Isabel Toledo, the Cuban-American designer revered by other designers for her ability to combine precisely geometric construction with extreme grace, but known to most of the public as the designer of Michelle Obama’s 2009 inaugural parade dress, died on Monday at a hospital in New York. She was 59.
The cause was breast cancer, her husband, the artist Ruben Toledo, said.
Uninterested in the limelight or in logos, Ms. Toledo was a rarity in the modern fashion world. Devoted to fashion as a craft and expression of self, and embedded in the downtown New York art scene, she was a throwback to a time before the designer became the creative director. She toiled away in a picturesque loft in Midtown Manhattan with her soul mate Mr. Toledo, her partner since high school, dipping into the worlds of art, dance and theater for the sheer joy of aesthetic collaboration.
Called a genius by Valerie Steele, the curator of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and a cult hero by Kim Hastreiter, the co-founder of Paper magazine, she has been compared to the designers Charles James and Geoffrey Beene because of her obsession with construction. She described her own work as “romantic mathematics.”
“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.”
Ms. Toledo was the recipient of a National Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt in 2005, was nominated for a Tony for the costumes of the musical “After Midnight” in 2014, and twice appeared on the International Best-Dressed List.
In 2009, the museum at F.I.T. staged a solo retrospective of her work. But she was never snobby about her vocation, delighting in the idea that her work might find a wider audience through her position as creative director of Anne Klein from 2006 to 2007 and her collections with Lane Bryant, created at a time when the fashion world still largely ignored the plus-size consumer.
“Fashion is every women’s language, every woman’s tool,” she said in Interview magazine in 2014 at the time of her Lane Bryant collections debut. “My ideal happens to be diversity. I love difference. I love change. I love experimentation and eccentricities.” She also embodied her own ideals: Her favorite workout was twisting to the hula hoop.
Maria Isabel Izquierdo was born on April 9, 1960, to Felix and Bertha Izquierdo in Camajuani, Cuba, and began sewing at age 8 because, she told CNN, “I couldn’t find anything I loved.” She emigrated with her parents and two sisters to the United States and the family settled in West New York, N.J., in 1968, where she met Mr. Toledo. She was 14 and he was 13. (His family was also from Cuba; they were in the same Spanish class in school.)
She attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, transferring to Parsons School of Design, and she left in 1979 before graduation to intern for Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
She and Mr. Toledo, who were almost never apart and seemed to have the kind of transcendent love story reserved for Hollywood movies, married in 1984. He survives her, along with two sisters, Mary Santos and Anna Bertha Izquierdo.
Also in 1984, Ms. Toledo introduced her own line, made largely in the couple’s loft. Its first appearance was at a Danceteria happening, thanks to the artist Joey Arias, her good friend, who ran the events, and though she became an official part of New York Fashion Week in 1985 and her pieces were soon picked up by Barneys New York, Colette in Paris, Joyce in Hong Kong and Ikram in Chicago (among others), she never lost her affinity for the raw edge.
She also remained at the head of an independent company. “Isabel was a pure, uncorrupted fashion designer,” said Ikram Goldman, the founder of the eponymous store and the woman who originally introduced Mrs. Obama to Ms. Toledo’s work. “She designed spectacular, innovative pieces that flattered every curve of a woman’s body, and she never conformed to or accepted the ‘fashion system.’”
Though that choice may have hurt Ms. Toledo’s business in later years, as fashion globalized and commodified — she stopped showing on the runway around the turn of the millennium when the cost became prohibitive — it also allowed her to follow her own muse. By 2009, when Mrs. Obama chose a Toledo dress and matching coat to wear for Barack Obama’s historic inauguration, a dress that was widely heralded as a triumph, and that helped frame the first lady’s signature use of her position to promote smaller American designers and celebrate the melting pot of America, it seemed the world had finally recognized Ms. Toledo’s gift.
In 2012, she published her autobiography, “Roots of Style: Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion.” Illustrations were by Mr. Toledo, of course.
“She was often marginalized by the trend-loving fashion business, but she never looked sideways,” Ms. Hastreiter wrote in an email. But, she said, “her rare gift of combining great design for all women (no matter economic class, shape and size) with flawless craft and astounding original creative beauty” means “Isabel Toledo will be in the history books.”
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