First Lady of Style: Robin Givhan on Michelle Obama's Fashion Choices for Inauguration Day

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2009; 2:49 PM

For that moment when she officially became first lady, Michelle Obama chose a metallic gold coat and matching slim-fitting dress by the Cuban-born designer Isabel Toledo. The dress made a glamorous statement with its regal color, and it separated the new first lady from those wearing the more traditional red and blue.

From a purely aesthetic point of view, the selection was a wise one. The rich shade was flattering to her skin, and it proudly announced her embrace of a role that is symbolic, grand and historic. But the selection of Toledo to create her swearing-in ensemble also suggested that Obama intends to embrace the fashion industry in a way that most of her predecessors have not.

Toledo is not a well-known designer, although she was briefly creative director at Anne Klein. Her work is not readily available; it is limited to a handful of independent boutiques such as Chicago's Ikram, where Obama has been a regular customer. It is also sold at Barneys New York. And Toledo does not advertise. In short, it takes effort and desire to find her work.

Toledo can be described as an eccentric designer, one who is rarely influenced by prevailing trends and fads. Instead, her sensibility is grounded in old-fashioned dress-making techniques, her Cuban ancestry and her own artistic impulses. The fact that Obama chose her work for such an auspicious occasion means that the doors have been thrown open to a part of the American fashion industry that is rarely seen: the world of the independent, often struggling, entrepreneur.

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