Thursday 18 June 2009

Designer of Michelle Obama inauguration ensemble, Isabel Toledo, saluted

A mid-career retrospective saluting fashion designer Isabel Toledo includes the dress and coat worn by Michelle Obama to President Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony.

Isabel Toledo was somewhat of of a well-kept secret in the fashion industry. Considered a "designer's designer" Toledo has long been heralded by industry insiders as someone who expertly crafts women's dresses.
But that all changed when U.S. first lady Michelle Obama wore a Toledo coat and dress to President Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony.

Now, a retrospective celebrating the designer's work and career, highlights that particular ensemble as a part of history.

Michelle Obama wore Cuban-born Toledo's designs long before the inauguration, but the lemongrass outfit made the designer famous globally. Toledo says that because the inauguration was such an important occasion, she needed Obama to stand out like a beacon amid a sea of black and dark tones.

"It was such an important moment and she felt so, so beautiful in it. And she really wanted to express, interestingly enough, what I was feeling while I was making it, which was that optimism," said Toledo.

Toledo has been designing clothes since 1985, working together with her husband, artist Ruben Toledo, who also draws the patterns for her creations. Her designs start with an idea or a feeling and husband Ruben sketches his interpretation.

The timing of the exhibition, which was organized by the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, is a boost for FIT because of the fame Toledo has won since President Obama's January 20 inauguration. But the chief curator of the Museum of FIT, Valerie Steele says that the retrospective has been planned for a while, since Toledo received FIT's Couture Council Award for artistry of fashion in September 2008.

"We knew that they, people would appreciate the beauty of the clothes. But obviously once Michelle wore Isabel's clothes, suddenly Isabel went from being a part of fashion history to being a part of history itself," said Steele.

Toledo says that the design for Michelle Obama's inauguration dress was driven predominantly by her discovery of the lemongrass Swiss lace she used. Toledo wanted Obama's ensemble to be luminous and so she chose the light-colored lace, which she calls the "quilt of America" because it has depth without being solid.

"I knew I could evolve that fabric into a moment that was special. And the minute I saw it, it was quite late, it was in December, I immediately got on getting the fabric done," Toledo told Reuters.

The 48-year-old designer lived in a small town in Cuba before immigrating to the U.S.A. when she was eight-years-old. She says the sun and the colors from her childhood have influenced the fabrics she chooses, whereas her inspiration for shapes and texture comes from her current home, New York City.

Toledo says that she often experiments on herself wearing things a year or two before making them public and that finding fame through the ensemble she created for Michelle Obama has not changed the way she designs clothes.

"It hasn't changed the process, it's changed the fact that I am probably the smallest business in America that's, that's world known," she said.

Isabel Toledo's mid-career retrospective can be seen at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York through September 26.

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