NEW YORK — Attendees at Monday’s Designer Forum discussion with Isabel Toledo didn’t leave with any insight about just what went awry with Anne Klein and Jones Apparel Group.
In fact, in her introductory remarks, Marylou Luther made it clear Toledo and her husband, Ruben, didn’t consider their appearance to be a press conference. Last month, Jones Apparel Group revealed it was closing its Anne Klein designer collection and parting ways with its creative director, Isabel Toledo. After Monday’s talk, the Toledos declined to comment on the situation other than to say an agreement regarding termination has not yet been reached.
Ironically, the Toledos were more than willing to share — and often laughed about — some of the missteps they have faced with the largely up-and-coming designer audience at the Fashion Center BID’s event.
Whatever the set of circumstances were, neither showed any signs of hard feelings and were upbeat about their experiences on Seventh Avenue. “New York has possibilities that are so endless. Never feel limited about what you can do. If you have any amazing idea — anything at all — people will want to hear it,” said Ruben Toledo, his wife’s chief collaborator, who is also an artist, sculptor and fashion illustrator.
After studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design, Isabel Toledo interned with Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute before starting her own design career in 1984. Her husband actually took a few dresses from her closet and took them to buyers at Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York, who agreed to buy them. After that, his wife went to work cutting orders — often using cans of condensed milk in lieu of professional weights — on their apartment floor, and then sewing each garment by herself. Patterns, mannequins, draping, grading, designing runway show sets — the pair chose a do-it-yourself approach to fashion. Ruben Toledo draws all the sketches for his wife’s designs. “I know it’s good to specialize, but we like to try everything that gets our attention. It keeps us fresh as artists,” he said.
The pair encouraged attendees to resist the popular career path of specialization and to work with all sorts of people, not just those in fashion, to be more creative. “The fact that we didn’t have a lot of money made us very creative,” Isabel Toledo said.
Investing little by little can be more prudent than taking on an investor. Early in their careers, the Toledos took on an investor who quickly sold his portion of the business to another individual, who cleared out and closed down their showroom without warning and sued them for $10,000. They also faced death threats. But the husband-and-wife team regrouped, returning to a 42nd Street showroom they had shared with another designer above a peep show theater that was “scary as hell” and started over, Isabel Toledo said.
Toledo eventually borrowed money from her sister, settled the suit and continued to work independently until joining Jones last year. She and her husband faced other challenges. “People assume that we are very similar, but we have always been more black-white, day and night. We always disagree about aesthetics,” he said.
“Chaos,” said Isabel Toledo, motioning toward her husband. “Order,” she said, placing her palm on her chest. “I’m all about the happy accident and not knowing what’s ahead,” he allowed.
With miniscule fabric buys that fell below mills’ minimums, the pair managed to get fabric through a few sympathetic companies that agreed to give them some through public relations departments. The Toledos were less compromising with a Henri Bendel buyer who suggested the lantern sleeves be taken off a dress in Toledo’s first collection. “I would have taken those sleeves off in a second because we needed the money, but Isabel has always had strong convictions as a creator,” Ruben Toledo said.
Now that fashion has become such a big business, it is essential that individual designers “do not lose their way of doing things,” Ruben Toledo said.
“When you’re working in a big market, you need to crank it out. It’s merchandise — it’s not individual design,” his wife added.
An audience member offered, “If someone wants to back you, they are looking at the bottom line.”
Isabel Toledo added, “Absolutely.”