Call off the dogs. We've officially met the world's coolest couple—seriously. So, who are they, you ask? Meet Isabel and Ruben Toledo, partners in love and business. She made fashion history with Michelle Obama's stunning inauguration gown and his colorful art can be found anywhere from the Nordstrom catalog to ad campaigns for Louis Vuitton. But despite all of those big moves, Ruben's favorite project is sketching the latest designs from his numero uno lady, obviously.
In town for a lecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the dynamic duo spent the morning with us and chatted all things style, art, and well, Toledo. From finishing each other's sentences to messing around with hats in the Fashion Resource Center, the pair makes it clear that the honeymoon stage is far from over for them. They even share some of the same clothing—like a pair of Ruben's hardware-store painting pants. Read on for the ultimate love story, filled with a whole lotta happiness—and no ending in sight.
Photographed by Heather Talbert
You two met in high school. Ruben — do you recall what Isabel was wearing the first day you laid eyes on her?
R: "I never used to pay attention to clothes and fashion until I met Isabel — she taught me everything I know now. But I know what Isabel was wearing for sure. She had on this beautiful, linen sunflower yellow and navy tunic and trousers. She looked like Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis."
So, since Isabel taught you everything you know about fashion, was that not the direction you were originally headed towards in your artistic career path?
R: "I always drew since I was a kid, but I didn’t know what an artist was — it was just what I did. Honestly, my direction in fashion illustration happened because we got married and had to make a living — it really was out of necessity since she married a poor, starving artist like me! But then one day, I went into Isabel’s closet and grabbed ten dresses she had made herself and took them to Patricia Field and Henri Bendel. We immediately got orders, so that was the start of the fashion career."
I: "Yes, that's how it happened. Within a week, I was really in business. I literally had to sit and make everything — we were at it about a month and a half. It was then that we really got to know what the industry was about, so it was like this thing we kind of stumbled into. I always say our careers found us — we didn’t necessarily go after our careers."
Isabel and Ruben Toledo in the School of the Art Institute's Fashion Resource Center wearing Isabel Toledo jackets.
Tell us how your experience interning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art influenced your career?
I: "I always loved art, but clothing is something I always knew how to make. But being at the Met, I realized fashion is what history looks like — and it's a work of art. When you think of history, you also think about what people are wearing. It was then that I understood the importance of it and how important it is in our society — I wanted to be a part of it."
R: "The idea that fashion fits into history marks time. To this day, Isabel still creates designs that will live forever. Not only can you wear them forever, but aesthetically they outlive a trend."
Ruben's water color sketches of Isabel's designs, and three of the actual garments, dating back to the early '90s.
So, it’s clear that your wheels are always turning. What was going through your mind when designing Michelle Obama's inauguration gown?
I: "The importance of the moment. Dressing that moment. See, it goes back to the Met — that sense of history. How do I want to dress her? How do I want her to feel? How do I want people to feel as they’re looking at her? And, of course, knowing that this garment was going to be looked at by absolutely everyone in the world! But a feeling came to me when I looked at that fabric. I realized it didn't really matter what I was making — it was how I was going to put it all together. It was like alchemy. And in the end…she was glowing."
R: "It was amazing how many people sent us the cheap Simplicity pattern version of Isabel’s design later on. And it seemed like every country wanted to claim the fabric — but it was actually from Switzerland. It's flattering, really. Isabel loves using colors that cannot really be described. It’s kind of her thing. It goes back to that outfit she had on the first day we met. She loves things that out live time."
I: "I also love how everyone saw the color in a different way — and couldn't really describe it. It was yellow, gold, lemongrass...so, making people look at it from their point of view was a big deal. It lives longer this way. The minute you say claim the color, the moment passes."
Looking into a display case with Isabel and Ruben's book,“Roots of Style: Weaving Together Life, Love and Fashion.”
Let’s talk about your own personal style. What does that consist of?
R: "I only wear Isabel Toledo — or carpenter pants from the hardware store. Seriously, I've been wearing them since high school. I also wear a lot of hand-me-downs with sentimental value. Someone gave me a big box of vintage ties from the ‘50s and ‘60s — Isabel nursed them back to health. Black, white, and red are my main colors and when it comes to fabric, I need heavy-duty cotton. I wear a lot of that because I’m a slob. Everything I wear gets water color smeared or splashed, so it has to wear well."
I: "I wear his carpenter pants! I'm wearing them now — see the paint?"
R: "Isabel has the timeless wardrobe. There are still things she’s wearing from high school — it blows my mind. And her shoes? She’ll wear a pair of shoes she wore 30 years ago and they’re still in perfect condition."
Examining one of Isabel's incredibly constructed garments.
You two still seem like happy honeymooners! How do you manage working and living in your Manhattan studio every day without killing each other?
R: "I could not imagine working any other way. First of all, you can’t do something creative if you’re not in love. You’ve got to love what you’re doing and you have to love your life. If not, it’s not going to come out right. If you’re doing anything creative, you can’t lie your way through it. What you see is really how you’re feeling."
I: "We compliment one another. We come in on each other’s world and we step out when need be. There’s that respect. There’s trust, too."
R: "Absolutely — and people assume we’re very similar but we’re not. Aesthetically, we are very different. I’m very chaotic and accidental and Isabel is Zen-like and plans everything out."
A closer look at Ruben's stunning water color sketches of Isabel's designs.
If you weren’t a designer or an artist, what do you think you’d be doing?
I: "I’d be a farmer. I have a great green thumb and I like to watch things grow. I love fruit trees. We have a kumquat tree at home, so I make jams and things. But, I think I would probably grow a little bit of everything and feed my whole town."
R: "I can’t imagine doing anything else. I tried to join the human race and do normal things, but it just didn't work out. People always say you should get a hobby. But I think if you’re doing what you love, you already have a hobby."
You have so many different looks which is incredibly fascinating — you’re definitely not a one trick pony!
R: "She doesn’t work in a theme. When you look back at her work from 1996, you see how all of these designs are related to each other — almost like coming out of a family tree. It keeps giving birth to new ideas. I love this dress (pictured). We call it the hula dress. The fabric is chiffon with woven wool, so it’s light as air and soft and cuddly like a sweater. Isabel loves to play with volume, too."
Isabel, Ruben has expressed how you inspired his work. How has he inspired yours?
I: "His patterns are a work of art. He puts down lines and then I think about what they are going to do on a body. So, first I really look at the shapes he’s putting down. We’re always walking into each other's world and taking from it. I don’t know what he’s taking from mine, and he doesn’t know what I'm taking from his."
"It’s that freedom to just to be inspred by that other person, react emotionally, and just apply it right away — we never outgrew that. It's so amazing to be in the same space with someone and constantly be feeding off of each other — to have a constant conversation even without words, but through our work. I feel very lucky."
What advice would you give students who are thinking about becoming an artist or a designer?
R: "I always tell kids you have to stay in your own bubble as long as you possibly can. We need more people to bring their own individual ingredients to the big soup. You have to create your own universe and then share it with everyone else when the time is right. You can’t start out trying to fit in and be like everyone else. If you’re doing something and nobody understands it — especially something creative — then you’re doing something right. Anything new is misunderstood in the beginning."
I: "I would say never give an artist advice — an artist just does. You can’t help but do what you do to express yourself — otherwise, you can’t breathe. I went to Parsons and the Fashion Institute of Technology and didn’t graduate — but if you really have that drive, you will get there. And if you are in school, make sure you take in everything. You are exposed to so much and that's important. Also, don’t wait, just do. Ruben was selling postcards from Fiorucci when he was still high school."
What's next for Isabel and Ruben Toledo?
R: "We’re opening a 30-year retrospect called Toledo/Toledo Full Circle, November 8 through February of 2013 at the Freedom Tower in Miami. It’s all coming full circle because this is the same place that we entered when coming into the United States as kids after the revolution. It’s like our Ellis Island, so that’s why it all comes full circle— because that’s exactly where we started. It’s really an emotional thing."
I: "It’s incredible to walk through those halls again and realize how far we've come. It’s intense."