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Exhibit spotlights under-the-radar Obama designer
Fashion designer Isabel Toledo is shown in a retrospective exhibit of her work at the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum in New York. (AP Photo) Kathy Willens

NEW YORK (AP) — 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 without him.

“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 count Ruben.

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 language.

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 begins.

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 Gomez-style mustache.

“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 identifiable.”

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 little Havana.

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 then.

“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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