Hispanic Heritage Month Designer Highlight 2021: Isabel Toledo

Isabel Toledo portrait

Portrait of Isabel Toledo

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month being September 15th-October 15th, we wish to highlight Isabel Toledo, a Cuban-American designer who we’ve featured a dress from in our exhibit this year. Isabel Toledo was born Maria Isabel Izquierdo in Cuba in 1960. She immigrated to West New York, New Jersey as a young teenager, where she met her eventual husband, Ruben Toledo, at 14. The designer began her fashion studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design. In 1979, she interned at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and started her career without graduating. Toledo introduced her first collection in 1985 which was picked up quickly by Barney’s New York and other international stores, proving to be the start of a very successful career following that. She was said to be a humble designer who rejected the mainstream by her peers and friends, preferring to live amongst artists and creatives and maintain a low celebrity profile. Her friend Ikram Goldman described her as “an uncorrupted designer” who “never conformed to or accepted the ‘fashion system’.”

Black Isabel Toledo dress in our Fashion and Music Exhibit

Black Isabel Toledo dress featured in our Fashion and Music exhibit this year.

Isabel Toledo had many great achievements throughout her career. One of her most well-known triumphs was creating Michelle Obama’s inaugural look for Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2009. She created a light green, shimmering ensemble for the first lady. Additionally, Toledo often appeared on the International Best Dressed Lists, received the Copper Hewitt National Design Award with her husband Ruben Toledo in 2005, was nominated for a Tony for her costumes in “After Midnight” in 2014, was Creative Director of Anne Klein from 2006 to 2007, and designed collections for Lane Bryant. Furthermore, she collaborated with her husband for the Detroit Institute of Art’s Labor of Love installation, and had a solo retrospective of her work in 2009 at the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Celebrity clients included Demi Moore, Debra Messing, and Debi Mazar. Ruben and Isabel Toledo also had high profile friends in the art community such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. With all of that being said, Isabel Toledo was much more than just her awards and celebrity connections. She was a designer who valued diversity, inclusivity of women of all shapes and sizes, and maintained a love and passion for the art and labor behind every garment.  Toledo stated in an interview with Interview Magazine about her collection with Lane Bryant, “My ideal happens to be diversity. I love difference. I love change. I love experimentation and eccentricities.”


Michelle Obama wearing a lemongrass Isabel Toledo ensemble at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration.

Michelle Obama wearing an Isabel Toledo ensemble at Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2009.

As a minority in America, and a minority in her career, Isabel Toledo is truly a woman who broke down barriers and inspired generations of creatives throughout her 30+ years in the industry. Her position as a Cuban-American woman in the fashion world was important representation for many marginalized groups. She persevered through stereotypes and those who doubted her, and was an excellent example of why diversity must be embraced in all occupations and spaces. Unfortunately, Isabel Toledo passed away from breast cancer in 2019 at the young age of 59. October is also breast cancer awareness month, so commemorating Toledo’s life and achievements also helps bring awareness to the cause. Isabel Toledo is remembered as a fashion genius who focused on empowering women and other creatives, and maintained an individualistic style that stayed true to who she was.








Sources: https://www.vogue.com/article/isabel-toledo-obituary


Hispanic Heritage Month Designer Highlight: Luis Estevez

Luis Estevez explaining something to a colleague.

Luis Estevez


National Hispanic Heritage month is September 15th through October 15th, but any time is a great time to recognize and commemorate the achievements of Hispanic individuals and creatives. To celebrate the month, we will highlight a great Cuban-American 20th century designer, Luis Estevez. Luis Estevez was born around 1930 in Havana, Cuba. Originally with an interest in architecture, he began at the University of Havana but later attended the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City for fashion design. He began his career as a window dresser for a summer job in New York for Lord & Taylor, sparking his interest in fashion and causing his shift from architecture to fashion design. After his studies at the Traphagen School of Fashion, he secured a job in Paris to work for Jean Patou, where he stayed for about 2 years before returning to New York to open his Grenelle-Estevez label with a few colleagues.

1956 through 1959 Luis Estevez gown. Off-white silk dress with large shaded blue flowers and green leaves. Low V back with a full back that is gathered and draped at the center to form a train.

1956-1959 Luis Estevez gown. Off-white silk dress with large shaded blue flowers and green leaves.

Designing under his own name in 1955, Estevez was immediately successful. He received the Coty American Fashion Critics Award in 1956, owing his success to his individualistic, uncluttered, feminine, and tasteful clothing that appealed to modern, wealthy women. Estevez was mostly known for his cocktail and evening dresses with interesting necklines, but also became known for his theatrical and theme centered clothing in the 1960s such as his Night and Day collection and his Fly Me to the Moon collection in 1965. With continued success throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he moved to Los Angeles, California in 1967  and became established on the West Coast as well. Here he became well known for his flowing, body-conscious designs that often featured his signature cutouts, going more in the direction of sportswear and West Coast inspired dresses. His use of simple fabrics such as cotton, jersey, and silk contributed to a simple yet tasteful California feel. Luis Estevez had an impressive friends list in terms of the fashion community at the time, with Diane von Furstenburg, Bill Blass, and Hubert de Givenchy who was his best man at his wedding. Additionally, his clientele list in California became impressive as well, with Nancy Reagan, Lana Turner, and Eva Gabor who he later designed eveningwear for and eventually launched Luis Estevez International in 1974 with her parent firm.


1950 through 1959 Luis Estevez short green ikat sacque dress.

1950-1959 Luis Estevez short green sacque dress.

Sacque back detail of dress.

Sacque-back detail of dress.

Estevez had many other accomplishments throughout his career. From 1974 to 1977 he dressed First Lady Betty Ford during her husband Gerald Ford’s presidency. Awards he received include the Chicago Gold Coast award, Bambergers Golden Scissor award in 1962, the Tommy award in 1988, and the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Hispanic Designers Fashion Gala in 1990. His collections were showcased during theater productions of Hello Dolly and Hair, and his gowns have been shown at the Smithsonian Institute and Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the late 20th century Estevez continued designing on a smaller scale with boutiques on Melrose Avenue and later in Montecito. He eventually moved to Miami, Florida and retired in 1997. Luis Estevez died on November 28th, 2014 in Miami. With a long and impressive career, Luis Estevez deserves immense recognition for his accomplishments and impact on fashion in the mid-to-late 1900s and today. Designers today are influenced by Estevez’s work and he paved the way for many Hispanic people and Hispanic-American designers to receive their rightful high status in the fashion world. The fashion world was and is more diverse and accepting because of designers like Luis Estevez.






Designer Luis Estevez Dies at Age 85