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