Over a couple of decades, Isabel Toledo quietly became one of the most sought-after fashion designers in the business. But in 2009, she experienced overnight global exposure. At the inauguration that January, amid a sea of dark suits, First Lady Michelle Obama stood out in a chic chartreuse lace dress and matching overcoat designed by Toledo.
Kurt Andersen visited Isabel and her husband and business partner Ruben Toledo at their studio in Manhattan. High above a scruffy stretch of Broadway, the light-filled loft space is where the clothes are imagined, designed, prototyped, cut, and sewn. Few designers today work in this kind of artisanal environment, with everything under one roof. (The couple even lived here until few years ago.) She admits it can sometimes feel claustrophobic: "The one act play. This is what we call it. Everybody comes in and out of the space and tends to stay," Isabel told Kurt.
When Isabel gets an idea for a garment she never draws; that's where Ruben comes in. "I might wrap the fabric around me, anchor it in certain places, and then Ruben will draw it; he puts his heart in his hand," she says. That partnership is also at work in Isabel's new book Roots of Style, a half memoir/half how-to book for creative success, with Ruben's illustrations.
The small scale of the Toledo enterprise forces them to be practical, making high-end clothes that sell without extensive marketing. "I really feel that it's important that the woman connects to the garment, and wants to own it forever, and give it to her daughter after that."
Video: Isabel & Ruben Toledo in their studio