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Isabel Toledo Makes Rare In-Store Appearance to Showcase Her Latest Line for Lane Bryant

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The couture designer discusses the freedoms that come with designing for plus-size women while showing off her latest collection for Lane Bryant. The scene at Lane Bryant's Wabash Avenue shop on Thursday night was a far cry from the conservative dress pants and blazers often associated with plus-size retailers. Instead, a velvet rope partitioned off slickly styled women who waited to enter the store to sample champagne and hors d'oeuvres. And get a peek at Isabel Toledo's latest line for the brand.

The New York–based designer—who is perhaps best known for dressing Michelle Obama in the lemongrass wool-lace shift dress and matching overcoat she donned at her husband's first inauguration—made a rare appearance at the store to help celebrate the occasion. Her Couture Council Award–winning aesthetic is clear throughout the line: shark-bite hems, lace blended with metallic fabrics, and ample textures that create bold silhouettes.

"When you play with texture you get emotion," said Toledo, who seemed as impressed with the spectacle surrounding her as anyone else in attendance. "The only difference between this and my own collection is price because I made sure I gave everything the same integrity that I give to my own line. And [Lane Byrant] was willing to go there with me," she explained as she observed two women fawn over her ponte-fitted jacket with chevron-satin trim.

The collaboration is a first for Lane Bryant and a critical one given Toledo's couture clout and the fashion industry's history of ignoring the plus-size market. Though Lane Bryant CEO Linda Heasley acknowledged that the attitude is finally changing.

"50% of the American female population is over a size 8 so it's a significant market," said Heasley. "In the industry you are seeing new players come in every day. I think more options for our client is a great thing."

It's also an enviable thing, as most of Toledo's line appeals to women of all shapes and sizes. "I wear the coat, I wear the tunics. [The collection has] good lines and good architecture," said Toledo, who admitted that she first designs everything based on what she wants to wear. "I designed this for me. I have to love what I'm doing."

And though Heasley appreciates the buzz the collection is generating, she stresses that Lane Bryant is concerned with pleasing the plus-size population first .

"All women deserve great fashion but we're totally focused on this client," explained Heasley. "I love when the traditional 'missy'-size customer comes in and says, 'I want that outfit' and we have to say 'it's not in your size' because our client hasn't always had the option to shop everywhere."

The success of the collection, which is in its fourth season, also disproves the validity of claims that it's easier to design for a size 0 than a size 14. "At the end of the day it's proportion that counts," explained Toledo. "It's not the scale, it's the proportion. It's where you cut the body, the lengths."

It's hard to argue with her when surrounded by a roomful of smartly dressed women who might be turned away from other high-end designers. Even more refreshing is that the group not only features different sizes and shapes, but is more ethnically diverse than what is in attendance at a typical fashion event.

"I like curves," said Toledo as a nearby woman wearing a lace and tweed bolero jacket exclaimed that anyone would look good in her outfit. "Maybe because I'm Latin, I don't know, but I like curves and this is an audience that is very appreciative of that."

Another departure from the traditional plus-size dress code are patterns and bold colors. The current collection settles into mostly grays and metallics but Lane Bryant designer Joe McCarty teased at a brighter future. "One thing that's exciting is there has been a request from our customer to deliver more color and we gave that message to the Toledos and they embraced it so we're going to deliver a punch of color in the future." He added, "The holiday collection probably steps it up to the highest level of fashion we have."

There are still three more seasons to come from the Isabel Toledo collection, plus Sophie Theallet's lingerie line for Lane Bryant's Cacique Intimates brand. Heasley also mentioned that dress designer Lela Rose is up next for a collaboration. It seems that Toledo's work is only the beginning of a new era of plus-size fashion, though the designer gives all credit back to the client.

"One of the things I love is that the modern woman today is very comfortable with her body. It's not about covering up, and in the past it was always about covering up. The best part is that I've been able to give options."—Courtney Ryan