January 21, 2009 / 12:57 AM / 10 years ago

What's in a first lady's dress? A lot, says designer

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The American dream, the great melting pot, made-in-America, the triumph of small business, happiness and hope — can a woman’s dress really say all that?

First lady Michelle Obama walks onstage at the Biden Home States Inaugural Ball in Washington, January 20, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Fashion designer Isabel Toledo, who designed the outfit Michelle Obama wore to her husband’s inauguration, thinks so.

A Cuban American who lives in New York, Toledo was at work with her seamstresses when her mother-in-law called to tell her America’s new first lady had chosen her dress for the big day.

“I didn’t know if it was definite (she would wear it,)” Toledo told Reuters in an interview in her Manhattan penthouse studio which looks out over the Empire State Building.

“You never know, and things change, even the weather,” she said, still on a high as media besieged her for interviews. “I wasn’t sure, but I felt she was going to wear that garment.”

Toledo said Michelle Obama has been buying her designs for “maybe 20 years” from a store in Chicago and the two met at a fundraiser in New York a few months ago.

“She won me over, I have to say. She’s exceptional, she’s open, she’s friendly, she really makes you feel at ease,” Toledo said in a sprawling studio filled with sculpture by her husband, Ruben, who she says is more famous than she is.

“That was one of the most important things for me to make this garment — how do I capture that in this garment? That openness that she has,” she said.

“The most amazing thing is she likes my work. It’s not a big brand, it’s not a big label, it’s a small business, it’s all made in America,” she said. “The odds can be against you if you’re not a big corporation, but she chose to represent someone like me by choosing to wear my work.”


Toledo designed the yellow outfit specifically for the inauguration.

“I think she really fell in love with the color,” she said. “For me yellow represents hope.”

“I called it lemongrass because it’s not exactly a yellow, it’s not a green, it’s just in-between. It’s full of sunshine. It really feels like freshness to me.”

Toledo used lace to avoid a flat color.

“I picked the lace because it has all the ins and outs and all the other colors that are inside, so it also represents what America is, and all the other different colors that are within the country,” she said.

“I wanted to capture optimism, I wanted it to feel happy, I wanted it to feel inclusive.”

Toledo said her garments range in price from $500 to more than $10,000 and her customers include singer Jennifer Lopez.

The coat and dress worn by Michelle Obama would cost between $2,000 and $3,000.

As a Cuban American who came to the United States when she was eight, Toledo is hoping Obama will change the law banning her from visiting the communist island.

“He is loved in Cuba,” she said.

Slideshow (6 Images)

“I know that the openness I talk about in Michelle, I recognize that in (Barack) Obama,” she said. “I see how open he is to communication, to leadership, to being able to say ‘OK, let’s sit down and talk.’”

Toledo’s biggest concern in designing Michelle Obama’s dress was the cold. She incorporated wool lace, a silk net lining and several layers of silk and pashmina.

“We were all worried at the studio that she should be warm and not catch cold,” she said.

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