Isabel and Ruben Toledo On Making Mistakes And Their Perfect Marriage

“I do not sketch,” admits Isabel Toledo.
“No, she does not,” her husband, Ruben, nods.
“He draws while I—“
“She talks with her hands, you know, makes shapes around her and I sketch as fast as I can to keep up and—“
“I look over, I say ‘Yes yes! Like that!’”
“Or ‘Noooo’ when I’m doing it wrong!” Ruben interjects, “and by the end, we have 30 or 40 pages of ideas.”

This is how 30 years of partnership—in business as well as in love—sounds. Isabel and Ruben Toledo are perhaps fashion’s most dynamic and prolific couple: Isabel, a cult-favorite industry designer turned national darling thanks to an endorsement in the form of Michelle Obama’s 2009 inauguration dress; and Ruben, an artist with too many trades to name: illustrator, sculptor, filmmaker, painter, surrealist, window dresser, set designer, and fashion chronicler.

The back and forth is part of FIAF’s “Fashion Talks” series, moderated by Pamela Golbin, creative director of fashion and textiles at Paris’ Musee des Arts Décoratifs, and introduced by Cindi Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour. The two artists’ almost sickeningly in-sync banter reveals, as a retrospective at FIT in 2007 titled it, an enviable “marriage of art and fashion.” Ruben can detail Isabel’s design process when she’s lost in reveries about fabric, and she never lets his self-deprecating humor overshadow the business savvy that allowed her to flourish.

Neither intended to go into fashion; first and foremost, they are artists. “I… stay out of fashion,” Isabel answers slowly. “I fight it. See its fleeting moments, connect to it to stay relevant, but make things that will last longer.” This is in part why women like Obama love Isabel Toledo: She dresses real women, not just size twos and fours. Ruben calls her designs “radical classicist;” timeless yet subversive, made to be discovered differently by each wearer’s body. Obama’s lemongrass lace gown, which put Toledo on the national (and international) map, was designed to illuminate a moment in history. “The light came from within, through the layers,” she explains lovingly. Her husband finishes, “that is what a master of cloth does: bring atmosphere to a woman’s body.”

The Cuban-born immigrants met in their New Jersey high school, where Ruben seduced Isabel with, what else, artwork.

“It was love at first sight!” he cries. “For him,” Isabel adds, “it took me awhile.”

The two moved to New York City to “express themselves” amidst the flourishing early eighties art scene; Ruben was a peer of Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and other “street kids” at the School of Visual Arts, while Isabel went to Parson’s for ceramics and costume design — until a professor, seeing her penchant for theatrics, steered her towards fashion design at FIT. Both were less interested in careers than self- expression, and for years floated through various downtown NYC-artist-type gigs. At one point, Ruben was in a band and Isabel dressed them. She had always loved to sew: Ruben tells us she used to go to Studio 54 at age 14 wearing her own hand-sewn garments.

“There were less borders then,” reflects Ruben. “Collaboration was what it was all about.”

They married in 1984, the same year Ruben sneakily got Isabel’s designs in stores by poaching homemade dresses from her closet to show buyers at Henri Bendel and Patricia Field. They placed orders, Isabel filled them solo over a sewing machine, and a fledgling line was born. With almost no money, her first runway show was the stuff of NYFW legend: models dressed themselves off the rack and the first girl down carried a boombox with the soundtrack, which started dying halfway through and had to be kicked by models it to keep the music going; a reporter thought it was part of the show.

No advertising and small orders made Isabel’s line seem exclusive and trés cool, but that was never the point. Intimacy and an almost engineer’s dedication to
construction, plus a bosom-deep love for fabrics inspired by her cobbler family history, yield couture-level clothes much loved by the industry.

“I’m a maker,” she proclaims. “I solve what to do with a fabric. How to bring a new aesthetic, capture a personality. And, being Cuban, I am not afraid of shape. I love to dress it. It’s all about body language.” That attentiveness made her successful in both Paris, where she showed for a few years, and as a commercial designer for Anne Klein’s higher line, dissolved after two years but still seen on the streets today.

What is most apparent is the love the two bear for their crafts, above any industry or cultural trend. That artist’s separation from ‘the scene’ kept them from going under like so many other small labels during the late nineties. “I knew if I was going to compete, I had to be silent,” she says. Despite friends’ protestation, they ceased runway shows altogether a la The Row and Tom Ford today. “And you know what? It worked!” she crows. “There is so much intensity in silence,” Ruben adds softly.

It’s advice not often heard in the Twitter age, but one aspiring designers, or artists, could stand to learn from. Both are firm believers in bucking school and internships for real world experience (as is the artist’s way).

“If you have a direction that’s strong and very much a part of you, you have to go out and do it,” Isabel asserts. As per usual, Ruben agrees.

“Build the rejection, have guts, and then no one can stop you. Don’t wait. Make your mistakes quickly and fast, then get on to the good stuff.”

Check out photos from the talk in the gallery below, and an archived interview of the pair in the video.

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