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Four years ago, Michelle Obama officially became the First Lady of the United States wearing a historic dress and coat by American designer Isabel Toledo. In her memoir, Roots of Style, Toledo explains the inspiration for the unusual dress, the intricacies involved in designing an elegant ensemble for single-digit temperatures, and what it meant to the Cuban-born designer to be chosen for the Inaugural honor. An excerpt is reprinted below.
The 2009 Inauguration. Photos via Getty.
"Quite honestly, it all started with the fabric. The textile itself began to weave the magic that followed. I have always allowed textiles to lead the way to a new vision, and this time was no different—except the results were staggering. This was a felted wool lace and reminded me of floating islands connected by one strong and sturdy thread. The empty spaces gave me the ability to play with the illusion of light escaping from beneath.
I love lace in any form because for me, it is one of the most modern as well as ancient textiles. This wool lace was an exceptional weave, fragile to the eye, but strong and sturdy. This quality is rare to find and is perfect for molding and tailoring. Warmth was a specifc concern for me and my staff. We did not want Michelle to freeze. I wanted this coat to protect the First Lady, to comfort and hug her like a friend, while still allowing her relaxed body language to shine through and speak.
I backed the lace in thin layers of cream silk radzimir and cloudlike silk netting. Sandwiching the interlinings were thin weblike stitches of pashmina for extra warmth. The cream silk lining showing through the eyelet of the lace created the illusion of sunlight hitting water. This glittering light effect had many experienced fashion folk declare the dress was made of sequins. Some journalists and taste experts quickly debated whether a beaded dress was appropriate for day wear.
The color of this dress was a very gentle, subtle tone of sage, but I called it 'lemongrass' to express an emotion more than a color. I hoped this tone would evoke the idea of rebirth and renewal. This color expressed a warmth and a pacific, calming emotion and symbolized a new day.
I have always loved colors that are difficult to describe, because that way, everyone can own them. To some, this 'lemongrass' color was more like a sunflower. It was later also described as pale gold, corn husk, mustard, sunshine, mellow yellow, sandy ochre, and newborn celery. But that was the point: color and beauty are in the eye of the beholder, and therefore are open to many interpretations. The more something is multifaceted and can be interpreted in many different ways, the longer its lifespan and the wider its reach.
When I saw this cloth, I felt instantly that this was the one. I knew it could help make Michelle luminous. The light was going to emit from within. This historic moment had to have more than one dimension, and I knew I could create depth with this lace...
It was in the middle of December when I finally decided on this little bit of magical cloth... My studio worked feverishly to complete the ensemble. When it was finally and carefully packed away in a FedEx box, Ruben raced down the street just in the nick of time for next-day delivery. Off our ensemble went, with all of our best hopes and wishes. And off we went, for our winter vacation in Miami Beach to visit with my family over the Christmas holiday and into the New Year...
We returned to New York on a frozen day in January and went right back to our overbooked schedule. There were many deadlines and projects we were dying to do—so many in fact, taht we forgot all about the dress.
Then, on January 20, the phone rang early in the morning. It was my mother-in-law, Oneida, asking if the dress that Mrs. Obama was wearing that morning was made by me. Ruben asked, "What does it look like?"
"It's made out of a very elaborate, intricate -looking fabric," she said. "It looks like it could be gold with embroidery."
"No, that doesn't sound like an Isabel dress." Ruben answered.
He assumed that Mrs. Obama had decided to wear someone else's design and hung up the phone, disappointed. He then darted downstairs to check his email on his computer, which is how he starts every day...
Ruben nearly fell off his chair when he saw how many e-mails had already accumulated in his in-box. As he watched in astonishment, many more popped up. They were from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, and on and on, from newspapers all over the U.S., Japan, Italy, and other countries around the world. All of them asked the same questions: "Can you confirm? Is that an Isabel Toledo dress? Can you please confirm that Michelle Obama is wearing an Isabel Toledo dress?"
Ruben, of course, could not confirm any answer to the journalists' questions. He dashed upstairs and turned on the television to see the dress for himself, but at that point, the Obamas were inside the church. There was still no way to know.
Ruben ran back downstairs to get me and the seamstresses. We wouldn't all fit in the elevator, so some of us took the elevator and others ran up the stairs to gather around the television in the painting studio, collectively holding our breath until Michelle Obama emerged from the church.
When I saw her in my dress, it was like a gift from the universe. I was totally floating. Taken together, the lace and all of its secret layers created a wonderful effect. It was almost like little bits of sunshine were emanating from the dress and coat. I felt like my lemongrass dress and coat ensemble was happiness made visible—for Michelle and me, for our new president, and for a nation. That had been my prayer for that day, and it had been answered.
The response was instant and phenomenal. The entire world watched this gracious, humble, and modernly elegant woman step into the future and take us along with her. Out computer eventually crashed from so many e-mails, and we had to stop answering the phone, as it was ringing nonstop...
To put this into perspective, you must remember that Ruben and I are political refugees, and my staff consists of people from the U.S., China, Korea, Poland, Mexico, and Japan. We have interns from Austria, Quatar, England, and Canada. Ruben's 85-year-old dad, who had been our cutter, had come from Cuba during the Revolution. So you can just imagine how proud and honored we all were, this small United Nations of Fashion. Watching this historic moment meant to much to us for all its deep significance. This was a moment bigger than fashion. This was history, and now we were woven into this very moment in history forever."
Reprinted with permission from Penguin Group Inc.
· We Found Your Next Bookclub Pick: Isabel Toledo's 'Roots of Style' [Racked]
· All Inauguration coverage [Racked]