Often called “ the designer’s designer,” Cuban-born Isabel Toledo was little known outside fashion’s inner sanctum until First Lady Michelle Obama selected her shift dress and coat for the January Inauguration Ceremony. Last week in NYC, I visited The Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) for an exhibition of Isabel’s work.
Entitled “Fashion from the Inside Out,” it showcases her designs over the last 20 years. Isabel is a minimalist – rarely using ornamentation to enhance her designs – and her signature is the ability to manipulate fabric to form garments. The expression “liquid architecture” has been coined to describe her jersey dresses. The Cornflower Dress (right) is a perfect example, with its ingeniously draped series of arcs. Beautiful, indeed, though I’m not certain how to wear it!
Over the years, I have enthusiastically watched Isabel’s evolution. That is, until her wool lace, lemongrass-coloured shift dress and coat made their debut on the First Lady’s January walk. The Queen Mother immediately came to mind – in a word, dowdy. Where was the young, spirited fashion-minded Michelle? Where was the unique creative edge synonymous with Isabel’s name?
And then, there I was at the end of the exhibition with this famous ensemble. FIT includes the outfit as part of Isabel’s Origami Series – inspired by the Japanese art of paper folding. Paper? Paper is stiff and crisp. The fabric was exquisite wool lace from Switzerland’s prestigious Forster Rohner and should have been finished using haute couture techniques – especially since Isabel, distaining the appellation artist, always reminds people she is a “seamstress first.”
Instead of conspicuous side seams, sewn by machine, the lace should have been overlapped and invisibly joined with hand stitching to create a seamless appearance. When I studied Haute Couture at the Académie des Hauts Couturiers Canadiens, I learned to handle expensive lace. This satin dress (below right) is covered with heavy cotton French lace and you can see how I joined the lace at the side seams. Compare this finish to Isabel’s ensemble for the First Lady. The rich, luxurious Swiss wool lace did not get the attention it deserved –what a shame.
And another thing, Inauguration Day was windy. We seemed to see the First Lady constantly fiddling with her flapping coat. Were there no hooks? I thought the President looked more elegantly at ease in his understated overcoat.
How do you rate the First Lady’s fashion choices and Isabel’s designs? Who’s your favourite designer? Please let me know your thoughts.
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