At Fiorucci, the Toledos charmed (and were charmed in turn) by luminaries such as Klaus Nomi, Halston, Lena Horne and Andy Warhol, who would later feature them on his Fifteen Minutes television show. “Andy loved the exotic. He was curious about these Cuban teenagers,” Ruben says.
The Toledos’ path to success may seem gilded, but it was paved by relentless effort and ingenuity. Shortly after their marriage, for example, Ruben left their apartment with a small bundle of garments slung over his arm and returned with orders from Patricia Field, who ran an influential boutique on 8th Street, and Henri Bendel. They had a week to deliver the clothes, and almost no resources. They learned where to buy zippers and denim on the cheap. Ruben traced the outlines and Isabel stitched each garment by hand on a personal sewing machine. As she once wrote, “The only way to truly understand how every piece of [a] business can be assembled…is to do it all yourself.”
Their improvisational spirit continued as the Toledo name spread through the city. They sent the invitations for their very first show in the form of hand-embroidered notes on white dress gloves (a flourish that caught the attention of The New York Times). They borrowed space from friends on 57th Street that would later become the headquarters for Louis Vuitton. The models, friends from Fiorucci, chose which dresses to wear themselves and did so in no particular order. The soundtrack was provided by a boom box in the middle of the room, and toward the end of the show the models had to kick it back to life when the batteries faded. The Toledos were a hit.
Following a cup of coffee, I ask Ruben if he misses the older, frothier New York. He says he still sees the old city behind the new, like a palimpsest. He refuses to be pigeonholed by nostalgia, but he admits a change. “All those different people in one room from such different polarities of life? That’s unheard of now. Information has killed subculture to the point where everyone knows about everything—nobody has the chance to fall in love with something. But I trust the kids. There’s always something happening you don’t know about … and don’t let me know about it! Make it ferment so that it’s such a beautiful stew by the time we meet it in culture.”
Moments later, Ruben falls quiet and stands. Isabel is here. He introduces us and then excuses himself to get more coffee. I suppose that he wants to give me time to take in Isabel’s presence on my own. This is likely out of pride, not politeness.
Both the Toledos want me to understand their love because they know it is essential to understanding their work. At the heart of their relationship is a very mysterious collaboration, one forged in those early days and perfected over time. With Ruben, this is a leit-motif as he glances from subject to subject. Isabel is far more direct.
“Did Ruben explain the theory of the vine as opposed to the tree?” He had not. “In a relationship, you should never be a tree, you should always be a vine. Trees grow, but they topple. Vines? Well, pieces fall off, but it keeps going.” Her voice is ardently, sensually serious. She gestures constantly with her hands, not as a tick, but with a demonstrative choreography attending her words.
She gives her own account of Cuba, noting how its culture does not have the same generational divides that mark American society. She speaks about the early days in NewYork,pointingout,asamatter of clarification, that she had come to the city to dance on her own before Ruben ever accompanied her. She describes her love of sewing machines, of gardening, of taking things apart and putting them back together.
But when Ruben returns to the room, the conversation takes a permanent turn. The outer charm of the couple’s love masks a deeper, tireless curiosity. They share an ability to communicate, often without words, in a way that retains the most fragile nuances of their vision.
So they begin, each following closely on the other’s ideas. The themes constantly shift, like the thousand forms a dress can take as it moves across a street. They relate Isabel’s darning to gender roles, to the feminine proclivity for the art of healing, to Isabel’s passion for Betsy Ross, to the strange cardboard contraptions Ruben’s father would create to protect avocados and mangoes on his trips from New Jersey.
“You should see her darn socks! It’s like a work of art! It’s like braille!” Ruben says. Isabel, discarding her previous line of thought for this newer, more exciting idea, does not miss a beat. “It’s weaving. It’s being able to put together again—a type of healing.” Ruben continues: “The way she sews becomes like scarification. Whatever she was thinking at that moment is in the sock. You see it, you feel it.”