If you don’t already believe in soulmates, listening to Isabel and Ruben Toledo speak should convince you.
The husband-wife duo, both Cuban-born emigres whose parents settled in New Jersey, have been married for nearly 30 years and have known each other even longer, having met at high school in New Jersey. At last night’s “Fashion at FIAF” talk at the French Institute Alliance Francaise, they finished each other’s thoughts so seamlessly, it seemed amazing that they operate in two separate bodies.
And if Isabel ever began to err on the side of humble, Ruben stepped in almost immediately, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder and singing her praises directly to the audience.
It was truly a heartwarming display from two people who clearly not only still love each other, but profoundly respect one another. Ruben shared that for him, it was “love at first sight” when he met Isabel at 13 years old–but for Isabel, the love story was a bit more complicated.
Uninterested in Ruben, who was younger than her, Isabel actually had art class with Ruben’s older brother. The brother impressed Isabel with his beautiful pieces of art, so she started dating him. “I fell in love with his art,” she said simply. The only problem? That art was all the handiwork of Ruben, who had been doing his brother’s art homework for him.
But the couple has clearly long since hurdled that obstacle, finding success in both their romantic and professional partnerships. Isabel and Ruben have joined forces with everyone from Nordstrom to Target, leading the trend of bringing fashion (and art!) to every budget. Isabel still speaks very proudly of her short-lived stint at Anne Klein in 2007: “I love what I did and I still stand by it,” she said of her work. And would she partner with a fashion house again? “Absolutely, I’d love it–the bigger the better!”
Though the night opened with a brief trailer of Ruben’s 2003 animated film Fashionation–something he called a “love letter” to French fashion (and a total must-watch)–it centered around Isabel’s work as a designer. From her first fashion show, where the models dressed themselves and the Cuban music came from a battery-powered boombox that died halfway through, to her first backer who, incidentally, ended up having mob connections, no stone was left unturned.
Unquestionably a major moment for Isabel’s design career was dressing First Lady Michelle Obama for the first Inauguration event. The couple was able to shed a bit more light on the process: Because the future FLOTUS had been a customer of theirs at Ikram in Chicago, Isabel knew her measurements and style and began to think of how she might dress MObama on the big day.
“To [Isabel], [dressing the First Lady] was a whole psychological, emotional thing,” Ruben explained. “She couldn’t just propose a pretty dress.”
It clicked for Isabel when she found the lemongrass lace fabric that they would inevitably use. They fired off a quick email late one Saturday night after the election with a fabric swatch and a quick sketch of the coat and dress, not knowing when they’d hear back. They had their response within five minutes: Please send it, and “make it warm!”
Moderator Pamela Golbin, Chief Curator for the Fashion and Textiles collections at Les Arts Decoratifs in Paris, asked the duo where they were when they finally learned the First Lady chose their garment for the important day.
“Where were we?” Isabel said, repeating the question. “Floating!”
And even though the moment was undoubtedly a highlight of her professional career–”It was about dressing a moment in history,” she said of the honor–the Toledos had pretty much forgotten all about having sent the outfit to the First Lady in the first place. They’d gone on a holiday vacation to Miami and upon returning in January, launched themselves into their next project.
It wasn’t until the day of the Inauguration, when the office began to flood with calls, that the couple realized Michelle Obama had chosen their garment. And the rest, as they say, is history.
“It’s part of the National Archives now,” Isabel said of the garment, “so it belongs to all of you.”
A perfectly fitting ending, as far as this couple is concerned.