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Isabel Toledo Gives Advice to Marymount Students

"Become great sewers," Toledo told students at annual university fashion show.

ARLINGTON, Va. — Isabel Toledo’s advice for aspiring designers: Learn to sew.

“Become great sewers because that really expands the world for you,” Toledo told students at Marymount University’s annual “Portfolio in Motion” student fashion show here Thursday night, where the designer was honored by the school for her body of work. “Don’t just sketch an idea — think about it in the round, build it, work it.”

Toledo said she pushes her own interns to learn how to sew well by having them assist the seamstresses in her studio.

“That’s key because that’s where they’re learning how to get close to the craft of making clothes, to get to know fabrics, to get to know how they drape, how they fall, how to sew them,” she said.

The advice is not surprising from a designer whose career developed organically out of a lifelong dedication to sewing. Toledo has often pointed out that she learned as a child.

“That was my education into the arts and crafts of [fashion] and the love of the make,” she said. “I got that when I was very young, but the artistic side of fashion came when I did an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art [in the Costume Institute] and I got exposed to the Balenciagas and the Vionnets, and all those great masters’ works. I fell in love with fashion as an art form.”

Toledo’s husband, Ruben, who does all of her design sketches, said they forewarn their interns, “Just because you can draw doesn’t mean you’re a designer. You may not like the toil of touching the material — it’s a whole different talent.”

The Toledos dedicated two days to speaking with students at Marymount. On Friday, Isabel critiqued student portfolios and Ruben gave a schoolwide talk.

The designer and her husband also donated the original sketch of the lemongrass yellow wool lace dress and overcoat that Michelle Obama wore for President Obama’s inauguration, along with a swatch of the fabric used for a silent auction that raised money for the school’s fashion program.

“[The inauguration] became such an important moment for everybody, it’s strange that I got sucked into it,” Isabel said. “As many people as have reacted to the dress, that’s how much I put into it. It’s got my DNA. I wanted that moment to happen and I wanted that optimism to come through in that moment. I love that [Michelle Obama] felt that in the dress and she wore it.”