Isabel Toledo became a household name in January 2009 when Michelle Obama emerged on inauguration morning in Toledo’s now-infamous lemongrass-hued dress. But before, and even after, that transformative moment in her career, Toledo has earned and maintained a reputation as a “designer’s designer”—a consummate artist dedicated to her craft. She and her husband, illustrator and collaborator Ruben Toledo (whose work you might recognize from Nordstrom catalogs and many a Penguin book cover), sat down last night with Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion writer Robin Givhan for a lively and inspiring discussion about their work, their lives, and their new book, Roots of Style: Weaving Together Life, Love and Fashion. Here are some fun tidbits we picked up from the talk.
Isabel’s favorite colors are the ones she can’t name.
“Or they have names like ‘elephant’s belly’ and ‘oxblood,’” joked Ruben. “I don’t see color,” Isabel said. “I see shades, and the in-between. A certain texture of fabric gives you different tones, and it’s that combination of color and texture that makes it work.” Besides, she added, “When you have the same colors everyone else is picking, it’s isolating. It’s more of a mix of color that will marry all of the pieces in your wardrobe and make them wearable.”
More thought went into FLOTUS’s inauguration dress than into your college thesis.
“It was a very ‘in your face’ moment. People were looking from so many different angles. [The question was], how do you soften those edges?,” said Isabel. “I wanted everyone to feel the same thing: a certain unity.” Her goal was to have the dress make Michelle feel something so fully that it would be telegraphed to everyone watching; she wanted to “dress the moment.”
“I wanted her to feel charming, and I wanted her to charm,” she said. [Ed. note: mission accomplished!] As for the sheen of the First Lady’s dress, Toledo said it had not been anticipated. “That was nature,” she said. “There was a bone-colored taffeta [backing], and that’s what gave it the glow, and in the light it shimmered.”
Self-described as “shy”, Isabel communicates through clothing.
“I use clothes as a way of expressing emotion,” Isabel said. “If I feel a certain way, I dress a certain way—that’s how I’ve always been.” Indeed, she and Ruben met at age 13 in Spanish class, and even then Ruben recalls that she “radiated beautiful energy.”
“She made all her clothes herself,” he said. “Clothes were her communication.”
She finds her inspiration in the design process.
“I’m so involved in the process, from the inside out,” said the designer. “I drape. I get intimate with the fabric. I wear it.” She described how she always begins three-dimensionally with an idea, as if she’s sculpting and molding a dress. She determines how the dress will make its eventual wearer feel. Then Ruben—the illustrator—sketches it on paper. “Once a piece is done, it’s frozen,” she said. “The inspiration—the juices—are all in the process. Process is my inspiration.”
“In anything creative, you can’t lie.”
“You have to do your own thing,” said Ruben, responding to a request for advice for young designers and students. “It’s important to have an identity. If you don’t have the marketing and the connections, then you need to make sure you have something to say. In anything creative, you can’t lie.” Isabel emphasized that students and young designers should “learn all [they] can,” but that they shouldn’t let precedent determine their perspective. “Learn a lot and leave it behind,” she said. “Take what you need and bring your own perspective.”