one else has to know it. There’s a certain security in being able to wear a shape that hangs so faraway from the body. And yet, when a woman walks into a place in my clothes, she’s going to definitely be noticed, which means she has to be secure, because she takes up a lot of room. I love to take up a lot of room. And look at how small I am, maybe that’s it.
EC I do find the clothes have a certain sexiness to them, in that there’s so much left to the imagination. They’re mysterious.
IT It’s almost an Oriental attitude about sexiness. Not being obvious. In that way I’m very unlike Latin, which is very shape-oriented—showing the body. Even in the patterns, I always think that they’re more like kites, as opposed to Western garments that have the armhole. My clothes fold flat. I have those twists. The Western way of dressing imitates the body, as opposed to imitating another form of nature.
EC Speaking of the Oriental aspect, you had one short cocoon-shaped jacket, and it looked to me like there was no outlet at all for the arms. I was wondering how you envision that jacket in a practical sense. The arms would have to be folded inside.
IT Right. You could leave it open, of course, because it’s in the attitude of a stole. It’s not really a jacket: it has no sleeves, it has no opening. It’s short but even if you don’t see it, there’s a lot of room for the elbow. You just throw it on, as opposed to put it on. It’s funny that you saw it as restricting, it’s almost like throwing on a sweater.
EC I saw it as being very luxurious, in a way, because the woman wearing it wouldn’t be reaching into her pockets for a subway token.
IT I feel everything has a time. You have to be appropriate, that’s how to be the most fashionable. It’s not what you’re wearing, it’s how to be appropriate. Because clothing is just an extension of you. Certain garments shouldn’t be all fidgety, it just doesn’t look right—don’t wear it, put something else on. Put on a pair of jeans, if you’re comfortable that way.
EC Last fall, your collection used only denim and plaid, and created a whole collection out of just those two fabrics. Was that self-discipline?
IT That season, as a matter of fact, I was going through some troubles, and that’s the fabric I had. So that’s the the fabric that got out. I’d rather do something with what I have than not have a line. It’s like telling me not to speak. I have to put out my work—it’s a duty. I feel responsible for that.
EC Your show felt like time traveling. You use capes and hoods, very ancient garments. And yet they’re timeless. To me, some of your work had references to the early 15th, 16th Century—particularly the evening gowns. They were high-waisted, or they didn’t even really have a waist.
IT Well, they’re actually circles. I draped them from the shoulder lines. Everything under that was a circle.
EC And then they become very voluminous.
IT Layers, layers of net. I used over 150 yards in six garments. I want it to take flight, I want it to express almost smoke, air…and yet you’re wearing a lot of clothing, and it doesn’t weigh.
EC You mix the fabrics. Over these dresses you had woolen shawls, woolen wraps. Not a cashmere wool, it was…
IT Mohair. That was out of practicality. It’s for a winter night, over a net dress so you need something. I call it a sweater scarf. For the woman who doesn’t have that mink.
EC While those reminded me of the Middle Ages, other things looked really space age. You did these transparent bronze net…
IT It was actually a jersey, a brown jersey with a silver thread in it. Called flou-flou. It’s a French fabric.
EC Great. I love the word flou, it means out-of-focus.
IT (laughs) No wonder.
EC They were see-through, except you put stars right on the nipples.
IT Oh yes. I wanted to cover up. I tried. That was the purpose, that’s how practical I can be.
EC It was great the way they seemed to be in just the right place.
IT Well, it was tough, because we didn’t have the garment on before we placed them, I just more or less guessed where they would fall.
EC And then the silver leather was also very space age.
IT That was actually vinyl, an evening garment that you could wear in bad weather. I have a hard time when it’s raining out and I have to get a cab. So I figured, well, somebody else must.
EC Does a woman need to have a lot of self-confidence to wear your clothes?
IT Oh, God, not only for my own clothes, for her own life. Because it makes anything that you wear look wonderful. My clothes are like anybody else’s. If you’re confident, if you know what you’re about, nothing falls wrong—you always look great.
EC Do stores understand what you’re doing?
IT Believe it or not, I don’t deal with the stores. Ruben does that.
Ruben Toledo Answering your question, do people understand it? They don’t. The little success she’s had has been a complete mistake. They almost buy it, like, by mistake. What everyone’s favorite part is, believe it or not, is the denims.
IT It’s familiar.
EC True. even though the burnt yellow color is pretty unusual.
IT It ends up being inexpensive because it’s denim. And yet you’re getting a lot of clothing for it.
EC Is having a store something that interests you?
IT If I have a goal, it’s having a store. It’s like being able to have a lab, exposing people to the inventions that I’ve come up with.
EC Do you think that if you were in another country, say France, things would be different?
IT I would say so. Actually, we don’t sell in America. We sell in Japan, in France. Not in America. I find that Americans take creativity very well from foreigners, from the French. Not from the Americans. That’s not what they feel the American designer is here to do. We are supposed to put out the classics: the suit, the jacket.
EC You seem to use very deep and complicated colors. They’ re not light, bright and clear. Although you use accents, like the blues.
IT I happen to love color. It’s my way of painting through the use of color in the clothing.
EC Your clothes are really very expressive. They’re always in motion, they move a lot.
IT I would say the closest friend to my work is a writer, as opposed to a photographer. This is like poetry to me.
EC You try to get a spirit.
IT I sometimes even think that the audience picks an emotion that I’m putting out, as opposed to what I’m showing.
EC Back to the colors…
IT As far as colors, I am so influenced by nature, and in nature there’s no such thing as a wrong color. Every color plays a part. And depending on what color you’re putting it against, it works. It’s just a tonality. It’s not really the color itself.
EC Recently, I’ve been thinking that it’s almost impossible to look in the mirror and see yourself with any kind of objectivity, you know, the way other people see you. Do you have to sometimes help people with your clothes or do they just instinctively know what looks good on them?
IT No, a lot of people don’t know what looks good on them. Usually, the right garment is any garment, as long as you can make it work, because you picked it for a reason.
EC Men seem to often like different things than women.
RT Male customers buy for their wives more than women buy for themselves. Maybe women think too much about dressing for men, so they’re afraid to just be a beautiful vision for them.
IT My clothing ends up attracting men. It probably is the fact that the clothes are forceful, strong. Women are a bit afraid of it; the men go right to it. I find it very interesting.
EC Are you self-taught?
IT I would say yes, but when I was a little girl a babysitter taught me, actually, to sew. My mother sent us to a babysitter and told us it was lessons, sewing lessons. She tricked us into that. I went to school, I went to FIT, and also to Parsons. But I didn’t really finish. Just doing it, that’s the best way to learn.
EC Do you wear your own clothes? It sounds like you do.
IT Always. Unless I wear a pair of Levi’s. Always. Always since I was very young. I’ve made my own garments. It’s a love.
EC Now what are you doing in Japan? You have a special project?
IT It’s a special project for a dyeing company. They give us the fabric, and we do designs for them, and then they’ll have a show in Japan. It’s a company that’s been around for about a thousand years. The fabrics are very beautiful. A lot of kimono fabric.
EC So you’re designing a whole separate collection’?
IT Right. I have to do 20 pieces. Five American designers, all women, are doing this. So let’s see how that goes.
EC Oh, I love that indigo blue. It’s very close to denim color.
IT I’m going to combine some of the pieces with denim, because you’re allowed to use other fabrics.
EC And you can do absolutely anything you want. No restrictions.
IT Anything. And now that I know you’re a designer, you know exactly…
EC I know what you’re talking about.