Partners by Design: Isabel and Ruben Toledo

Partners by Design: Isabel and Ruben Toledo

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Abel FL Berriz

Isabel Toledo is a Cuban-American fashion designer. Ruben Toledo is a Cuban-American artist. They are based in New York City, and are one of those married couples movies are made of. They were both born in 1961 in Cuba and migrated to the tri-state area with their families in the late 1960s. Currently based in Manhattan, Isabel and Ruben Toledo are a perfect match for each other. Her designs have been featured in Anne Klein collections and on Michelle Obama, and his illustrations and sketches have been noted by Tiffany and Louis Vuitton.

They met in Spanish class, in 1974 and married ten years later. Their subtle, unpretentious, but still avant-garde creations started catching the eye of retailers Barneys and Nordstrom. She sewed all her designs and Ruben did the cutting and delivering of orders by taxi.

Instead of competing, they complement each other, behaving as one. Ruben’s illustrations are often inspired in her designs and Isabel’s designs help her husband’s watercolors come to life. When she has an idea for a new design, she communicates it to him as a feeling; mostly using her hands. He rapidly translates her gestures into sketches. That’s what makes their clothing unique.

But the Toledos’ art extends beyond fashion. Ruben’s restless creativity ranges from illustrating book jackets for Penguin publishers to sculpting mannequins, murals, and sculptures. His work is featured at Park Grove Condo, in Coconut Grove, Miami. Isabel stopped presenting her own collections in 1998, because, in her words, if she doesn’t love it, she won’t do it. In 2006 she was hired as creative director of Anne Klein, and resigned less than a year after. Despite her Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award and her declared passion for couture, she recognizes herself as a non-fashion person. She has also designed scents and perfumes (such as Crystal Honey and Kuba Rose) and one of her dresses was worn by Michelle Obama at the first presidential inauguration in 2009.

They have succeeded in life as they have in love. They fight, as every couple does, but their differences only make their art more interesting; like complementary colors, or different cuts of fabric in a well-tailored suit. Watching them in interviews, he presents himself as the typical Latino, loquacious and extroverted, while she’s more of a gothic depiction of a saint. Ruben, born in Havana, calls himself a “city rat”, too fond of New York to ever leave. Isabel, a provincial girl from Camajuaní, keeps that reserved air of country girl; (even though she was known in high school for her extravagant wardrobe and hair styles.) But what unites them is much stronger than what could set them apart. Vocation for art, design and fashion coupled with a religious devotion for Cuban coffee are some of their shared traits. They are old souls, assimilated Americans, New Yorkers, and cosmopolitans; but they still have Cuba in their hearts.

Cuba is a very strange place. An apparently insignificant archipelago in the Gulf of Mexico that has given the world princesses, musicians, chess geniuses, baseball players, writers, and fashion artists. When Ruben was asked about his first impressions of beauty, he recalls the sound of high heels tapping on the cobblestone streets of Old Havana.
The couple begins their daily life, in their Midtown Manhattan luxury loft, with a cup of “café con leche.” They also have an apartment in South Beach so they can feel closer to Cuba. Their love for the old country is equal to their love for art.

They both left Cuba at a very young age, and she has only gone back for a short trip in 2000, however, their “Cubanness” is alive and well-rooted. She compares Cuba to New York. Manhattan is also an island, and so is Miami Beach, where she ultimately dreams to live permanently. Michelle Obama wore a lemongrass yellow dress with a matching overcoat for her husband’s presidential inauguration. It was the trend, the zeitgeist, of a design with hints of “café con leche.”

Comments
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    August 24, 2017

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