Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Vanity Fair Portraits 1913-2008

In a world where everyone wants their fifteen minutes of fame, having one's portrait in Vanity Fair magazine seems to be the hallmark of celebrity. Originally called Dress and Vanity Fair at its launch in 1913 with the title shortened to Vanity Fair six months later, the magazine was a phenomenal success with its modern and bold approach. Writers included such luminaries as Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, and Noel Coward. Photographers such as Edward Steichen, Man Ray, and Cecil Beaton forged new ground in portraiture. The magazine took in more advertising than any other magazine within two years. Vanity Fair suspended publication in 1936 and was relaunched in 1983. Annie Leibovitz has been the magazine's chief photographer since 1983 and her photographs alone are a fascinating chronicle of modern celebrity and culture.

A retrospective exhibition of 150 celebrity portraits from Vanity Fair opened at the Royal Ontario Museum on the weekend. At a packed preview last week, I saw many familiar cover photos from the magazine including the pregnant Demi Moore by Annie Liebovitz, Julia Roberts by Herb Ritts and Princess Diana by Mario Testino . I marveled at these exquisite images and especially enjoyed seeing them without text marring the image and in large format instead of magazine size. I also appreciated the rare privilege of viewing the vintage photo collection of ethereal black and white photos of Louise Brooks, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Jean Harlowe, Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein.

There are no surprises in this exhibition. For me, the exhibition suggested that portraiture can be as much about the photographer as it is about the person being photographed. Given that Annie Leibovitz has dominated the pages of the modern Vanity Fair, the exhibition is, in a large part, about her. That in and of itself is not a bad thing given the depth of her talent, but it does suggest that we've defined modern celebrity through the lens of her camera.

Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario Canada
September 26, 2009 to January 3, 2010

Friday, September 25, 2009

Lessons from Isabel Toledo

Photo of Isabel Toledo by Ruven Afandor

In a world that often measures success by fame, I find it utterly refreshing to discover that Isabel Toledo walks her own path. She pursues her own goals, does not follow the trends, and does not show at Fashion Week. She does not consider herself an artist or designer, and prefers to describe herself as a "seamstress" since she loves "the technique of sewing more than anything else." How radical and how original!

Being in a reflective mood about my own work, I've taken to heart some of the lessons I learned from reading the book "Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out" by Valerie Steele and Patricia Mears.

1. Be true to yourself.
Unlike most fashion designers, Isabel Toledo does not sketch. She conceives of a garment in her mind and works to manipulate fabric to realize her vision. Her husband, Ruben Toledo, an artist and fashion illustrator, will sketch that vision for her based on her description and continues to sketch for her as the garment takes form.

The strikingly original clothing that comes from Isabel Toledo's studio does not follow trends. She once said "My inspiration this season was having no inspiration. I just worked and it came from the function. It's not as easy as having a concept".

Typically, fashion designers have to have a huge commercial enterprise to be considered successful. Isabel Toledo's small atelier of about twenty workers produce only about 300 finely crafted garments per season.

2. Acclaim is not a measure of success.
At various points in her career, Isabel Toledo has been heralded as "New York's best new designer" (New York Talk), "one of America's 7 rising stars of fashion" (Vogue), "most inventive designers of the under-30 generation" (NY Times). However, the Fall 1989 collection was dismissed by WWD as an "artsy horror show". Other collections have been described as "quirky" and "cultish". In her own words, Isabel says she prefers to fly "under the radar."

3. Setbacks are inevitable.
In 2005, Isabel Toledo was one of ten finalists for the Vogue/CFDA Fashion Fund award, but "to the shock of observers", Isabel lost and was not even chosen as a runner-up.

In 2006, it appeared that Isabel Toledo was on the cusp of financial security and success when she was hired as the new creative director of Anne Klein. In spite of rave reviews and strong sales for her debut collection in 2007, the changes in management at Jones Apparel Group resulted in the brand being discontinued and Isabel received a pink slip.

In spite of these public failures, "Toledo does not view herself as an unknown entity or an underdog." She continues to walk her own path, swimming against the tide of fashion.

4. Have a sense of humour.
Looking at the photograph of Isabel above and seeing some of the surrealist type of designs that Isabel Toledo has created over her career (including one fabulous hair clip with eyes to convey "eyes at at the back of one's head"), I would have to hazard a guess that Isabel has a sense of humour. This probably served her well in the many setbacks she faced, keeping her grounded and laughing at the absurdity of life!

Perhaps Glenda Bailey, editor-in-chief- of Harper's Bazaar, said it best:

"Isabel Toledo is a lover of order - who finds inspiration in anarchy. She is a mathematical genius - who makes it look like magic. She is a pragmatist - who creates the clothes that dreams are made of. Isabel's work is more than fashion and it's more than life. Perhaps that's because, to Isabel, art and fashion are life. And no one makes life look better."

The show "Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out" at the Fashion Institute of Technology closes on Saturday, September 26, 2009.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Book Review: Isabel Toledo, Fashion from the Inside Out

Title: Isabel Toledo, Fashion from the Inside Out
Authors: Valerie Steele and Patricia Mears
Publisher: Yale University Press in association with FIT (New York) 2009
Category: Non-fiction (Fashion)
Number of Pages: 250

Designer Isabel Toledo was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Museum at FIT this summer (June 17 through September 26, 2009). Having attended the exhibition a few weeks ago (during my blogging hiatus), I was blown away by the huge talent of this largely unheralded designer. Her sculptural fashion designs must be seen in person to be truly appreciated. Nevertheless, the high quality of the exhibition made me lust after the accompanying book.

Isabel Toledo, From the Inside Out, was co-written by Valerie Steele and Patricia Mears. Steele tells Toledo's story, from her Cuban roots through her ups and downs as a fashion designer to the triumphant day when Michelle Obama wore an Isabel Toledo ensemble to her husband's inauguration. In the second half of the book, Mears presents an analysis of the thematic designs in the exhibition including: Suspension, Liquid Architecture, Shadow, Shape, Manipulated Surfaces, and Organic Geometry.

Illustrated with exquisite photographs, this book is not just a pretty picture book. Both Steele and Mears write thoughtful, comprehensive and well-written analyses of Toledo and her work. I also gained a new appreciation for Isabel Toledo's designs. The integrity with which she approaches her designs, ignoring trends and the fashion cycle to instead embracing her own artistic vision, made me wish I had access to her clothing in Toronto. This is the kind of book that I'll look at and reread many times, especially when I'm short of inspiration.

P.S. If you can make it to the exhibition before it closes next weekend, you won't be disappointed!!

Isabel Toledo, Fashion from the Inside Out
June 17th - September 26th, 2009

The Museum at FIT
Seventh Avenue at 27th Street
New York City, 10001-5992

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Butterfly

Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly. Anonymous

Mixed Media artwork by Ingrid Mida, 2009