Remembering Isabel Toledo, the Cuban-American Designer Who Dressed Michelle Obama on Inauguration Day

Isabel Toledo RIP

The iconoclastic designer Isabel Toledo died on Monday at the age of 59, losing her life to breast cancer. She is survived by her husband and partner in all things creative, Ruben Toledo. Both the Toledos ended up in New Jersey as teenagers, first meeting in Spanish class, having fled Cuba during the revolution. Collaborating in life and in love, they spent their years together creating beautiful art and fashion that transcended the bounds of business and consumption. 

Isabel Toledo standing next to her plus size designs for Lane Byrant in 2014

Isabel’s work wasn’t always in the limelight of public recognition, but it was always emanating love. She had been sewing since the age of eight, as a way to make things that she wanted to wear; she almost exclusively wore her own creations throughout her life. Nonetheless, Isabel had often rejected the label of being a fashion designer, telling Harper’s Bazaar that her work connected to something deeper than consumption or fast fashion. “[Ruben and I] experience art. We’re makers … If we don’t love it, I can’t do it. I can’t take it. I can’t fake it.” 

Her husband Ruben has also spoken about how important this is for their work, telling Refinery29, “First of all, you can’t do something creative if you’re not in love. You’ve got to love what you’re doing and you have to love your life. If not, it’s not going to come out right. If you’re doing anything creative, you can’t lie your way through it. What you see is really how you’re feeling.” 

Michelle Obama wore a lemongrass shift and matching overcoat designed by Isabel Toledo to the 2009 inauguration Isabel Toledo
Photo Credit: Doug Mills:Pool:Getty Images

Perhaps Isabel’s most high-profile moment in history was the day that Former First Lady Michelle Obama wore her dress — on the day that President Barack Obama was inaugurated into office. Michelle, recall, made a point to elevate American designers with her sartorial choices, and wearing Isabel’s design for what would be one of the Obama’ — and the country’s — biggest celebrations of love and hope seems only fitting.

The fabric — specifically the “lemongrass” hue: not quite green, not quite yellow — was mesmerizing. Following Isabel’s death, Michelle explained to the New York Times that she was well aware that her inauguration day style would go down in history. “With her incredible creativity and masterful talent, Isabel designed a beautiful lemongrass outfit that I just loved,” she said. “She more than met the moment — for that day and for all of history.” It holds even more meaning today that the former First Lady chose the work of an immigrant to mark such a singular occasion.