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Designer Toni Whitaker makes a dramatic comeback after a forced hiatus from fashion

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359 Houston Toni Whitaker fashion show May 2013
Toni Whitaker's return to fashion brought dramatic looks. Photo by David Bartkowiak
401 Houston Toni Whitaker fashion show May 2013
Designers David Peck, left, and Chloe Dao, far right, flank Toni Whitaker at her show Photo by David Bartkowiak
115 Houston Toni Whitaker fashion show May 2013
From the tie-dye set of looks Photo by David Bartkowiak
2 Houston Toni Whitaker fashion show May 2013
Whitaker's friend, Lloyd Gite, donated the fabrics for the collection. Photo by David Bartkowiak
Houston Toni Whitaker fashion show May 2013 Stunning detail in contrasting neutral tones
Stunning detail in contrasting neutral tones Photo by David Bartkowiak
369 Houston Toni Whitaker fashion show May 2013
From the gauze vignette, this was the last look of the night. Photo by David Bartkowiak
260 Houston Toni Whitaker fashion show May 2013
From the Raffia Out of Africa set, with a pattern inspired by the African Zaire tree Photo by David Bartkowiak
359 Houston Toni Whitaker fashion show May 2013
401 Houston Toni Whitaker fashion show May 2013
115 Houston Toni Whitaker fashion show May 2013
2 Houston Toni Whitaker fashion show May 2013
Houston Toni Whitaker fashion show May 2013 Stunning detail in contrasting neutral tones
369 Houston Toni Whitaker fashion show May 2013
260 Houston Toni Whitaker fashion show May 2013

“It’s good to know you’ve been missed,” designer Toni Whitaker says of the show marking her triumphant return to the fashion scene.

Whitaker took an almost four-year, forced hiatus from her successful career in fashion design to care for her ill mother, who has since made a recovery and who attended the show at the Laura Rathe Gallery in a wheelchair, proudly observing her daughter’s new collection.

Although the room was filled with fans, friends, peers and general well-wishers, the show still felt small and intimate. It was clear that more than just welcoming back a talented designer and curiously observing her latest collection, they were rooting for a friend. It’s not hard to see why — just a few minutes into a conversation with the talented designer and I was instantly put at ease.

 “I’m a Southern woman. Even when they’re dramatic and a little daring, they’re still very ladylike dresses." 

There’s something about the warmth she inspires — a combination of authenticity in her speech and honesty in her smile that forges an instant connection with her audience. That authenticity was directly reflected in her collection, as bare-faced models strutted down the runway. Four separate vignettes came together as one single collection and conveyed the designer’s aesthetic in different expressions.

The first was Toni Whitaker Vintage, a retrospective on the Little Black Dress, with pleats and detail in the design that created movement in the solid black fabric. The second was a series of tie-dye garments in muted tones, subtle in hue but dramatic in design — with plunging necklines and staining that began at waist-level or lower, becoming progressively darker from top to bottom.

The third was Raffia Out of Africa. This set was the most rustic of the collection with raw fabrics in earth tones. One piece featured a fabric that took its pattern from the texture of a Zaire tree in Africa, a design that was toned down by a darker, solid fabric that lay over the skirt and was cleverly held together by a magnet.

The fourth vignette in the collection was Gauze. This set of looks was composed of crisp, clean pieces that left no room for error in construction, as solid white fabric showcased their flawless execution.

Lloyd Gite, Whitaker’s friend of 30 years, and the host of the Thursday night runway show, donated all of the fabrics that worked collectively as a muse for Whitaker's new collection. They were what would have seemed like a challenge to almost any other designer: Notoriously stubborn fabrics — raw materials and stiff linen- — masterfully manipulated to look delicate. Whitaker says these are her favorite textiles to use.

“I like natural fabrics, I like the way they breathe and mold to the body and play on the body,” Whitaker says. “I love linens and gauzes, and thought [they were] perfect for Houston now and for vacationing.”

 "It was never my intention to leave, but my mother is my priority." 

Whitaker’s unapologetically feminine designs are powerful in their restraint. The plunging necklines in solid tones are paired with layers of fabric that never feel excessive or superfluous. Every inch of fabric is completely necessary and intentional. And each is mercifully devoid of busy, ruffled flowery patterns — conveying femininity purely by cut and design.

“I’m a Southern woman. Even when they’re dramatic and a little daring, they’re still very ladylike dresses . . .  I love for women to look like women,” Whitaker says.

This relaunch was everything anyone in attendance could have hoped for, utterly satisfying with well-constructed pieces in striking fabrics. Designers David Peck and Chloe Dao, Andrea Bonner, Barbara Seymour and Renee Logans attended, showing their support. After that obligatory break, Whitaker is ready to create art for women again.

“It was never my intention to leave, but my mother is my priority,” Whitaker says. “Now it’s time to get back to work.” 

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