Isabel Toledo, the Cuban-born designer who became a favorite of former First Lady Michelle Obama, died of breast cancer Sunday in a New York hospital. She was 59.
Her death was confirmed by her husband, Ruben Toledo.
She and Ruben Toledo were a husband-and-wife team who worked closely together in several fields of fashion. Her designs combined sophisticated simplicity and meticulous craftsmanship, while Ruben Toledo is a fashion artist whose drawings have appeared in many publications and murals.
Born in Cuba on April 9, 1960, Isabel Toledo moved to West New York, N.J., where she attended high school and met Ruben Toledo, whom she married in 1984. She attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design and interned with Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute before starting her own design firm in 1984.
It was her husband who actually took a few dresses from her closet and brought them to buyers at Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York, who agreed to buy them. Isabel quickly went to work cutting orders, often using cans of condensed milk instead of professional weights on their apartment floor, and then sewing each garment herself. Creating patterns and mannequins, draping, grading, designing runway show sets — the pair took a “do-it-yourself” approach to fashion, with Ruben drawing all the sketches for his wife’s designs.
“Isabel and I started our businesses in the early Eighties, and I immediately fell in love with her vision and energy. She was utterly unique — a designer’s designer with extraordinary talent and a deep sense of humanity that emanated from everything she made,” said Michael Kors on Monday. “The joy she found in design was contagious, and her dedication to her craft was inspiring. When Mrs. Obama chose to wear Isabel Toledo for her inauguration, we all cheered.”
Over the years, Isabel Toledo’s designs were carried by such stores as Ikram in Chicago, Barneys, Joyce in Hong Kong, and Colette in Paris.
Ikram Goldman, owner of Ikram, said, “Her spirit was in every piece she designed, wearing her clothes made you want to dance and be joyous.”
In 1998 she stopped presenting biannual collections and chose to create on her own schedule. During a multifaceted career, she also served as creative director of Anne Klein from 2006 to 2007, designed a special size collection for Lane Bryant, and created an accessories and footwear line for Payless ShoeSource. She and her husband also collaborated with MAC Cosmetics, which launched in 2015.
Toledo, along with her husband, received the 2005 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for their work in fashion, and also received the Otis Critics’ award. She also won the 2008 Couture Council of the Museum of FIT’s Award for Artistry of Fashion. At the FIT event, many in the 500-person crowd wore one of Toledo’s creations, but a few were unable to oblige.
“I would wear drag for Isabel, if she designed me a dress,” joked Narciso Rodriguez at the 2008 luncheon.
On Monday, Rodriguez said, “I’m heartbroken to learn of Isabel’s passing today. Isabel was a talent beyond measure, an extraordinary woman, artist and friend. She personified grace and that grace translated to her work and all of the beauty she brought to this world. Together, she and Ruben were a beautiful and brilliant force, and their influence on fashion and art is profound. Isabel’s professional integrity was matched only by her precision and her focus on the craft.
“Few designers possess the kind of knowledge and skill with which she crafted each piece. Her work inspired awe in fellow designers as well as great admiration for always being true to her vision. Only Isabel’s capacity for love, kindness and genuine friendship could even begin to contend with her professional brilliance. I will miss her very much,” he added.
Isabel Toledo was the subject of a mid-career retrospective at FIT in 2009 titled “Isabel Toledo: Fashion From the Inside Out,” which featured 70 looks from her collection and Anne Klein. Curated by Valerie Steele and Patricia Mears, the exhibition noted that Toledo didn’t sketch, as most fashion designers do. Instead, she used construction as a point of departure for each of her designs, working closely with her husband to give her visions shape. Isabel Toledo insisted that she was not a fashion designer but rather “a seamstress” who thoroughly immersed herself in the technique of creating clothes.
In 2014, Isabel Toledo was nominated for a Tony Award for best costume design for a musical. She designed the costumes for “After Midnight,” a musical ode to the Twenties and such Harlem hot spots as the Cotton Club and the Savoy.
Speaking at “The Great Designers” symposium in 2008, Toledo said as a child in Cuba she often played beneath her grandmother’s sewing machine, fascinated by what it could make. Having sewn since she was a girl, Toledo said she liked to feel the tension in the fabric, often draping from the bottom up, and those practices enhanced her tactile approach to fashion. “The one thing I love is to hand-sew things,” she said.
When she addressed students at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., Isabel Toledo pointed out how important it was to learn how to sew. “That was my education into the arts and crafts of [fashion] and the love of the make,” she said in 2010. “I got that when I was very young, but the artistic side of fashion came when I did an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art [in the Costume Institute] and I got exposed to the Balenciagas and the Vionnets, and all those great masters’ works. I fell in love with fashion as an art form.
In a book titled “Roots of Style: Weaving Together Life, Love and Fashion,” the designer wrote the text and her husband whipped up the illustrations. The book detailed how Isabel Toledo went from being a child in Cuba tuned into the stylish ways of the women in her neighborhood to suiting up Michelle Obama for her husband’s inauguration. The designer said she never bought into the ideology that if you attended the right school and knew the right people, that success is guaranteed. “What I want is to encourage kids to take on challenges and risk especially when you’re young and at the beginning of your career. We’re too safe. Risk everything for what you love to do and the rest will follow,” she was quoted saying in 2012.
Toledo designed the lemongrass yellow wool lace shirtdress with matching overcoat which Michelle Obama wore to the first inauguration of President Obama in 2009.
“We’re levitating — we really are,” said Ruben Toledo, minutes after watching Michelle Obama on CNN in the ensemble in 2009.
“Isabel will be remembered as one of the great originals in American fashion. Her creativity was always about craft and never about hype. She was a real designer who sewed and who understood that the choice of materials mattered,” said Steven Kolb, chief executive officer of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
“She served on the CFDA board for many years, using her voice to rally for the needs of small, independent designers. She was also a longtime advocate of people living with HIV/AIDS, having supported the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS for many years. Her death is a tremendous loss for our industry. CFDA’s thoughts are with her beloved husband Ruben,” said Kolb.
“I had the great pleasure of meeting Isabel many times throughout my career,” said Jason Wu. “She was not only an incredible designer, but also one of the most genuinely nice, down-to-earth people I’ve ever met. I was very lucky to have shared a special moment with Isabel for the 2009 inauguration, when we both got to dress First Lady Michelle Obama for the historic event. I will forever cherish that moment with her.”
Peter Som said Monday: “Isabel — with her husband Ruben — symbolized everything about New York that was creative, intelligent and magically downtown.
“I moved to New York City because that kind of world was something I wanted to be a part of. Isabel had awe-inspiring talent and craft — you don’t always have both — and that talent was only matched by her kindness. She was truly one of the nicest people in the business. We have lost a true original light,” said Som.
“I am devastated to hear the news. Isabel was always so lovely and supportive,” said Zac Posen. “She was very warm and kind, especially when I first started out. I always found her fashion-outsider energy so refreshing.”
Linda Fargo, senior vice president of the fashion office and the director of women’s fashion and store presentation for Bergdorf Goodman, said, “I adored Isabel, personally and professionally. Isabel was always in a rarefied spectrum reserved for a very few. I regarded her work in the same pantheon of fashion’s greats. She was utterly unique, and had an impressive wide arc in her vision, moving between the sinuous and the sculptural, with exquisite craftsmanship evident in everything. And almost more than her work was the fact that she herself was her own vivid creation. She was an artist and an elegant soul. She has left far too early, disbelief…”
Diane von Furstenberg said Monday, “It’s so sad. I hope she did not suffer. I met Isabel about 20 years ago. She did the costumes for a play that played at my studio. I was floored by her talent. She was enormously talented. I hope the world sees her work.”
Yoehlee Teng, who was a close personal friend, told WWD, “She will truly be missed. Isabel had a very strong independent voice and was a master of her craft and a true artist.”
“It’s so sad,” said Donna Karan. “Isabel was a true spirit designer who created from her heart and beliefs. Her husband and she did remind me of Stephan [Weiss] and myself, walking their talk. It’s what true passion, creativity, and love for life are all about.”
“I loved Isabel’s work and what she represented: uniquely talented and independent-minded. She was an American Alaïa. She was one of the very best,” said Derek Lam.
Vera Wang said, “More of only the good die young.…I never knew Isabel very personally, but had enormous respect for her incredibly loving and respectful collaboration with her husband. And to me, she helped to pioneer us girl designers with courage and elegance and dignity.”
Rebecca Moses added, “I am in shock and deeply saddened. Isabel was a true design talent. I admired her greatly. She had vision and discipline to stick to her path. A rare bird.”
Jeffrey Banks said, “Isabel and Ruben were two of the kindest and loveliest people I have ever known. A visit to their atelier was like a trip to Wonderland, filled with the most dazzling visuals everywhere you looked. Both of them were so very nice to me when I interviewed them for the book I did on Patricia Underwood.
“Isabel Toledo was a master at the craft of dressmaking. Her single objective in designing was to make women look beautiful. She, and her equally talented husband Ruben, worked hand-in-hand to create dramatic original designs that looked like no one else’s,” said Banks.
Marylou Luther said, “Isabel did it her way — designing clothes that were notably original, but also wearable. She sold to a very select group of stores, guaranteeing their exclusivity. She was always kind, never ‘entitled.’ The only other designer I could compare her to was Azzedine Alaïa. The ultimate independents — showing when they wanted to show, delivering when they wanted to deliver — literally controlling their own destiny.”
Interestingly, Luther said Isabel shared her April 9 birthday with Marc Jacobs, Martin Margiela and herself. She said Ruben was born April 10 and “they were truly meant for each other — from grade school on. While they were both born under the sign of the ram, they never rammed things down your throat. Isabel was a true artist, just like Ruben. She was truly one of a kind,” said Luther.
Celine Mariton, vice president of global communications and marketing at Zac Posen, said, “I worked with Isabel and Ruben back when I was at MAC. They were the loveliest. Their synergy and creative ability was just incredible, and their studio — a dream.”
Hervé Pierre added, “She was a truly extraordinary designer. So many people think they are designers. Isabel was a true talent.”
Maryanne Grisz, president and ceo of Fashion Group International, said, “We are shocked and deeply saddened by the news of Isabel’s passing. She was a visionary artist of incredible depth with intuitive creativity that touched all aspects of her work. Isabel had such an elegant and generous spirit that inspired us and all.”
Grisz noted that Isabel was a tireless supporter of the Fashion Group and was always willing to share her insight and wisdom with young talent, as she did when she spoke at FGI Career Day and Rising Star with her husband. “Their partnership in love and life was extraordinary. We were thrilled to honor them both at Night of Stars in 2006. Her death is a profound loss to the industry,” she said.
Caroline Baumann, director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian National Design Museum said, “Isabel Toledo was a dear friend to Cooper Hewitt and we are deeply saddened by the news of her passing. It was an incredible honor to bestow the 2005 National Design Award for Fashion Design to Isabel and her husband Ruben. I will always remember her exuberance and tears of joy during their acceptance speech. Isabel was a pioneering designer who will leave a lasting impact on future generations, including the thousands of students she mentored each year as part of National Design Week. We have lost a light like no other.”
In addition to her husband Ruben, Isabel Toledo is survived by two sisters, Mary Santos and Anna Bertha Izquierdo.
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