Isabel Toledo, the designer of Michelle Obama's famous bright lemongrass-colored inaugural ensemble, is a creative woman with eclectic interests.
She is a gardener, cooks a mean batch of Cuban black beans and
is attached at the hip to Ruben, her husband and business partner.
She says she wouldn't - actually couldn't - continue her career
"We don't work the way other people work. I think of an idea
and I tell him to get a notebook - he has thousands of notebooks. I
dictate to him and he draws what's in my mind," she explains.
What Isabel Toledo is not: a publicity monger.
When Mrs. Obama chose the sheath dress with matching coat to
watch her husband become the 44th president, Toledo didn't send out
a press release. She didn't have her people speed-dial fashion
reporters. She doesn't even have "people," really, unless you
It was the same scenario when Mrs. Obama wore Toledo's two-tone
dress to meet Queen Elizabeth II this spring. A reporter had to
hunt down Ruben by landline phone at their joint studio-slash-home
in the Garment District. The Toledos don't do cell phones.
When she eventually does see a photo of Mrs. Obama in one of her
outfits, Isabel thinks to herself, "Yeah, she looks good."
Still, don't mistake the Toledos for reclusive. The couple seems
genuinely too busy - enjoying their work, enjoying their lives,
enjoying each other - to worry about public relations. They don't
bother with celebrity dressing and they barely keep up with what's
going on in the rest of the fashion industry.
Next month, for example, they are off to glassblowing camp
outside of Seattle to spend four weeks playing with color, texture
and a new art form.
The industry, however, has kept up with them. Even before Mrs.
Obama turned on the spotlight, insiders knew about Isabel's
fondness for draping and her aversion to side seams. They also
could recognize Ruben's illustrations and mannequins, all of which
capture at least a hint of Isabel in their faces, shape and body
For three seasons she was the designer for mainstream brand Anne
Klein, and now her own label hangs on the racks at top department
stores and high-end boutiques like Chicago's Ikram, which is known
to be an incubator for the first lady's wardrobe. Isabel, 47, says
she is flattered that Mrs. Obama, a woman she believes to have a
strong personal style, has chosen her clothes without being pushed.
The inaugural outfit is currently on display at the Museum at
FIT as part of an exhibit that grew out of The Fashion Institute of
Technology's Couture Council Award, which Isabel received last
year. "Isabel Toledo: Fashion From the Inside Out," running
through Sept. 26, is billed as a mid-career retrospective.
"Her artistic contribution will matter in fashion history,"
says curator Valerie Steele.
Isabel's favorite piece is the Packing Dress from 1988 that has
since been born again in many incarnations. It's essentially two
circular pieces of fabric that mysteriously, yet simply, come
together with blurred lines. Imagine a garment that mimics the
point where the ocean and sand come together at the beach, that
spot where one can no longer define where one ends and the other
There's also her Hermaphrodite Dress, which is gathered every
which way with tubular piping separating tufts of fabric. "At
first, everyone said it was ugly," Isabel recalls, "but I thought
it was very sensual. You have to look at it not as a front and a
back, but that it's a dress that goes from its front to its back."
Many of the garments are inspired by architecture, sculpture and
origami. Isabel says that she's not moved by trends, current events
or even sales figures. Instead she relies on emotion. "Being a
woman, I design for a woman. I'm always breathing and from that
comes the next idea."
She test-drives each style herself and, sometimes, on Ruben.
He adds: "If it looks good on me, then it will look great on a
woman." On the flip side, she'll borrow his carpenter pants
without any hesitation - they are the sort of offbeat couple who
can pull it off. She has long dark hair and an overall look not
dissimilar to Morticia Addams' pretty sister, and he has a
"Isabel works like jazz," says Ruben. "There's a huge body of
work and there are lots of compositions and none are the same, but
there is a string that carries through all of them that makes them
When he talks about her, the adoration is obvious. He says he
fell in love with her the minute he laid eyes on her in Spanish
class in West New York, N.J. Each of their families had come from
Cuba to the suburb that was at the time, Ruben explains, like a
They didn't begin to date until after high school. Ruben
remembers Isabel as a sexy sophisticate who would sneak out to
Studio 54 with her older sisters; he was more the pimply kid with
no confidence so flattered when she gave him the time of day.
"Can you believe him?" she says, rolling her eyes but with a
smile on her face.
The business blossomed while, 25 years ago, Isabel worked at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art restoring antique clothes, developing
her appreciation of craftsmanship. Ruben would take the dresses she
made for her herself off to Henri Bendel and Patricia Field.
Eventually, the buyers bought into her unconventional look.
Isabel's work became more elaborate and expensive in the 1990s
as she used hand-painted fabrics (Ruben's prints, of course) and
fine details that would take seamstresses hours to do. But that was
"There's a moment now to get back to user-friendly clothes, and
you need to be a better designer to do that," she says.
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