Since she made her fashion debut in 1985, Isabel Toledo has been characterized as a problem solver, more engineer – or magician – than designer. Along with her partner in romantic and professional crime, her husband the artist Ruben Toledo, Isabel has for almost two decades operated just outside the fashion system, creating pieces on her own schedule for loyal couture clients (among them, Michelle Obama, who wore a custom dress and overcoat to the Presidential inauguration in 2009). The duo also recently began designing a line for plus size company Lane Bryant.
Now Toledo’s problem solving skills are being celebrated in a more unlikely arena: theater. She has been nominated for a Tony Award in costume design for her work on the musical “After Midnight,” an intoxicating spectacle at the Brook Atkinson Theatre about Harlem’s Cotton Club.
Here Toledo, who designed more than 125 costumes (Ruben, who painted all of the sketches and helped with research, served as artist in residence on the project), sheds some light on her process.
It’s about jazz, which is really always how I view how I work. But to see the clothes in movement like that, to create for dancers, is special because they react to a cloth like an average woman doesn’t. When they take a leap they tell you, oh, this feels incredible. And you don’t get that kind of reaction from fashion people. Yes, we get jaded.
Is this something you’d always wanted to do or was it a surprise?
One of the first classes I took in school was costume design. This was at Parsons. And I really liked costume. But I remember my teacher said, hmm, well you’re particular. What you’re doing might take your name on the billboard because it’s got a point of view. And I guess then I got married and fashion was handier as far as Ruben taking my clothes to the store, so we went in that direction. But costume was interesting to me because it’s the psychology of clothes.
This is not a typical musical with a linear narrative and so you don’t have traditional character development in that way. From a superficial level, it could be perceived as a musical revue. So how did you arrive at the characters for each song and figure out how to dress them?
See, I never saw it as not a musical. It’s a musical about music. And the period is ‘20s to the ‘40s. And every time I met one of the dancers or singers, they’re bringing their story because they’re connecting to the poetry, to Duke Ellington’s music and putting themselves in that character. I watched each one stand a certain way, react to things a certain way, and then you dress it. It’s not an obvious dialogue, but for me I’m having a very visual conversation with this person, how they react to something or once they put something on, how they stand. Or even before they have the garment on, I watch them walk in and see what they’re wearing. I mean that’s what it is to design.
I imagine you did a lot of research. Where in the process did the research come in? Was it first or did you start with the character and then turn to research?
The ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s: cars, traffic. You start to feel. Not just visuals. Because then you start to mimic. Or you do that period. I wanted to be able to interpret the period. So I wanted to familiarize myself with everything: what does the storefront look like? Because that really sets the mood, the cars, the different levels of society as well. I made sure I got a lot of street pictures.
Is this your first time doing men’s wear?
[Before] I only dressed Ruben. But there are mostly men [in this show]. In the suiting I wanted to make sure they looked slick and they could still move. I thought of all that when I saw [director and choreographer] Warren [Carlyle] doing the choreography and he was explaining to me what would be done. I knew you were going to need more space in the fabric in certain areas. But then when I did the fittings, they’re performing right there in the dressing room, they’re showing you what they’re going to do. And there’s nothing more beautiful than watching one of the tailors say, go ahead rip it! In fashion you don’t see that. Go ahead, try to rip it! Let’s see if you rip it. And they do everything they can to make that seam break. And no, it won’t. It was a thrill.
I know you started with Fantasia’s costumes, but then you had KD Lang, Toni Braxton, Vanessa Williams, and you have Patti LaBelle coming up. How do you balance redoing the costumes so they reflect the guest performer but they still stay true to the characters of those songs and the overall flow you’re trying to create?
It’s almost a month for each person. And half of them aren’t even here. So we are sent measurements, I look at a lot of their work on stage from their performances, I look at a lot of pictures on the Internet and I look at how they use their bodies when they’re performing. In the beginning you’re guessing until they come in for fittings so you’re flexible. You’re always keeping in mind the tableau that’s there, so you’re adding another stroke of paint.
If this musical goes on in perpetuity, you’re going to be like a doctor on call every month.
With pleasure! I’m a fashion doctor.