NEW YORK — Isabel Toledo, the Cuban American designer who was revered by other designers for her ability to combine precisely geometric construction with extreme grace — but who was known to most of the public as the designer of the dress Michelle Obama wore in the 2009 inaugural parade — died Monday at a hospital in Manhattan. She was 59.
The cause was breast cancer, her husband, artist Ruben Toledo, said.
Uninterested in the limelight or in logos, Mrs. Toledo was a rarity in the modern fashion world. Devoted to fashion as a craft and an 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 Ruben 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, curator of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and a cult hero by Kim Hastreiter, a founder of Paper magazine, Mrs. Toledo has been compared to 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.”
Mrs. Toledo was the recipient of a National Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt museum in 2005, was nominated for a Tony for the costumes for the musical “After Midnight” in 2014, and twice appeared on the International Best-Dressed List.
In 2009, the museum at FIT 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 for Lane Bryant, created at a time when the fashion world still largely ignored the plus-size consumer.
“Fashion is every woman’s language, every woman’s tool,” she told Interview magazine in 2014 when her Lane Bryant collections made their 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 with a hula hoop.
Maria Isabel Izquierdo was born April 9, 1960, in Camajuani, Cuba, to Felix and Bertha Izquierdo. She 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 in 1968 the family settled in West New York, N.J., where she met Ruben 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 and later transferred to Parsons School of Design. She left in 1979 before graduation to intern for Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
She and Ruben Toledo — who were seldom apart, and who 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, Mrs. Toledo introduced her own line, made largely in the couple’s loft. Its first appearance was at a Danceteria happening, thanks to artist Joey Arias, a good friend, who ran the events. 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, founder of Ikram, who introduced Michelle Obama to Mrs. 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 Mrs. 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 Obama chose a dress and matching coat made by Mrs. Toledo to wear for her husband’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 Mrs. Toledo’s gift.
In 2012, she published her autobiography, “Roots of Style: Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion.” The illustrations were by Ruben Toledo, of course.
“She was often marginalized by the trend-loving fashion business, but she never looked sideways,” Hastreiter, founder of Paper magazine, wrote in an e-mail. But, she said, “her rare gift of combining great design for all women . . . with flawless craft and astounding original creative beauty” meant that “Isabel Toledo will be in the history books.”