Isabel Toledo

Remembering Isabel Toledo, Who Was Much More Than Just the Designer of Michelle Obama's Inauguration Dress

Of the many accomplishments that Isabel Toledo, who died of breast cancer on Monday at age 58, achieved over the course of her lifetime, one of the most notable might be that she always managed to maintain a relatively low profile. Early on, the Cuban-American designer garnered comparisons to Geoffrey Beene and Charles James for her talent. But when it came to business, Toledo always did things her own way, eschewing logos and running her company independently. As for when it came to rubbing shoulders with Andy Warhol, Toledo didn't even do so intentionally: They met by accident, when the designer took refuge in Fiorucci's New York flagship store during a rainstorm.

Born in 1961, Toledo immigrated to New Jersey from Cuba in her teens. She attended both the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design, though never graduated—not that that stopped her from showcasing her first collection before she'd even hit her mid-twenties. Despite her early success, barely a dozen years had gone by before she decided to turn her back on biannual runway shows altogether—preferring, as ever, to do things her own way instead.

There was no more avoiding fame, however, when Michelle Obama wore a custom Toledo dress and overcoat to her husband's 2009 presidential inauguration. Rather than stick to the traditional color palette of red, white, and blue, Obama opted for a shade of lemongrass yellow, making the first of many waves that would follow as she continued to support up-and-coming American designers. (Many, like Toledo, were immigrants or second generation Americans.)

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama walk in the Inaugural Parade on January 20, 2009 in Washington, D.C.

Getty Images

But there was another relationship that meant even more to Toledo's career: that with her husband, the artist Ruben Toledo, whom she met while attending high school in New Jersey. (She was 14 and he was 13 at the time; they were born exactly a day and a year apart.) As Ruben once told W, Isabel made an impression on him immediately: "She would show up to school with the most adventurous asymmetrical haircuts and yellow and charcoal tinted eyes," he said in 2015. "Just the most incredible things that a 13-year-old ever saw." In the same interview, he noted that he was carrying his wife's Chanel lipstick so that she could go bag-free. (Isabel was just as affectionate; when it came time to describe her five-minute beauty routine, she responded, simply, "café con leche with my husband.")

The Toledos married in 1984—a year before Isabel showed her first collection—and quickly became inseparable, including when it came to work. (As the New York Times put it, the couple "seemed to have the kind of transcendent love story reserved for Hollywood movies.") Still, at least one of their longtime friends managed to join their café con leche routine: Paper cofounder Kim Hastreiter, who was one of many to share her memories of Toledo after news of her death broke on Monday. (In the comments section, the designer Alber Elbaz took care to send his love to Ruben, whom he referred to as Isabel's "other beautiful half.")

Another to share a memory of Toledo was Alina Cho. "When Isabel Toledo dressed Michelle Obama for the inauguration, I was lucky enough to be the first to interview her," she captioned the post, which featured a sketch and swatch of fabric that Ruben had made of Obama's inauguration outfit.

Wendy Goodman also posted a tribute to the power couple, describing the Toledos as "the most private of private people." The designer Todd Oldham echoed her sentiments in the comments, as did Peter Som, who shared that the Toledos "epitomized" the reason that he wanted to move to New York City.

On Monday afternoon, tributes continued to pour in for the late designer, whose career also included a stint as creative director of Anne Klein and a Tony Award nomination for her work in costume design. Some chose to focus on her designs, while others chose to highlight Toledo's favorite form of exercise: twirling around with a hula hoop.

Related: Memories of Cuba with Isabel and Ruben Toledo