Fierce

Fans Of Michelle Obama Mourn The Death Of Her Beloved Cuban-American Designer

In 2009, the world watched with excitement as the U.S. made history by electing the first Black president to office. On the day of his inauguration, however, all eyes weren’t solely on Barack Obama who was being newly sworn in. Instead, most were occupied by the soon to be iconic look worn by First-Lady Michelle Obama. Her look was a lemongrass dress and coat paring designed by Cuban-American designer Isabel Toledo, a woman who devoted her career to designing for all women.

Today, the fashion world is mourning the death of the designer who styled an icon after she lost her battle against breast cancer.

Toledo died of breast cancer at age 59 in Manhattan, her husband announced on Monday. 

There is no denying her influence in fashion especially considering only4.3 percent of the 2017 Business of Fashion 500 list, which ranks the fashion industry’s most influential individuals, were Latinos. She was born in Cuba, where she learned to sew at the age of eight after she “I couldn’t find anything I loved,” she said in 2012. As a teenager, she immigrated to West New York, New Jersey and eventually attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design but never graduated instead she interned for fashion editor Diana Vreeland, who was the editor in chief of Vogue.  

In 1985 she presented her first collection and quickly made a name for herself as a “designer’s designer,” known for her focus on the art of crafting the clothing, letting the fabrics guide her instead of sartorial themes. 

“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, according to Vogue. “That’s the art form really, not fashion design, but the technique of how it’s done.”

In the late ’90s, Toledo also rejected the runway, presenting new collections in museums instead, emphasizing more the art and less the pomp and circumstance that typically surrounds fashion shows.

  Despite her desire to pave her own path in fashion and rejecting the flashiness of fashion, she was respected in the industry, with fellow Cuban designer, Narciso Rodriguez voicing his support of her works. “I admire her technique, her individuality, and her incredible eye. Her clothes are always right,” he told Vogue in 2003. 

She’d dressed celebrities including Demi Moore and Debra Messing but it was Michelle Obama’s 2009 inauguration dress during President Barack Obama’s historic win that skyrocketed her to fame. 

She met her future husband, acclaimed Cuban artist and illustrator Ruben Toledo, in high school and they married in 1984. 

He sketched her designs including the lemongrass dress with the matching overcoat that Obama wore. 

We’re levitating – we really are,” he told WWD at the time. “It’s just another shock, but a great shock.”

They had not been informed beforehand that she would be wearing the dress and first saw it at the same time everyone else did during the inauguration parade. 

“With her incredible creativity and masterful talent, Isabel designed a beautiful lemongrass outfit that I just loved,” Obama told the New York Times. “She more than met the moment — for that day and for all of history.”

One aspect of the dress, in particular, was somewhat controversial – the color. Media descriptions changed from apple green to yellow to gold but Toledo called it lemongrass, which was the fabric color that served as inspiration for the dress and said it was an “optimistic color.” She told the Associated Press that the various interpretations of the color allowed for an individual experience of the clothing, giving the moment more “depth.”

 “There is nothing that comes close to this moment. It’s not just my moment and hers, but it’s the world’s. It’s not only what she’s wearing. It’s what the moment represents,” she told AP. 

She and her husband collaborated for decades and won the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in 2005 and she also received the third annual Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion from the Museum at FIT in 2008.

They had recently worked on an exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) entitled Labor of Love. It’s central focus was the relationship between fashion and art, showcasing sculptures, paintings, and drawings that they created together, using the DIA’s collection as inspiration. The centerpiece was “Synthetic Cloud”, a series of dresses she’d sewn from layers of multi-colored tulle including sky blue, hot pink, orange, lavender, and neon green, according to Vogue

I’m not supposed to say I’m not a fashion person, but I’m not. I just, I love design,” she told CNN in 2012. “Design is so different than fashion. That’s why design lasts forever. It’s like an engineer. I love to engineer a garment.”

In 2012, she published an autobiography entitled Roots of Style, illustrated by her husband, where she discussed the influence growing up in Cuba had in her designs and how fashion became a form of art that allowed her to express herself. 

Toledo may be remembered for the inauguration dress but throughout her career, she made her designs available to the average woman as well. 

She served briefly as creative director for Anne Klein, from 2006 to 2007 and designed a series of boots, pumps, flats and handbags in a collaboration with Payless Shoe Source which has since shuttered.

In 2014, she debuted a capsule collection for plus-sized retailer Lane Bryant, saying to Jezebel:

“For me, it’s really important that women are given the opportunity to be eccentric… The liberty, the freedom, the right to be eccentric, to be their size, and to have the freedom or the opportunity to enjoy fashion at any size […] I can’t imagine not having that, so I feel a duty to provide it.”

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