Designer Isabel Toledo created the lemongrass dress and coat that Michelle Obama wore to her husband’s first inauguration in 2009. The dress was unabashedly bold and feminine. It skimmed the first lady’s figure, and the coat practically twinkled in the sunlight. The ensemble announced Obama’s presence on the world stage. At the time, Toledo said the dress had been crafted in the spirit of optimism. And with that simple intention, it communicated the story the Obama administration hoped to tell.
Toledo, a Cuban-born, New York-based designer, died earlier this week in New York from breast cancer at age 59.
She was an accomplished designer long before she was called into service by Obama. In addition to her signature collection, Toledo also served as creative director of Anne Klein and designed a collection for Lane Bryant. Her work, along with that of her husband, Ruben, who is an artist, has been celebrated by a host of museums including the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York and the Detroit Institute of Arts. They were regularly asked to speak about their creative partnership, one in which they each seemed to feed off and nurture the imagination of the other.
But it’s that inaugural suit that wrote Isabel Toledo into history.
The choice of Toledo for the prestigious commission highlighted an aspect of the American fashion industry that so often goes unnoticed. Toledo was an independent designer — in both business and philosophy. She didn’t have corporate backers; she didn’t have advertising; she didn’t live in the hot glow of social media, red carpets or celebrity influencers. Toledo worked quietly and with a singular focus. Her collections were finished when she had seen her vision through to the end. Her style did not ebb and flow with the trends; it evolved with her moods and her life.
Her thoughtfully crafted garments expressed femininity and intellectual rigor; they exuded pleasure in the female form without obsessing over it. Toledo’s personality was stamped all over her work.
She was admired by other designers, by museum curators, artists and academics. But Toledo’s was not a well-known brand. The inaugural ensemble introduced her to the public at large, and on that one day, her work told the world that the American fashion industry was populated by entrepreneurs — those politically lionized small-business owners — who have big dreams but those dreams are not necessarily defined by enormous wealth and massive sales. Their idealism can be defined as a simple longing for the opportunity to live a creative, fulfilled life.
That inaugural ensemble proved the expressive power of fashion — sometimes the joy and hope of an entire populace can be communicated in a single splash of sunshine-bright lace.
Toledo gave voice to immigrants and women. She spoke for those who go their own way and aim for success on their own terms — sometimes by choice and sometimes because that is the only way possible. Toledo was the first in a long line of designers whom Obama championed as first lady — designers whose personal story said something about the breadth of the American Dream.
Toledo’s death does not symbolize the end of an era. She wasn’t of an era. That was her glory. She was a singular point of light. And without her, the fashion industry — and the broader creative community — is diminished.