Midway through May — a slew of fashion aficionados, many of whom had flown down from New York for the weekend — gathered in Savannah, Georgia, for the Savannah College of Art & Design’s annual senior fashion show. Vogue‘s Editor-at-Large Andre Leon Talley (who holds an honorary Doctorate of Humanities from SCAD) was on hand to present Isabel and Ruben Toledo with the college’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Designers Yigal Azrouël and Lars Nilsson were also present, taking in the collection presentations (partially the fruits of their own labor, as each designer played mentor to members of SCAD’s senior class via its StyleLab program) from the front row. None seemed disappointed by the exciting and evocative show, which reaffirmed SCAD’s reputation as one of the premiere fashion programs in the world. Given the collegiate atmosphere, when we caught up with the Toledos pre-show (Isabel having recently become a household name thanks to Michelle Obama wearing her design for President Obama’s Inauguration, and Ruben revered for his iconic illustrations), our first question was what the couple, who met at school in New Jersey at the age of 13, were like as students.
“Oh my god, I was the worst student in the world. I got Fs in everything. I flunked art,” Ruben divulged. “I loved libraries, and I loved knowledge and I loved books. But, I was one of those people that could not follow orders.” Isabel, on the other hand, “was the type of person that went to school once a year and got an A,” her husband recalled, adding that she was quite the “tomboy” and “the best athlete in school.” So, what was the Cuban transplant doing when she cut class? “I was sewing. Oops,” she laughed. As for the best advice the Toledos ever received while starting out in an especially fickle fashion industry? “For me it was Bill Cunningham, who said, ‘keep your enthusiasm’,” Ruben replied. And, as far as one can tell, he absolutely has.
Nilsson, the Swedish designer who completed stints at the helms of Bill Blass, Nina Ricci, and Gianfranco Ferré, summed up his advice for aspiring designers relatively simply: “You need to excite people; you need to be creative. It needs to be wearable. It needs to sell.” But while “it’s a lot about the show, getting it out, the inspiration and actually selling the product,” designers have to consistently be looking ahead, he added. Soon after, we found Talley, sporting his staple oversized Obama campaign pin on an equally eye-catching Roger Vivier gold necklace (“I love them — I love them dearly — every morning I pray for them,” he said of the First Family). The larger-than-life North Carolina-bred icon referenced his Southern roots in response to his advice for up-and-coming designers, or anyone for that matter. “The most important thing is good manners; it gets you far in life. Hand-written notes, opening the door for ladies. Men have forgotten to stand up when a lady comes into the room. You must have great deportment in life, and it will take you far. Even if you have nothing to say, if you have good manners people will notice you. You can be as silent as the grave and people will notice you.”