- Associated Press - Thursday, October 20, 2011

MIAMI (AP) - In the first major runway show for her own label in more than a decade, Cuban-American designer Isabel Toledo introduced her "watercolor" spring-summer 2012 collection in Miami.

At a gallery space in Miami’s design district Wednesday night, Toledo showed feminine, flowing dresses in colors taken from the tropical scenery of her inspiration, the Caribbean, including the blue hues of ocean and sky.

The strapless top of an ethereal dress was emerald green, while the chiffon bottom was black. Bright orange draped another long dress that was open back, with strings attached to the sides of the pleated dress. Different shades of purple were blended in one knee-length dress. Metallic lace gold topped silver skirts, while she morphed black into white on some looks using a soft ombre technique. Delicate lace, silk, organzas, and chiffon were among her favorite fabrics, keeping in line with other trends emerging for next season on the catwalks of New York, Paris and other fashion capitals.

Toledo, who began designing in 1984, put the brakes on full-scale fashion shows after one in New York in 1998. "And then silence," she said.

"Being a small company, you’re just not big enough to show the way that the big brands show," she said. "And I actually felt that my work deserved a lot more attention as far as the intimacy of fashion."

Her work certainly grabbed attention after first lady Michelle Obama wore some of her creations, including the yellow-green _ aka "lemongrass" _ dress and jacket that she wore the day her husband was inaugurated as president.

Toledo has since created a successful shoe and handbag collection for Payless ShoeSource, and, in fact, the models in the Miami show wore her upcoming spring collection for Payless.

"Interesting for me has been to come to another place in the country where people are open to fashion," she said. "They want the experience to go to a fashion show. In a way it’s not business, it’s joy."

Toledo plans to continue designing shoes (she also had collaborated with Manolo Blahnik when she was creative director at Anne Klein in 2007-08) and possibly put on more fashion shows. Her latest project, though, is a book about "life, love and fashion."

"Roots of Style" is expected to be released in early 2012.

"People are ready to truly absorb creation, not just brands," said Toledo’s husband and collaborator Ruben Toledo, a well-known fashion illustrator. The two have been married for nearly 30 years and continue to inspire one another.

"Everything is inspired by Ruben, everything," Isabel Toledo. "I’m such a sedate kind of gal. And he really is the energy behind me."

Ruben Toledo’s artwork was prevalent in the new collection. He hand-painted many watercolor designs displayed on the accessories, from a floral motif to geometric shapes on oversized bags and floppy hats. Some of the dresses appeared to have paint smudge. And the long, straight ponytails on the models were dipped in different bright colors to resemble paint brushes.

The couple was also honored Wednesday with the Lifetime Achievement Award by Fashion Group International.

Ruben Toledo called it a "big time honor."

"The thought that we first started doing this when we got married," he said before turning to his wife to ask: "Did you ever think we would be doing this that long?"

"Honestly, I’ve never not thought I’d be doing this. I just never thought of it as a business," she answered.

"Same here," he agreed.

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