The Cuban In America

Obituary | Known mostly to fashion insiders until Michelle Obama wore her dress to the former U.S. President’s inauguration, Isabel Toledo was not afraid to avoid the fashion system and commercial demands that launched the careers of other immigrants such as Phillip Lim and Prabal Gurung


Isabel ToledoIsabel Toledo in 2014. Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

We woke up this morning to the news that New York fashion designer Isabel Toledo has passed away. Her husband, the artist Ruben Toledo, told the New York Times that his wife died of breast cancer. She was 59.

Despite a long career that started in the mid-Eighties, Ms Toledo was not known to a larger audience until that dress and coat Michelle Obama wore, as she waved to the crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue during her husband’s inauguration, brought the indie-designer global attention and fashion editors a-calling.

The wool lace outfit comprised a shift dress and a lapel-less coat, cleverly layered to keep the First Lady warm (the interlining was even crisscrossed with pashmina stitches) on a bitterly cold, if jubilant, January day in Washington. Strikingly simple and befitting the wife of the US Commander-in-Chief, the ensemble aroused greater interest for its unusual colour that had people talking and wondering: “what do you call that?”

Barack and Michelle ObamaBarack and Michelle Obama on inauguration day and the dress and coat that caught the eyes of the world. Photo: AP

The answers that emerged would rival any Thesaurus entry for ‘yellow’. According to Ms Toledo, the fabric was in “pale sage” but she preferred to call it “lemongrass”, a colour and herb that few Americans are familiar with, but many media outlets were quick to associate with Thai food. Never mind that on screen or in print, colours are rarely calibrated to reflect the real shade, Ms Toledo was publicity-savvy enough to use an edible plant as reference to create the necessary buzz.

We are aware, of course, that lemongrass, also known by the botanical name cymbopogon, is not that yellow. In fact, chromatically, it is a gradation of muted green (since, by the time we cook with it, it is not fresh off the soil) from the spikelet down to the almost white of the core and the sheathing bract at the base; the sum perhaps hinting at yellow.

The colour description was a publicity coup of sorts. Americans have heard of lemon yellow or melon yellow, but not lemongrass. Was it, in fact, lemon or was it grass? That clever naming suggested that Ms Toledo had a flair for evocative descriptions. She had learnt from the best—after all, she counted the late Andy Warhol as a friend. Indeed, in the ’80s, she socialised with heavyweights of the art scene—graffiti masters Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, as well as fashion bigwigs such as Halston and Anne Klein, with whom she worked briefly from 2006 to 2007. The New York clubbing scene of the era must have influenced too: Ms Toledo’s first show in 1985 was held in the four-storey nightclub, the Danceteria, which, at its second location in Manhattan, was a scene in the 1985 film—starring Madonna—Desperately Seeking Susan.

Isabel Toledo designsDesigns from the Fashion Institute of Technology’s 2009 exhibition, Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out. Clockwise from top left, 1996/97, 1998, 2008, 2007, 2005, 2005. Photos: FIT

Born in 1960 in Cuba, Maria Isabel Izquierdo left Camajuani, a small town in the heart of the island in the province of Villa Clara, at age eight with her family to migrate to the United States, where they settled in New Jersey. In a Spanish class of her high-school years, she met fellow Cuban Ruben Toledo, and they married in 1984. They would become lifelong collaborators—a largely two-person collective, before such a term was used, that brought together art and fashion in a place they called the Toledo Studio. For most of her pre-Obama years, Ms Toledo operated under the radar, creating clothes that many considered avant-garde, but not in the European tradition of Vivienne Westwood or Martin Margiela, or the Japanese approach of Rei Kawakubo or Yohji Yamamoto. Rather, hers was more in keeping with the modernism of couture masters such as Geoffrey Beene and, earlier, George Halley.

Despite her talent in design, Ms Toledo preferred to align herself with artisans. She has said, “I never thought of myself as a designer; I’m a seamstress.” Throughout her life, she enjoyed the process of dressmaking more than the actual designing. “Craft takes time, and therefore it is luxury,” she told Time in 2009. “You cannot do an amazingly well-made garment without taking time—not just the time it takes to make something, but also the time it took the maker to come up with the idea.” This could perhaps explain why, in 1998, she stopped subjecting herself to the dictates of time when her clothes had to be presented through fashion shows, choosing in lieu to sell to stores such as Nordstrom and Barneys on schedules determined by her.

Although a New Yorker at heart, Ms Toledo had never played down her Cuban past or the fact that she was an immigrant. As she wrote in her memoir Roots of Style, “To put this into perspective, you must remember that Ruben and I are political refugees, and my staff consists of people from the U.S., China, Korea, Poland, Mexico, and Japan. We have interns from Austria, Quatar, England, and Canada. Ruben’s 85-year-old dad, who had been our cutter, had come from Cuba during the Revolution. So you can just imagine how proud and honored we all were, this small United Nations of Fashion.”