Isabel Toledo was a class apart. The Cuban-born, New York-based fashion designer, who is best known for designing Michelle Obama’s lemongrass dress and coat for her husband Barack Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration, succumbed to her battle with breast cancer on Monday, leaving behind a legacy treasured by many in the industry.
“As Picasso said, good designers don’t copy—they steal,” fashion designer Alber Elbaz tells the New York Times. “Everybody sort of stole from Isabel. Her work was about volume, cut, experiments, a laboratory of fabric—and that was not an Instagram moment. It was fashion.”
Born in Camajuaní, Cuba, Toledo moved to West New York, New Jersey with her family in 1968. She attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, before transferring to the Parsons School of Design. She didn’t finish her degree, though, instead leaving to intern for the late Vogue editor Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979. Four years later—with the support of her husband and frequent collaborator, artist Ruben Toledo—she founded her eponymous label, quickly establishing a reputation for elegant, figure-flattering dresses and separates cut with precision and chock-full of intricate details only perceivable by the wearer or anyone close by. Remaining privately owned, her brand never adhered to the trend du jour.