DETROIT — The first thing that makes for a harmonious match between fashion-art duo Ruben and Isabel Toledo and the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts is the shared baseline value of beauty rooted in labor. The majority of the DIA’s world-class collection was funded by the rise of the automotive industry — articulated most literally in the famed interior frescoes by Diego Rivera, the Detroit Industry Murals — and the Toledos have similarly built a bespoke fashion empire out of working-class Cuban immigrant roots. Their intensely collaborative process, combination of art and design, and hands-on attention to materiality shine through in Labor of Love, an ambitious and unprecedented exhibition of original garment works, interspersed with and responding to pieces on display in the DIA galleries.
“Looking at all the galleries and at all the art that’s collected [at the DIA], one of the things we kept saying is that it’s got an angle or an eye for design,” said Isabel Toledo, during a walk through the exhibition with press. “There’s a lot of pieces in here, maybe because of the car industry, that felt like design.” The pair spent days wandering the collection before settling upon nine pieces to inform six satellite installations scattered throughout the museum’s galleries, in addition to a special exhibition space.
This central hub serves as an introduction to the Toledos, and features an installation that focuses in detail on the Detroit Industry Murals — installed separately from the four-walled courtyard where the murals are on display, but incorporating original concept sketches and other materials collected for presentation in the museum’s 2015 Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibition. The Toledos work in a highly collaborative manner, but Isabel seems to be the authority on the fashion design, fiber, and fabrication components, while Ruben shoulders a majority of the drawn elements, including custom fabric motifs and concept sketches, and presentational elements, such as designing custom dress forms based on poses and attitudes deemed most fitting for a given collection.
Visitors to the special exhibition will first navigate a corridor lined with large-scale paintings on accordion-pleated paper. These are Ruben’s riffs on the four elemental figures crowning the north-south walls of the original murals. As in Rivera’s originals, each figure is imagined as a different person of color; in the courtyard, these were intended to correlate with four elements of the steel-making process: lime, sand, coal, and iron ore. The deepest recess of the installation features a flock of high-fashion dress forms inspired by various styles of historical or immigrant dress, oriented toward a concept sketch of a fetus that tops the courtyard mural’s Eastern wall — believed to be a tribute to the late-term pregnancy Kahlo lost while she and Rivera were in residence in Detroit.
Beyond the confines of the central exhibition, nine mannequins can be found in galleries throughout the museum, displaying fashion concepts conceived in relation to objects from the collection. Sometimes the connection to the work is extremely literal, as with “Escape” (2018), a strapless, intricately pleated evening gown of teal silk decorated with bursts of colorful cotton that mimic the leech-like cast-bronze droplets covering the copper-green naked figure of a nearby Alison Saar sculpture, “Blood/Sweat/Tears” (2005). In other cases, the connection is more conceptual, as with “First Lady Silhouette” (2018), which renders a period-perfect Colonial-era dress in the midst of the American collection. Its stomacher is made from the last reserves of the limited-edition felted lace fabric that Isabel Toledo designed specifically to create Michelle Obama’s 2009 inauguration outfit. This use of material, combined with the title, create a kind of speculative revision of history, wondering what the country might look like if a woman of color had been First Lady for the first time in 1809, rather than 2009.
While all of the gallery installations generate points of interest and interaction with their settings, some have more impact than others. “Shape of Faith” (2018) in the Renaissance Gallery is an arresting figure, with a metallic dress under a sheer black habit adorned with a constellation of imagined saints, which seem to have stepped directly from the gilded religious portraiture on the surrounding walls. By contrast, works in the Contemporary section of the museum work well as pieces of modern art in their own right; “Synthetic Cloud” (2018) lofts a flock of full-skirted tulle ballet dresses above one of the galleries, resembling a cumulous of color when viewed in an upskirt direction. “Joy” (2018) twists a black full-skirted dress up and around a pole, forming a figure in conversation with the adjacent Robert Motherwell sketch, “Nude” (1952), but not a garment that a person could conceivably wear, unlike all the others.
As an interactive exhibition, Labor of Love is a lot of fun, exhorting visitors to go on a kind of scavenger hunt through the DIA to seek all its components, and therefore leading them to discover new aspects of the collection outside some of its marquee attractions. It is perhaps a bit disappointing to note that all of the works are drawn from and manifest as female forms — except maybe the human remains inside the mummy which inspired the work “Human Remains” (2018) — which reinforces a gendered impression of women as muses and dress-up dolls, or faceless items for contemplation rather than directed gaze and agency. But this is ultimately a small quibble with a collection that spared no effort in lavishing detail, attention, and countless hours of labor to elevate fashion to the level of world-class art.