The fashion world is mourning the death of Isabel Toledo. The late Cuban designer lost her battle with breast cancer on Monday, August 26, in New York City. She was 59. Isabel famously designed former First Lady Michelle Obama’s lemongrass yellow sheath dress and matching overcoat for Barack Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration. Isabel called the historic fashion moment “an amazing honor” in 2013 (via ABC News). At the time, the designer admitted, "I always say I compare myself to Betsy Ross," who made the first American flag. She also revealed why she chose lemongrass for the first lady’s ensemble noting that the shade is "optimistic, a color that represented change."
According to The New York Times, Isabel was born in a Camajuaní, Cuba and emigrated with her parents and two sisters to the United States. In 1968, her family settled in West New York, New Jersey, where she met her future husband, Ruben Toledo, who also hailed from Cuba. The future couple was in the same Spanish class at school. She was 14 and he was 13. "[Isabel] would show up to school with the most adventurous asymmetrical haircuts and yellow and charcoal tinted eyes," Ruben told W Magazine in 2015. "Just the most incredible things that a 13-year-old ever saw."
Isabel is the designer behind Michelle Obama's 2009 inauguration outfit
Isabel attended New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, before transferring to Parsons School of Design. The designer left the university in 1979 before graduation to intern for Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Fashion is every woman’s language, every woman’s tool,” she told Interview magazine in 2014. “My ideal happens to be diversity. I love difference. I love change. I love experimentation and eccentricities.”
The designer was married to Cuban artist Ruben Toledo
Isabel admitted in 2012 that she was not a "fashion person." Speaking to CNN, she said, “I’m not supposed to say I’m not a fashion person, but I’m not. I just, I love design,” adding, “Design is so different than fashion. That’s why design lasts forever. It’s like an engineer. I love to engineer a garment.”
Following Isabel's passing, Project Runway judge Nina Garcia remembered the designer on social media, writing, “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. My deepest condolences, my dear Ruben. I know that she will keep illuminating us from above with her magic hand.”