Millions watched as First Lady Michelle Obama accompanied her husband to his swearing in ceremony, yet the fashion community was on edge to see what designer she had secretly chosen to dress her on the big day. As she stood proudly next to President Obama on inauguration day, all eyes were on the First Lady’s chic lemongrass jacket and dress she wore to her husbands swearing in designed by Isabel Toledo. Last week I had the privilege to see the outfit up close and personal since the now famous ensemble is currently on display in NYC. “Isabel Toledo: Fashion From the Inside Out,” running through Sept. 26, is a mid-career retrospective of the fashion designers work and before the lemongrass garment is retired to the Smithsonian, it’s making a pit stop in New York.
The Museum of FIT in Manhattan is displaying the dress and matching coat along with other Isabel Toledo designs in a retrospective exhibit of her work. Seeing the lemongrass coat and dress close up gives you a much better interpretation of the highly detailed ensemble, and just how tall the First Lady is. The sage wool-lace dress with stark white taffeta, and creamy netting underneath didn’t look as divine on TV as it did in person. Photos do not do this garment justice since the craftsmanship and detail doesn’t get picked up in photos. The embroidery is feminine and intricate and topped with a chiffon tie empire waist. On inauguration day, Obama paired the outfit with an embellished necklace, green Jimmy Choo heels, J Crew gloves and a matching lemongrass sweater to keep her toasty on that frigid day. It was a change from the previous attire worn by former First Ladies and a preview of what was to come from the First Lady of Fashion.
“I absolutely adored my Inauguration Day ensemble designed by Isabel Toledo and I am happy it will be part of the exhibit so others can appreciate the creativity and craftsmanship of one of America’s great female designers,” Obama said in a statement. Toledo said she’s been overwhelmed by attention she’s gotten since the fashion-forward First Lady made her a household name. “It’s beyond me,” she said. “It became a part of history that so many people are affected by. I’m just so proud to have been a part of that moment.” She said her business has grown about 25% since Obama began wearing her designs – and could expand more, if only she could keep up. Toledo said Obama is the perfect client. “She really respects the artist and she sees what you are doing and if it suits her she picks it,” Toledo said. “It’s a very modern way of thinking.”
Isabel Toldeo flew under the mainstream radar for decades, having been a well respected designer to the fashion community, but overnight she became a household name. When Michelle Obama chose the sheath dress with matching coat to watch her husband become the 44th president, Toledo didn’t send out a press release or speed-dial fashion reporters. It was the same scenario when Mrs. Obama wore Toledo’s two-tone dress to meet Queen Elizabeth II this spring. Before Obama turned on the spotlight, fashion insiders already knew about Isabel’s fondness for draping. For three seasons she was the designer for 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 a highly influential fashion indicator for the first lady’s wardrobe. “What’s great was that it took us from being a fashion insider to a [design company] that the whole word is interested in,” said Ruben Toledo, Isabel’s husband and collaborator.
In addition to Michelle Obama’s dress, the exhibit is fabulous. I had never been to the Museum of FIT and was impressed with their exhibits (there is also an Oil and Water exhibit currently on display). The museum is free of charge and showcased a glorious display of Toledo’s favorite pieces. I couldn’t stop staring at the Bibb dresses in Kelly, fuchsia and turquoise on display. The fluidity of the gowns and detailed ruching had me contemplating grabbing a mannequin and trying to make a break for it. Isabel’s favorite piece is the Packing Dress circa 1988 which is essentially two circular pieces of fabric that mysteriously, yet simply, come together with blurred lines. 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.” You can tell that architecture, sculpture, and origami inspire Toledo’s garments. Also, she obviously doesn’t pay attention to the “it” look, since I spotted dresses from the 70’s which would be highly fashionable to wear right now. I wish they sold the outfits in their student store.
Museum curators said they expect the inaugural dress to attract many visitors to the exhibit. The F.I.T. exhibition was planned before Michelle Obama decided on the dress, and even before Toledo created it. Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT said, “We knew that definitely followers of fashion would come to see Isabel’s clothes, but Michelle Obama’s inaugural dress is in a category all its own. That ensemble is part of history.”
Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out, The Museum at FIT, June 17 through September 26, 2009. fitnyc.edu