Isabel Toledo, who designed Michelle Obama’s radiant 2009 inauguration dress, has died from breast cancer. She was 59.
In an email, Obama told the New York Times what Toledo’s creation meant to her as she wore it:
“I knew that what I wore to my husband’s first inauguration would go down in history,” Mrs. Obama wrote in an email, “so I wanted something that would not only live up to the moment, but would also stand up to the freezing cold of that January day.
“With her incredible creativity and masterful talent, Isabel designed a beautiful lemongrass outfit that I just loved,” she continued. “She more than met the moment — for that day and for all of history.”
Toledo was a fixture in the Downtown New York art scene; in addition to hanging out with Warhol and Basquiat, she was hailed as a genius and compared to designers like Charles James and Geoffrey Beene thanks to her focus on construction.
“I’m not supposed to say I’m not a fashion person, but I’m not. I just, I love design,” she told CNN in 2012. “Design is so different than fashion. That’s why design lasts forever. It’s like an engineer. I love to engineer a garment.”
Toledo was born in Cuba and emigrated to the U.S. when she was a child. She met her husband, the artist Ruben Toledo, when they were both in high school. As he told W Magazine in 2015: “I’ve known her since I was 13. She’s always been the most daring person visually. She would show up to school with the most adventurous asymmetrical haircuts and yellow and charcoal tinted eyes. Just the most incredible things that a 13-year-old ever saw.”
Obama may have catapulted Toledo to mega-fame, but her focus was often on clothing that could make regular women feel chic, working with brands like Payless and Anne Klein. In 2014, she debuted a line for plus-sized retailer Lane Bryant, saying that,
For me, it’s really important that women are given the opportunity to be eccentric… The liberty, the freedom, the right to be eccentric, to be their size, and to have the freedom or the opportunity to enjoy fashion at any size [...] I can’t imagine not having that, so I feel a duty to provide it.