By SIGAL RATNER-ARIAS, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) - Isabel Toledo was an underground fashion insider when first lady Michelle Obama chose to wear some of her creations, including the yellow and lime dress and jacket that she wore on the day her husband was inaugurated.
Now that she has name recognition, the Cuban-American designer will launch a line of women's shoes at the end of the year for mass-market Payless ShoeSource. For that, she knows she has the first lady to thank.
"The two opportunities are connected," added the 48-year-old designer, who has lived in the U.S. since she was 8. "It was a visionary decision by Payless to take advantage of the moment and contact Isabel Toledo. I think it was very brave of them."
Toledo said her relationship with Mrs. Obama began when the first lady bought her garments in a store without her knowledge. Toledo was invited along with two other designers to a fundraising event, and to her great surprise, the first lady arrived wearing one of her creations.
"That was great for me," said Toledo. "She had chosen to wear something of mine to a party where there were all these designers, the power houses. That was a statement that was really amazing. She is willing to look into the background of what hasn't been discovered and give voice to it."
Toledo calls her Payless collection modern, sophisticated and chic. The collection, which debuts in September with seven styles, includes flats, with medium-height and tall heels, most of which are black, added the designer, who previously created footwear for Anne Klein in collaboration with Manolo Blahnik.
"I'm going to wear them!" she said. "The samples will be my size. And it's going to be a really affordable shoe, something incredible. A person like me is going to be able to buy it in multiples."
Toledo started designing in 1984. She had studied painting, ceramics and fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology and at Parsons The New School of Design in New York. She was inclined more toward fine arts, but an internship with the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art helped change her career path.
"Being around all those masterpieces by Balenciega, Madame Gres... I fell in love with the technique of designing," she said. "I thought, 'I have an identity in this art.'"
She says that one day her husband and collaborator, Ruben Toledo, took her clothes from the closet to a store and sold them all.
"We needed to make a living," she recalled. "He took orders and said, 'We are in business.' I began to sew and sew."
Now, Toledo lives the dream of any designer: "To reach as many people as possible."