The Fashion Whip: Michelle Obama Favorite Isabel Toledo On Why Washington Needs More Optimism

Fashion Whip is a political style column in the Huffington Post by fashion stylist Lauren Rothman and HuffPost reporter Christina Wilkie inspired by Lauren’s experience at Styleauteur, the firm she founded.

WASHINGTON — It’s a tough time to be a political optimist. On TV, the anemic presidential race shifts into second gear, fueled by unlimited corporate cash. In Congress, the perpetual deadlock seems poised to continue indefinitely.

These days, fashion here is equally serious. First Lady Michelle Obama traded in her usual jewel tones and luscious prints last week in favor of a simple one-shouldered black dress at a formal White House Dinner. The next night in New York City, the typically bold first lady again went with a stern color, choosing a navy blue cocktail dress with a high neckline and matching cardigan for a fundraiser hosted by stylish “Sex and the City” star Sarah Jessica Parker and Vogue editor Anna Wintour. The ensembles were a far cry from the lemongrass inauguration dress and coat that Obama wore on her first day in the White House in 2009, three-and-a-half long years ago.

The somber state of affairs has even made an impression upon the designer of Obama’s now-iconic inauguration dress and coat, Cuban-born Isabel Toledo. “We need an injection of optimism,” Toledo told Fashion Whip in a recent interview. “I loved that color because it was organic and you could almost taste it and smell it. For me, it really represented so much of the optimism of that day and this couple.”

As for what Toledo hoped the newly minted first lady would feel in Toledo’s design, she said, “I wanted her to feel charming, and I wanted her to charm America.”

Not surprisingly, Toledo’s career took a different course after January 20, 2009. “I went from being a best-kept secret to being a household name,” she said. Soon after, Toledo formed partnerships with Target and Payless shoes, which both released Toledo-designed collections. She also penned a memoir, “Roots of Style,” out this month. Her husband, famed fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo, did the illustrations, which appear every couple of pages.

Despite achieving worldwide name recognition overnight, Toledo said her daily life hasn’t changed much since 2009. “I love the process, I love the fabric and the stitching and the design — every step. Clothing for me is very much about the process.” It’s also a highly collaborative project for Toledo’s staff of seamstresses and pattern cutters, a group she said resembles “the United Nations,” but who all work together in her 28th Street studio in Manhattan. There, on the wall behind each seamstress’s chair, hangs a photo of Michelle Obama wearing that particular craftswoman’s creation. “Mrs. Obama wore our clothes for years before she moved to Washington,” Toledo explained “and it’s a great source of pride for us that she still does.”

Toledo’s love for the process of creating clothes, combined with her emphasis on making her entire team feel invested in that process, goes a long way towards explaining her unflappable optimism.

But it might also offer a clue into the malaise currently floating over Washington. Running for national office, unlike designing dresses, is a brutal process. No one in his or her right mind could love it, and most of Washington can’t wait for this cycle to be over.

What the city needs now is a strong dose of Toledo’s lemongrass-green optimism. Unfortunately, neither bipartisan collaboration, nor a more loveable electoral process, are likely to manifest this year.

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