Only time can define greatness, but that didn’t deter a battalion of speakers from taking a shot at it in The Great Designers Symposium Friday and Saturday at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

This story first appeared in the March 18, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In her opening remarks, Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at FIT, which organized the event, noted how across disciplines it is more difficult to determine what constitutes greatness for current designers. While Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior met her approval, designers today are dealing with a more individualistic audience, Steele said, “No single designer can have the international impact Christian Dior had in 1947.”

To start the two-day symposium, Steele sat down with Isabel Toledo to discuss her approach to design. As a child in Cuba, Toledo said she often played beneath her grandmother’s sewing machine, fascinated by what it could make. Having sewn since she was a child, Toledo said she likes to feel the tension in the fabric, often draping from the bottom up, and those practices have enhanced her tactile approach to fashion. “The one thing I love is to hand sew things,” Toledo said.

Sketching is something she does not do, but her husband Ruben “has a great ability” to do so based on her explanations.

Asked about designing for Anne Klein, which ended abruptly last year, Toledo harbors no hard feelings and said she was thankful to have had the chance to speak to a much larger audience. She also wanted to keep the integrity of her designs even though she was addressing a mass audience. Toledo removed her jacket, to show off the square-shaped detail on the Anne Klein turtleneck she was wearing.

Toledo said she was a fan of the company’s namesake, who “stood for the individual woman, was gutsy and believed in what she was doing.” Klein made a name for herself even though she only designed her signature collection for five years before dying of cancer, she said.

On her own, Toledo said she has a constant dialogue with herself and is not swayed by the media or what other people are doing. “I try to interpret things. A garden can have a shape and I interpret that,” she said.