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Isabel Toledo, fashion designer who made Michelle Obama's inauguration ensemble, dies at 59

Isabel Toledo, fashion designer who made Michelle Obama’s inauguration ensemble, dies at 59

NEW YORK — Isabel Toledo, the Cuban-American fashion designer with an avant-garde flair who created former first lady Michelle Obama’s standout lemongrass-colored sheath dress and matching overcoat for her husband’s 2009 inauguration, has died. She was 59.

Toledo died of breast cancer, her studio said in an email. Further details were not immediately available.

Though she presented her first collection in 1985, Toledo’s work grabbed attention after Obama wore some of her looks at the inauguration, including the lemongrass shift dress in wool and lace.

Born in Cuba, Toledo arrived in West New York, N.J., as a teenager, later attending but not graduating from fashion college. She met her Cuban-born husband, the fashion illustrator and painter Ruben Toledo, in high school.

An avid seamstress from a young age, Toledo attended New York‘s Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design, where she studied painting, ceramics, and fashion design.  

She was an independent designer but served briefly as creative director for Anne Klein.

On the day of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, Jan. 20, 2009, Toledo, her husband and their team were stunned to see the new first lady wearing one of her creations.

“We’re levitating – we really are,” Ruben Toledo told WWD, minutes after watching Obama on TV. The husband-wife team tuned in surrounded by their staff in their New York showroom.

They had not known what Obama planned.

“We had no idea. We hoped she would wear something because she has bought Isabel’s clothes before. We never know what’s going to happen,” he said.

“It’s just another shock, but a great shock.”

The fashion world began mourning on social media. 

“The fashion world has lost today a rainbow of talent and joy. RIP my friend Isabel Toledo. You and your husband Ruben inspired of all us. You created magic and showed us how love is the most powerful tool to create fantasy. Today is a sad day,” posted Elle magazine editor and Project Runway judge Nina Garcia.  

The Toledos were known as an art couple as much as a fashion couple; eventually they became a true power couple in the design world as the embodiment of the intersections between fashion and art.

“What matters is to have free expression always,” a philosophy they said they learned after meeting Andy Warhol by accident in 1977.

Several of their museum exhibits focused on this theme: In 2000, “Isabel and Ruben Toledo: A Marriage of Art and Fashion,” opened at Kent State University Museum.  

For an exhibit that opened at the Detroit Institute of Arts in December, they created clothing, sculptures, paintings and illustrations for a show, titled “A Labor of Love,” that highlighted the synergy between fashion and art. She designed clothing to complement permanent artworks already on display in the museum’s galleries, and he painted and illustrated accompanying imagery to works like Diego Rivera’s famous Detroit murals. 

The result was a “charmingly eclectic exhibition imbued with humor and pathos, in which the Cuban-American couple riffed on everything from the Diego Rivera “Detroit Industry” murals to art in the Egyptian and Early American galleries,” said Michael H. Hodges, the Detroit News’ fine arts writer. 

In “Synthetic Cloud,” sky-blue dresses with puffy tulle skirts were suspended above a sculpture by Donald Judd and a Frank Stella geometric painting. 

The effect is like “a soft, poetic mist floating above you,” Ruben Toledo told New York Magazine’s The Cut. “They become like flowers floating up in the sky.”

For the fashion world, Isabel Toledo was a low-key designer who shunned the limelight and cared more about craft and construction than the lure of fame. But at the Fashion Institute of Technology, museum director Valerie Steele considered her a “genius.”

In 2009, the FIT museum featured a mid-career retrospective of Toledo’s work, “Fashion from the Inside Out.” On the wall at the entrance to the exhibit was a quote from the designer:

“I never thought of myself as a designer. I’m a seamstress.” 

Contributing: Maria Puente, USA TODAY