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.