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01.23.09

All About Michelle's Designer

The designer who made the First Lady’s inauguration day dress has been an underground fashion world darling for decades. Those days are over.

Not long after Michelle Obama debuted her lemongrass Isabel Toledo dress at Tuesday’s inaugural ceremony, the designer’s computer crashed.

“We are still overwhelmed with this blessing!,” Toledo told The Daily Beast via email. “So many emails!” And that’s not the only way the designer’s life will change—Barneys has announced plans to make her Spring 2009 collection in stores as soon as possible, and where Toledo only sold her clothes in a few select locations before the ceremony, one expects the demand for her work to greatly increase. Every outfit that Michelle Obama wears has sold out of stores (the Narcisco Rodriguez dress from election night, her Maria Pinto clothes, the J.Crew gloves), and rocketed previously underground fashion names into bright lights. Now it’s Toledo’s turn.

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And her fame will be much deserved; when I first learned that Toledo had designed the bright wool outfit, I was both stunned and elated. Toledo is, in the fashion community, an icon and a cultural touchstone (and has been for more than 25 years). Yet outside insider fashion circles, the Cuban-American’s name has been lesser known. So here is what you need to know about the designer (as she explodes into popular consciousness): She is one of fashion’s most modest and gracious female talents, and one half of the Toledo super-duo of Isabel and Ruben, her husband and collaborator for twenty-plus years. She is also a person least likely to seek accolades (which is always a sign that they’re the ones who deserve the attention the most).

“It’s not about the dress,” she says. “It’s the emotion of the moment and the color-texture of the wool lace really transmits the luminosity and light from the confident and giving woman beneath it. The color is gentle, not strong but that’s just the point—color and beauty are in the eye of the beholder and open to many interpretations!”

“Any designer worth their salt, from Nicolas Ghesquiere of Balenciaga to Alber Elbaz of Lanvin, they all bow down to her. She’s the designer’s designer.”

For me, Michelle’s inauguration dress and its designer symbolized the sentiment of the day: a culmination of passion, determination and a brightness in vision, qualities I admire both about Isabel and Ruben Toledo and the Obamas alike. There were so many reasons to be deeply moved that day, but that the seemingly trivial question of “but what did she wear?” could be answered with someone like Isabel Toledo, a woman who exemplifies the height of American design and fervent creativity, well, that clinched it.

“The dress was a perfect convergence of everything,” said Kim Hastreiter, co-editor-in-chief and publisher of Paper magazine, who has been a friend and supporter of the Toledos since Isabel’s first collection; Hastreiter’s mother was such an ardent fan she only wore Isabel, who even named a dress after her. “Michelle Obama, she’s smart and she has really good instincts and amazing style, but she also has a humility and a sense of reality. She’s a classy woman, and Isabel is a classy woman, too.”

Isabel Toledo, born in Cuba and later raised in New Jersey, showed her first collection shortly after marrying Ruben, one of fashion’s best known illustrators, in 1985, but the Toledos have mostly remained outside the established fashion industry, working together as an independent team, their own mini-collective. Isabel describes what she wants to design and Ruben translates her feeling into a drawing.

“Ruben is a big part of what Isabel does, and Isabel is a big part of what Ruben does.” said Hastreiter. “They’re inseparable. All his paintings are pictures of her.” The Toledos are a true power couple—the Obamas of fashion.

“She is and has always been true to herself,” said Diane Pernet, a filmmaker whose Web site, A Shaded View on Fashion, well-known in fashion circles for its discerning eye and championing of under-recognized designers and artists. “She loves what she does and has never been one to seek the limelight, she just wants to make clothes that make women beautiful and feel good in their own skin. Bravo for Michelle Obama for recognizing her talent! There is something about both Ruben and Isabel—they are the same now as they were when they started. Success has not changed them and I'm just thrilled that Isabel dressed the wife of the president.”

The Toledos have always been careful about who they sell to—one of the reasons not as many people have heard of her despite her 24 years in the business, and a stint designing for Anne Klein in 2006-07. After Tuesday, however, that will obviously change. Barneys New York was the first to carry her and cultivate her customer base. Collections there routinely sell out, prized for how carefully considered they are—functional and flattering with couture-level finishing. Besides that store, one of the only places to find Toledo’s work is Ikram in Chicago, the store where Michelle is said to have first discovered Isabel herself.

But even though she will most likely keep her business relatively small, her name now looms large over one of the country’s most-remembered days. She will—hopefully—gain the same reputation among the masses that she does among the fashion elite.

“I hate when people say she’s an obscure designer,” emphasizes Hastreiter. “Any designer worth their salt, from Nicolas Ghesquiere of Balenciaga to Alber Elbaz of Lanvin, they all bow down to her. She’s the designer’s designer. But she’s very humble. She’s a woman of a certain age, of a certain temperament who doesn’t fit into the socialite world as much, and she doesn’t care to. The history books are different from the trendy bits of day-to-day. She’s going to be in the history books.”

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Renata Espinosa is the New York Editor of Fashion Wire Daily. She is also the co-founder of impressionistic fashion and art blog TheNuNu and a sometimes backup dancer for "The Anna Copa Cabanna Show."