Designer Isabel Toledo Dies in New York Without Being Recognized in Her Native Cuba

Together with her husband, the Cuban artist Rubén Toledo, they created a duo that was considered by the fashion guild’s specialists as one of the most creative and original in New York. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 26 August 2019 — She dressed Michelle Obama, fled the fashion academy and developed her own style without stridency but with a unique trademark. Isabel Toledo, the famous Cuban fashion designer, died in New York of breast cancer, Vogue magazine reported Monday.

She was born in Camajuaní, Villa Clara and given the name of Maria Isabel Izquierdo in a convulsive year. It was 1960 and many middle class families on the Island were emigrating in fear of the changes that would come after Fidel Castro’s coming to power. It was also a time when dressing well fell out of favor. Suits were replaced with military shirts; ties with rough boots; and women’s skirts gave way to militia pants.

Toledo emigrated to the United States when she was barely a teenager and after years of research and growth she presented her first work as a fashion designer in 1984. Fame raised her popularity when she dressed Michelle Obama for the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, but this cubana had already been working hard for decades and styling a name for herself.

From that date her work was recognized with several awards such as the Couture Council Award and the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award, which is given by the Smithsonian Museum. However, on the Island there was never a tribute to her work nor any mention in the official media of the trajectory that had raised her to the summit of the fashion world.

Her style could be defined as an obsession with structures and patterns, an incessant search for shapes and fabrics. Not for nothing did she describe her designs as “romantic mathematics,” because the idea of perfection and figures as language came through in all her pieces.

She was trained at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Parsons School of Design, in New York, after leaving Cuba for New Jersey, although she always insisted that her style had been shaped from below, when she was working as a seamstress to make a living as a newcomer to the U.S.

“I really love the technique of sewing more than anything else… the seamstress is the one who knows fashion from the inside,” she said in an interview in 1989. “That is really the art form, not the design of fashion, but the technique of how it is done,” she said without reservations.

For a short time she was the creative director for Anne Klein, and beginning in the 90s she presented her collections in museums while refusing to enter the industrial circuit. Her designs were exhibited by celebrities such as Demi Moore, Debi Mazar and Debra Messing, but they were never studied in Cuban classrooms.

“I admire her technique, her individuality and her incredible eye. Her garments are always fine,” designer Narciso Rodríguez said about Toledo.

In 2014 Toledo successfully debuted on Broadway and was nominated for the Tony Award for her work as a designer in the piece After Night, a recreation of the legendary Cotton Club starring Vanessa Williams.

Together with her husband, the Cuban artist Rubén Toledo, they created a duo that was considered by fashion industry specialists as one of the most creative and original in New York.


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.