Isabel Toledo, designer of Michelle Obama's inauguration look, dies at 59
Aug 27, 2019
Isabel Toledo, the Cuban-born independent designer who grew to be one of First Lady Michelle Obama’s favorites, has died at the age of 59. Toledo died of breast cancer on Sunday in a New York hospital, according to her husband Ruben Toledo.
The couple formed a much-admired design duo in a career of over three decades. Isabel was noted for her astute choice of fabrics; impeccable craftsmanship; and understated sophistication; while Ruben was a talented fashion illustrator whose drawings appeared in numerous magazine, supplements and even murals.
Born in Cuba in 1961, Toledo moved to West New York, New Jersey as a teenager. She met Ruben at high school there and they married in 1984. She was originally a seamstress, a craft she imbibed underneath her grandmother’s sewing machine as a child in Cuba, before going on to the study at both the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design. Though she never graduated, her first collection in 1985 was snapped up by retailers, winning early orders from Bergdorf Goodman and Fiorucci. She draped, graded, sewed and created the patterns for her earliest collections, using cans of condensed milk to hold down the fabrics, rather than professional weights.
Toledo rapidly gained a reputation for her unique finish, eschewing avant-garde inspirations and themes. She was oft referred to as a “designer’s designer,” recognized for her refined draping and devotion to her métier. Her fashion was also deeply imbued with an understanding of fashion history and technique, first developed when she interned with Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
“I really love the technique of sewing more than anything else…the seamstress is the one who knows fashion from the inside,” she said in a 1989 interview. “That’s the art form really, not fashion design, but the technique of how it’s done.”
In the late 1990s she largely stopped showing on catwalks and even presented some collections inside museums. Her radical ideas about how to present her fashion; allied to her unique talent and determination to actually sew some of her clothes herself led her to be nicknamed "The American Alaia." She was also creative director of Anne Klein in for several years; created accessories for Payless ShoeSource; and collaborated with MAC Cosmetics, the latter project launched in 2005.
Isabel and Ruben Toledo jointly received the 2005 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award, and were also bestowed the Otis Critics’ award. She was also honored with the 2008 Couture Council of the Museum of FIT’s Award for Artistry of Fashion. Demi Moore, Debi Mazar, and Debra Messing have all worn Toledo creations on the red carpet.
Her collections retailed in select boutiques, notably Barneys, Joyce Hong Kong, Colette in Paris and Ikram in Chicago. It would be a noted Chicagoan who guaranteed Toledo her greatest moment of fame. Toledo designed the lemongrass yellow wool lace shirtdress with matching overcoat which Michelle Obama wore to the first inauguration of President Obama in 2009, marching down the National Mall from Capitol Hill, to celebrate Barack’s entrance into the White House.
In a celebrated remark live on CNN, minutes after watching the new First Lady in her outfit, Toledo told CNN: “We’re levitating — we really are.”
Isabel Toledo was one of American fashion’s greatest voices, an individual of modest origin who through skill, hard work and graceful determination wrote a unique chapter in the world of design.
In addition to her husband Ruben, Isabel Toledo is survived by two sisters, Mary Santos and Anna Bertha Izquierdo.
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