Isabel Toledo 1960 – 2019

Isabel Toledo in 2009, at her retrospective exhibition at F.I.T.

Isabel Toledo died Monday from breast cancer at the age of 59. Born Maria Isabel Izquierdo on April 9, 1960 in Camajuani, Cuba, Isabel immigrated to New Jersey in 1968. She met her future Cuban-born husband, Ruben Toledo, in high school when she was 14 and he 13. The artistically-talented Ruben became her collaborative partner in love and business when they married in 1984.

Isabel attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.) and later, the Parsons School of Design, but left in 1979 before graduating to intern for Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Toledo presented her first independent collection in 1984 at the club Danceteria, and debuted her work at New York Fashion Week the following year. She quickly built a reputation as a “designer’s designer”, in the same vein as Charles James and Iris van Herpen. The Toledos received the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for their work in fashion in 2005.

Isabel’s couture work, which ignored semi-annual seasonal collection schedules, was more often featured in museum exhibitions than in fashion magazines. Her more commercial work appeared while she was the creative director for Anne Klein in 2006/07 and in collections she began designing for Lane Bryant in 2014.

Although well known in the fashion world, Toledo came to the world’s attention when she unknowingly created Michelle Obama’s lemongrass-coloured sheath dress and matching overcoat of wool lace for the 2009 inauguration. Mrs. Obama had bought the dress from the Chicago boutique Ikram without meeting Isabel Toledo before wearing the ensemble. Later that same year, F.I.T. staged a retrospective of her work which I was fortunate enough to see. I blogged about my impressions of the show on July 29, 2009:

“Cuban-born Toledo is difficult to define. Her work shows a lot of Spanish influence, superb detailing, intricate pattern cuts, old fashioned fabrics, and a great deal of influence from designers such as Balenciaga, Gernreich, and especially Madame Gres. Each collection grows in a different direction, sometimes bordering the ridiculous such as a brassiere designed for drag queens and her ‘pubic hair’ bikini (a ‘hairy’ fabric bikini but don’t worry, no pubic hairs were actually involved in its manufacture) to Avant-garde designs of asymmetrically draped and gathered dresses with odd folds and peekaboo seams – hardly the same style of dressmaking as Mrs. Obama’s elegantly simple inaugural suit!”

In 2012 she published her autobiography, “Roots of Style: Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion”, with illustrations by Rubin Toledo. That same year she told CNN in an interview “I’m not supposed to say I’m not a fashion person, but I’m not. I just, I love design… design is so different than fashion. That’s why design lasts forever. It’s like an engineer. I love to engineer a garment.” 

The New York Times did a lovely memoir of her life and work in an end of year tribute.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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2 Responses to Isabel Toledo 1960 – 2019

  1. Daniel Milford-Cottam says:

    I am genuinely sad about this – Isabel Toledo was one of the few designers who really had me excited, enthralled and intrigued in the Noughties. I first knew of her via an online retrospective hosted by the University of Kent State Museum, and was ABSOLUTELY blown away by her work (I particularly remember one very beautiful long coat where the facings descended downwards from the collar, rather than being folded back from the front openings like most constructions would be, ).

    I am very happy to have one solid example of her work, a late 1990s matelassé bolero jacket, very simply constructed, but mathematically amazing, with the back sculpturally forming a kite shape through the stiffness and body of the fabric. The V&A were considering acquiring an example of her work for the Modern Designers/Legacy section of their Balenciaga exhibition, and I am very sorry that we didn’t manage to secure one.

    I think the biggest deal about Toledo for me in the Noughties was that everything she did always looked very, very street-wearable, even when it was pretty far out, in a way that a lot of other exciting/innovative designers’ work didn’t (and at a time when a LOT of much-lauded designers’ street-wearable stuff was derivative, unoriginal, boring and/or anodyne as heck…)

    • Jonathan says:

      She was one of those designers whose clothes were always more complex than they appeared at first… a great talent.

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