Co-sponsored by the Fashion Group International ® of Greater Washington, D.C. and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the acclaimed American fashion designer Isabel Toledo and artist Ruben Toledo joined Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic and author Robin Givhan for a “spirited chat” and book signing last Thursday, June 14, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.  I was lucky enough to sit down with the designer beforehand to discuss her latest work, Roots of Style: Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion, and the inspiration behind her words. ENJOY the latest inspirational musings, anecdotes, and advice, in Life, Love and Fashion, as the distinguished designer and husband (meets artist meets muse) Isabel and Ruben Toledo bring us into their world for a few short minutes.

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All photos: Shauna B. Alexander


Rushing up the steps of the Corcoran my chest is pounding. Pep talk: This is a dream! Okay, ready, set. The blaring traffic from 17th Street subsides as I hear myself saying, “Hi. I’m here for the Isabel Toledo interview.” Heart beats a little harder. Subsides. The North Atrium is not exactly how I remember it (the last time I was here was under the guise of sobriety, be-dazzled dresses, amid myriad of mixologists and art), so seeing it during the day-time was surprisingly refreshing. I scan the room and quickly take-in the stacks of books in the corner as well as the fashionably-clad women mingling in anticipation. “[Isabel] is stuck in traffic. They should be here in 15,” I hear the woman say as I’m guided into a private salon with a few other girls. I clutch my copy of Roots of Style, the designer’s most recent tome to fashion, design, love, and life, channeling my nerves into the book’s bands, as cocktails and QA begin.

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There’s not a lot of time to talk with Isabel. I’m told 10 minutes for the interview max. Here is the woman who designed First Lady Michelle Obama’s famed “lemongrass” Inauguration dress (the sparkly yellow day dress and coat for the 2009 swearing-in ceremony) and I only have 10 minutes!  I had planned for this, but now faced with such little time, I don’t know how I’m possibly going to fit it ALL in. Ten minutes then changes to five and there is little time left to prepare. The announcement comes in: she’s here.


Time ticks down as the interview begins. Isabel and Ruben are sitting in beautiful chairs in the Corcoran’s auditorium. She is dressed exquisitely in a gold brocade and looks fiercely Cuban next to her husband of 28 years. They are very comfortable next to one another, teasing, sharing secrets, revealing their close partnership and serendipitous love. I hold onto my questions: too nervous to hit record. Isabel and Ruben speak about the intricacies of design and Isabel’s work, discussing color and optimism, and the alchemy of moments. Afterward, Isabel asks me if I typically record and I say yes. But, this time I forgot. She reassures me its better this way – more organic – like her designs.


Respected as genuine artists and creative thinkers–in fashion and among friends–the pair are disarmingly kind and make you feel incredibly at ease. Recently, Isabel and Ruben have gained great public acclaim. Once known for being a highly independent artists, hosting private fashion presentations in their midtown Manhattan loft space, after 2009, the name Isabel Toledo sky-rocketed to “a global household name within twenty-four hours.” Michelle’s famed lemongrass dress, which (spoiler alert!) is actually a very soft sage, set the precedent for bigger collaborations with major commercial brands like Target and most recently Payless. Described as fashion’s cutest couple, “darlings of both the couture cadre and counterculture crowd,” most inspiring husband-and-wife team, AND frequently compared to likes of great artists Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera, the Toledos are on to something big. They have roots of style and a certain magic that digs in deep.



1. I get intimate with fabric.

ISABEL TOLEDO: I drape, you know, I get intimate with fabric, you can put it that way. I hold the fabric, I feel the fabric, I stitch, I let the garment talk to me. I develop ideas based on emotion. It’s a really different way of working because sometimes I want to feel the fabric hug me here. I’m going to think of the garment and how it hugs a certain part of my body or kicks in a certain way. I mean this is why I do all these things because I know when I’m walking I’m kicking all these little treatments.


2. Isabel + Ruben: Where does Isabel end a Ruben begin? And vice versa?

RUBEN TOLEDO: I can draw anything in world, but I can’t make anything. The real talent is making with your hands. I can draw anything and I can paint anything, but [Isabel] figures out how to make my sculpture stand up. Isabel is really about making things. My finished artwork, my sketches are usually done after Isabel designs something. Then I can actually see it. Everything else, it’s all concept sketches. She’ll describe to me what she wants to make. Also, we communicate without pattern makers or seamstresses. Many times we dont know what a collection is going to look like until its done. It’s really a work in progress, you know.

IT: The difference with working with Ruben is that I have a constant person that I can bounce ideas. And one idea becomes 20 ideas. With Ruben I can do so much. Because everything evolves like this (snap snap snap). It’s just the chemistry we have together.


3. Personal Inspiration. GO.

IT: My personal inspiration? Where I grew up plays a big role in how I see,  how I look at texture, how I think of color. (Nods assuredly) Yes, it definitely had a lot to do with where I grew up: in Cuba. My aunts. I wrote about them in the book. I had so many aunts! I grew up around women. Fifteen sisters and three brothers. They were amazing! These women were all different roles – all different types. There was a bigger woman, a shorter one. (Turns to Ruben) I mean you met some of them; they were strong women. I don’t think of myself as dressing one woman. But I think of myself as dressing so many different types. Because I think in me are all those different roles.


4. How do you feel about color?

IT: I always see the shades in colors. I’m a real good blender of colors. Color to me is the fabrication that it’s in. It gives you a better coloration depending the fabric it’s in. It is a combination of the color and texture and the tone.

RT: But in fact her favorite colors are colors that you cannot name!


5. And finally, but definitely, not least: the Lemongrass dress.

IT: I wanted [Michelle] to feel charming. There are so many different perspectives and angles people are looking at you from. How do you soften all those edges. Because that’s unity. That’s how you create a moment that is special to everyone. That charm has to be felt by everyone else to be seen. And that was important to me. Because it wasn’t just her moment it was everyones moment. My god! How do I address a moment that everyone else has something to do with? And I knew she was carrying that. Because women are that.

RT: It’s true. It’s such a visual symbol of the moment.

RT: She started with the fabric and with the color. She really reacted to that.

IT: I saw a piece of fabric in my studio and I fell in love with that cloth. I knew that could say a lot. And I said, this is it–this is it. But I knew that was the fabric. And so, we started back and forth. What is it going to look like? The thing about that lace was that I knew I could adapt. I knew it was going to have various moments coming at you. It wasn’t just that flat picture–I did put–behind that lace was a net, like a tulle of silk, that was what created all the shimmer. And behind that was a bone colored taffeta. And that’s what gave it that glow. And in fact its a sage, a very soft green, almost grayish. But in the light it just really sparkled.


GO TO: THE ABA AGENCY: STYLISH ROOTS – ISABEL AND RUBEN TOLEDO – FOR MORE ON THE TOLEDOS + KEEP checking this space for more scoop on local style, fashion news and more. For more information about The Fashion Group International® of Greater Washington, DC, Inc.  visit http://washingtondc.fgi.org/. THANKSSS!

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