Isabel Toledo, a fashion designer who brushed aside the rigid boundaries of her industry and counted First Lady Michelle Obama among those who wore her designs, has died. She was 59. The cause was breast cancer, her husband and collaborator, artist Ruben Toledo, told the New York Times.
Among the couple’s most recent collaborations was an exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts that closed last month. For the show, titled “Labor of Love,” the Toledos spent two days exploring the DIA’s extensive holdings of modernist art, which include the famed Detroit Industry Murals by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, a series of 27 frescoes completed in 1933 depicting various modes of industry at the Ford Motor Company.
The murals “are such a celebration of the choreography of work, of labor, of people combining their energies to achieve something great,” the couple said in a joint interview with Artforum. “In the murals, Diego took on race in an elemental, almost cosmic way—people are not ‘white’ or ‘black’ or ‘brown,’ but essential components of a large, extremely diverse, and deeply creative life force.” In “Color Code,” a series of works made for the exhibition, they showed pleated linen canvases that respond to Rivera’s work. According to the artists, the “Color Code” pieces focus on “how gender and race have been weaponized within contemporary culture.”
As part of the exhibition, the artists crafted several interventions within the museum’s permanent-collection galleries, aiming in the process to merge the fields of design and art. One such work, Synthetic Cloud, features 11 gowns with sheer corsets and blue skirts made of layers upon layers of tulle. The fabrics appeared to float above a green Donald Judd stack sculpture, a brightly colored shaped canvas by Frank Stella, and more. Other garments, like an all-black dress with a long dramatic veil resembling something out of a Goya portrait, were installed in a gallery lined with European paintings.
“Isabel’s first impulse was to dress the museum,” Ruben told Artforum. “Literally. As a reaction not so much to specific artworks, but to the entirety of the space, including DIA’s history, its staff, its curators, and the visitors that pass through it all the time. Isabel approached DIA as a living entity.”
Maria Isabel Izquierdo was born in 1960, in Camajuani, Cuba, a small town in the center of the island. Her family migrated to the United States in 1968, settling in New Jersey. She would meet Ruben Toledo, whose family was also from Cuba, in a Spanish class a few years later.
They would become lifelong collaborators and established their own collaborative studio, Toledo Studio, in 1984, the year of their marriage. Their studio would eschew the traditional divisions and hierarchies that typically have kept various artistic forms separated. Together they would create garments, set designs, and more, all while being immersed in New York’s Downtown arts scene, counting among their friends Andy Warhol, Halston, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Toledo’s first collection was shown at the legendary club Danceteria.
Over the years, Isabel Toledo flew under the radar for many, though she was a cult figure within the fashion world. “I would wear drag for Isabel, if she designed me a dress,” fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez once joked to WWD. Toledo served as creative director for the Anne Klein label from 2006 to 2007, created a collection for the body-positive brand Lane Bryant, and, with Ruben, made the costumes and set designs for the 2014 Broadway musical After Midnight.
But Toledo was vaulted to fame in January 2009, when Michelle Obama wore a two-piece ensemble designed by Toledo for President Barack Obama’s inauguration parade. Among her many accolades, including the DIA show, were a solo retrospective at the FIT Museum in New York in 2009 and a Tony nomination for the costuming of After Midnight. In 2005, the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York awarded Toledo Studio its National Design Award for fashion.
“The company’s driving goal is to infiltrate their ideas into everyday life,” the Cooper Hewitt said at the time of the award. “Ms. Toledo’s appreciation of machinery, practicality and comfort, combined with Mr. Toledo’s instinctive approach to art, create playful, incisive and intensely surreal observations on fashion, beauty and life.”