NEW YORK — Plans were already under way for the midcareer retrospective of Isabel Toledo’s designs at the Fashion Institute of Technology when, on Inauguration Day in January, First Lady Michelle Obama donned Toledo’s lemongrass silk and tulle ensemble, thus catapulting the veteran designer to pop culture stardom. “They were very happy,” Toledo acknowledges of the show’s curators, Dr. Valerie Steele and Patricia Mears.
Indeed, they make the most of the moment: The show opens at noon today at the Museum at FIT and is officially called “Isabel Toledo: Fashion From the Inside Out.” It offers a muraled time line of Toledo’s major career events, including her brief 2007 stint at Anne Klein, as well as dozens of looks from her own collections dating back to 1985.
Yet that famous outfit takes center stage (albeit behind glass) alongside a wall of photos of Toledo watching network news on the morning of the event as well as a reprint of The New York Times’ front page from the following day (in the museum’s press release, Obama states, “I absolutely adored my Inauguration Day ensemble…and I am happy it will be part of the exhibit so that others can appreciate the creativity and craftsmanship of one of America’s great female designers.”)
For Toledo, who for the press preview wore a white tuxedo jacket made from the same Swiss lace she used for Obama’s dress and jacket, the impact has been both financial — “yes, there’s been a change,” she acknowledges of buyer interest in her company — as well as creative. “I’m just so proud to have been a part of that moment, and it’s changed my life on a spiritual level,” she says, “so you’ll see what affect that has on my clothes [next season].”
For those designers Obama has worn regularly, there is no doubt a heightened interest in her official schedule. As Toledo explains it, the white-and-black outfit she wore to meet Queen Elizabeth in London in March had been designed and sent to the First Lady with the Inauguration in mind. However, “it was too cold,” Toledo says. “But I knew I had to make [the yellow outfit] warm enough. She is like all women — she wanted to be comfortable.”