Fashion

Why late fashion designer Isabel Toledo meant so much to Michelle Obama

Posted by
Megan Murray
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Michelle Obama has given a beautiful tribute to Isabel Toledo, the designer of her first inauguration outfit back in 2009. 

On Tuesday 20 January 2009, Barack and Michelle Obama made history. 

After months of exhausting campaigning, Barack’s inauguration as president not only symbolised the fact that they had succeeded (and, in Michelle’s own words from her book Becoming, ”were good enough”): it also represented the moment that the USA, a country known for racial tension, put down its prejudice and welcomed the first ever black family to live inside the White House.

Michelle knew that whatever she chose to wear on this day would be significant. Not only because women in power are always scrutinised over their fashion choices, but because the importance of this day for black and American history meant that images of the new First Family would be captured in history and on the internet forever.

It was for this reason that the new FLOTUS – always keen to use her platform with purpose – approached Isabel Toledo, a Cuban American visionary and fashion designer, and asked her to design her outfit for the 2009 inauguration parade.

Isabel Toledo and her husband Ruben.
Isabel Toledo and her husband Ruben.

On Monday 26 August, just over a decade after their fashion collaboration sent shockwaves all over the world, Toledo lost her battle with breast cancer at a hospital in Manhattan. She was 59.

After the tragic news that Toledo has lost her battle with breast cancer, Michelle has penned an email remembering the designer and her talent, reiterating the part she played in political history.

“I knew that what I wore to my husband’s first inauguration would go down in history so I wanted something that would not only live up to the moment, but would also stand up to the freezing cold of that January day,” said Michelle, according to The New York Times.

“With her incredible creativity and masterful talent, Isabel designed a beautiful lemongrass outfit that I just loved,” she continued. “She more than met the moment — for that day and for all of history.”

Unlike other high profile designers, Toledo shied away from the celebrity status of being at the helm of her brand and reportedly preferred the seclusion of her New York studio, where she often collaborated with her husband Ruben, a fellow artist she’d dated since their school days.

Michelle and Barack Obama at the first inauguration in 2009.
Michelle and Barack Obama at the first inauguration in 2009.

Toledo’s design for Michelle was famously made up of both a dress and coat created from wool and lace – in a bid to combat the January chill – and was described by Toledo as being the colour of “lemongrass”.

“I called it lemongrass because it’s not yellow; it’s not green,” the designer told Associated Press at the time. “The idea that the coat and dress are gold to some, pale yellow to others … gives that moment you happen to catch sight of it that much more depth. It gives the wearer and the viewer much more of an individualized experience.”

She added: “There is nothing that comes close to this moment. It’s not just my moment and hers, but it’s the world’s. It’s not only what she’s wearing. It’s what the moment represents.”

Many other celebrities have worn Toledo’s designs pieces over the years, including Demi Moore and Debra Messing. We have no doubt that her legacy is one that will be imprinted on the fashion world forever thanks to her unique use of volume and geometry.

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Images: Getty 

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Megan Murray

Megan Murray is a digital journalist for stylist.co.uk, who enjoys writing about London happenings, beautiful places, delicious morsels and generally spreading sparkle wherever she can.

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