To enter the loft of Isabel and Ruben Toledo is to ascend into a Borgesian sense of infinitude.
Books, photographs, prints and mementos spill out of shelves and across tables. Vines and potted plants grow in the corners of a byzantine series of rooms that are at once a home and an atelier. The history of New York, in its most self-flattering mode, lives in countless objects: book collections gifted by Bill Cunningham, Klaus Nomi and other friends; a drafting table from the illustrator Antonio Lopez. Collectively, the objects would signify style and status were they not at the heart of the fairy tale embodied in Isabel and Ruben themselves. With an intensity that borders on obsession, their love for each other is the dominant presence in whichever room they inhabit and is the subtext of whatever idea they address. It’s a love that shifts and reshapes itself constantly, making a harmony of their work, art and relationship. It has a constant presence, like the giant, ancient cactus that towers over one of the loft’s larger rooms.
Isabel Toledo is a “designer’s designer”; Narciso Rodriguez once called her his personal design hero. Over nearly four decades, her work has ranked among New York’s uppermost fashion echelons and has constantly evolved, addressing shape, suspension and shadow in ways that have moved several critics to flights of poetry. In 2008, she reached that rarest of fashion milestones: crafting the inaugural dress for a first lady— Michelle Obama, no less. The most famous description of her work is “liquid architecture.” The phrase conveys how her designs combine geometric and organic forms, and the way they toy with gravity.
Isabel was not yet ready for company when I arrived on a quiet, rainy morning. It fell to Ruben, the celebrated artist and fashion illustrator who is her husband and creative partner, to welcome me. He did so with an idiosyncratic blend of frank, New York enthusiasm and Cubano gentility. We would await the lady of the house together.
To pass the time, Ruben pulled out the catalog for his and Isabel’s latest exhibition, Bodies @ Work, which features several of his large- scale paintings (shocking in size and abstraction, if you only knew Ruben for his whimsical fashion illustrations, which regularly appear in the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle).
Noticing one of Isabel’s works in the catalog—an antique sewing machine stitched top-to-bottom in black satin (“I dressed it,” Isabel would later say)—Ruben brightened. “It’s almost like a skinny animal. Quite beautiful.” It was an introduction to two of Ruben’s most essential qualities: an endlessly operative, strange imagination, and a fierce protectiveness of his wife’s ideas. If you say something bland to Ruben, he’ll gracefully make a joke; if you say something bland about Isabel’s work, stand ready for correction.
Both Isabel’s and Ruben’s families fled Cuba as Castro consolidated power in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, arriving in the USA on the “freedom flights” of 1967 and 1968. Despite being uprooted so early in their lives, both share rich memories of their Cuban childhoods. Ruben was a city kid, born amid the chaos of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The move to New York was not altogether shocking for him. “To me, this was totally natural—the multicultural thing, the craziness, the street life, the hustle and bustle. That’s a normal Havana upbringing.”
Isabel’s origins were quite different. Born into a large family in the country town of Camajuaní, her earliest visual memories were suffused with a Caribbean light that, as she puts it, “magnifies all silhouettes.” She recalls her first exposure to geometric patterns in the hand-painted ceramic tiles that bordered her home’s walls and floors. It was in this home that she began dissecting dolls and other objects, a deconstructive habit that would follow her through life. Most importantly, it was where she saw her first sewing machine.
If there is a creation myth to Isabel Toledo’s style, it starts here. The sewing machine had belonged to her grandfather’s first wife, a victim of tuberculosis whose ghost lent the object a sheen of mystery. “To me, it was a sculpture,” Isabel says, “I played in it, even though I didn’t know what the heck it was.” She would spend hours beneath the machine, fascinated by its wrought-iron workings. But Isabel’s Cuban childhood was not all charm. Her thin frame and fine-lined features (so unchanged when one looks at photos of her across the decades) felt unwelcome amid the voluptuousness of Cuban women.
“Growing up in a land very much in love with its endless curves,” she wrote in her memoir, Roots of Style, “made my frail-looking, pointy body incredibly evident. As a child, I was weightless and sharp like a needle, and the ‘shy’ in me was born.” This feeling would inform her later desire to create clothing that both protects the body and is structured enough to change its form.
The Toledos first met in high school in West New York, New Jersey. Ruben famously fell in love with Isabel at first sight, though it would take more than a decade for her to discover her own romantic feelings. In the meantime, the pair became immediate collaborators. Isabel, already making her own clothes, was fascinated by Ruben’s drawings. They began traveling to the city at night along with other teenagers, plunging into Manhattan’s nascent disco scene.
These nights have since become the stuff of New York lore. The Toledos witnessed the brass marching band that Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager hired for the opening night of Studio 54. They danced at Xenon and the Mudd Club. They immersed themselves in a heady scene made up of down- town artists, uptown whales, celebrities and bridge-and-tunnel kids—groups that are far more isolated in today’s Manhattan.
Years later, they became close friends with New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham. One night, he led them into his apartment at Carnegie Hall, revealing photographs he had taken of them as kids. The photos showed them piling into a car to head back to New Jersey; Isabel’s daring, homemade dress had caught his eye. In typical Cunningham fashion, he had seen their love, and their talent, long before they knew about it themselves.
The Toledos got their first break on a class trip to the Museum of Modern Art. Lost in the rain, they stumbled into Fiorucci—the midtown shop presided over by the drag artist Joey Arias and known as the daytime Studio 54. Arias snatched Ruben’s portfolio from under his arm, delighting in some hand-colored photographs of Isabel. He insisted that Ruben produce more, and began selling them as postcards.