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The first lady's seal of approval

Well, not for Mrs Obama. In the last few weeks she has graced the cover of Vogue as well as O, Oprah Winfrey’s magazine. If there is a woman sizzling at the moment, it is Michelle Obama. And where she walks, women follow. Which may be what Isabel Toledo (New York’s most glorified Cuban mistress) and the designer of the inauguraration  outfit worn by the new first lady, is hoping for her new venture at Barneys.
Although Isabel Toledo may have been designing for 25 years and is, amongst designers, considered to be one of the industry’s innovators, very few people have had the opportunity to buy any of her designs. Toledo is best known for being featured in fashion and design books or included in groundbreaking fashion exhibitions, such as the recent exhibition Skin+Bones: Parallel practices in fashion and architecture at Somerset House.  Based on recent events the gong for scoop of the year has to go to F.I.T. who in June will be opening the Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the inside out exhibition.
So who is the lady behind the Obama outfit?
Isabel Toledo arrived in the US from Cuba when she was only 8 years old. The family moved to New Jersey where her creativity and fondness for sewing started. After attending classes at both Parsons and F.I.T. she took a job at the costume institute at the Met in New York. Here, under the guidance of Diana Vreeland, the famous editor-in-chief of Vogue, she fell in love with or as she likes to say, finally understood the importance of fashion.
After five years at the costume institute, where she worked with the restoration of the museum’s garments, a period she quotes as the most valuable learning curve for understanding fabrics and appreciating the importance of pattern cutting, she launched her first collection.

At this stage she had married Ruben Toledo, an artist who does all her sketching, and a very creative partnership emerged. As she begins to construct her visions, Isabel engages in intense discussions with Ruben, gesturing to show, for example, how the fabric should drape. “I think of it as fashion from the inside out,” she explains. “I can describe an idea or even a feeling to Ruben, and he’ll sketch it.” Officially, Isabel is the fashion designer, and Ruben is the artist/illustrator, but the reality is much more complicated.

“We’re so meshed, it’s impossible to separate what we do”

Ruben Toledo

Which may be the reason why her recent stint as Creative Director of the Anne Klein designer collection for  Jones New York went sour.”I feel like a scientist in a lab,” Toledo joked of her alchemical attempts to create new Anne Klein gold. Her debut was seen as a useful experiment, with the promise of new invention to come. But within a year she was out the door and neither parties were forthcoming about what had happened. Changes in the Jones New York board may have been an obstacle for Toledo, but it wasn’t until she was accredited with F.I.T.’s Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion in the fall of 2008 that she indicated what may have gone wrong in the partnership. “Let’s just say that it was ‘corporate’ which I am not.” She had been under instruction to revitalise the designer collection, but toning down her edginess. Like most designers Toledo must have struggled with walking this tightrope and things fell apart or as she claims, they (i.e. Jones New York) took it apart.
Toledo now once again designs under her own name. In her studio in Chelsea, ho-la hoops (she likes circles)are hanging from the ceiling and a small team creates a range that is available at Barneys and at Ikram in Chicago, Michelle Obama’s favourite shop. The company is also understood to have about 60 private clients who swear by wearing her individually designed pieces. Toledo has no pr or marketing machine behind her (no website!), money is tightly managed by the creative couple, and with the first lady’s photo covering every  magazine stand, it’s money well saved. As a spring version of the inaugural outfit hits Barneys in March an anticipated stampede for Isabel Toledo’s design may just finally confirm to the American consumer the importance of this homegrown lesser-known designer.

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