Spotlight: Isabel Toledo

With her iconic visage and elegant sartorial statements, Isabel Toledo, 47, is a chic and artsy fixture of the fashion scene. So it makes sense that Michelle Obama, wife of presidential hopeful Barack Obama, purchased a Toledo-designed black tunic and palazzo pants from a Chicago boutique called Ikram to wear to a Calvin Klein fundraiser in Manhattan.

Though Toledo didn't design that outfit expressly for Mrs. Obama, the potential future first lady's reps have contacted the Cuban designer since then. Toledo won’t disclose what she’s now working on with Mrs. Obama, but she is thrilled about the opportunity. “Ms. Obama has a natural grace,” says Toledo, “she has an amazing poised body language. Her torso is that of a dancer.”

Isabel Toledo is no stranger to recognition. In 2005, she and her artist husband Ruben Toledo were awarded the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for their work in fashion. A year later, Toledo was named creative director of Anne Klein. Her first show received rave reviews from fashion establishment types like the New York Times' Cathy Horyn and designer Narciso Rodriguez, but trouble was brewing.

“There was a change of administration, and a change of direction,” explains Toledo. “Anne Klein, the woman, was forward thinking—an innovative creator who anticipated the needs of the future. But Jones NY, the parent company of Anne Klein, did not feel they were equipped to take on the challenge of continuing the designer division.” Toledo left the company only a few months later.

She’s moved on to launch exciting new projects like “Holy Toledo,” a museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology celebrating her 25 years in fashion design. “Ruben and I started with one dollar and a prayer,” says Toledo. “Today we have the gift of experience which equals multi dollars, and wisdom translates to longevity.”

She and her husband also designed sets and costumes for the Wheeldon Company’s (an esteemed ballet troupe comprised of leading dancers from the U.S. and Europe) new ballet, "Commedia,” which premiered in London a few weeks ago. And in September, she received the Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion from the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Toledo was born in a small town called Camajuani in Communist Cuba. She still has memories as a toddler of playing fashion show with her older sisters. Her family immigrated to the predominantly Latino suburb of West New York, NJ. While attending Memorial High School, she met her future husband Ruben. They married in 1984 and embarked on a lifetime of art and creativity. “We are lucky to love what we do,” says Toledo. “As an American I am proud to be living the American Dream.”

Serena Kim

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