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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.

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.”

“As a child, I was weightless and sharp like a needle, and the ‘shy’ in me was born.”

Taking things apart is certainly Isabel’s forte. During her internship under Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, she immersed herself in dissection of classic couture—the work of legends like Madeleine Vionnet and Madame Grès, names to which critics would eventually resort to describe the potency of Isabel’s own style.

The Toledos share a powerful sense of history, a conviction that fashion is not some march toward ever-greater sophistication, but a responsive, living cycle.

“Fashion is very modern in that way,” Ruben says. “You can throw anything at it and it absorbs it. Nothing is repelled. It’s an expert at vibrations and connections. That’s why Isabel stopped doing shows. It’s not a twice-yearly thing, it’s a daily thing!”

“I would change five times a day, if I could,” she notes. “And I do.” This spirit is embodied in one of Ruben’s most captivating drawings, a clockwork wheel surrounded by women in silhouette. The drawing happens to be printed on a scarf hanging near Ruben’s table, and Isabel is delighted to rush over and discuss its nuances—how it reveals fascinating symmetries, and conveys the rule of echo, the reactive interweaving that lies at the root of the Toledo philosophy.

Once she has begun talking about her husband’s work, it is difficult for her to stop. She pulls down one of hundreds of black notebooks, each filled to the brim with illustrations, ideas, forms in motion. They call these their “constant conversation.” About Ruben’s fashion illustrations, she says, “You can get a room of women—all types, all nationalities— and they all see themselves in them. Women will always say, ‘That’s me to a T!’”

She calls Ruben her faucet, referring to the endless flow of his ideas, which she sees as her job to pare down. Her role is to pluck out what’s best: “He’s got to convince me, and the convincing part is quite interesting,” she says. “It’s like a courting,” Ruben says, “You have to court each other to get there. You have to make them fall in love again.”

Their collaborative mode is quite different when it comes to Isabel’s work. She is not a draftswoman. Her process begins with fabric. She touches it, listens to it, senses how it wishes to fall and to fold, whether it wants to succumb to gravity or defy it. Once she understands the message, she calls out for Ruben, who is likely at work on his own project somewhere else in the loft.

“He’s got to give an image to whatever I’m feeling and saying,” she says. Ruben continues, “I have to drop my ideas, I have to drop my stimulation, and just receive hers.” This is not a demand most artists could tolerate.

It does not always work, and the Toledos are the first to laugh about it. Sometimes, for example, Isabel is forced to work with a mannequin. But more often it does work, and after a few moments Isabel sees her ideas appear beneath her husband’s pencil. Their friend Kim Hastreiter, the founder of Paper magazine, once observed that Isabel’s are “clothes for women who don’t need men.” But Isabel herself does need Ruben, just as he needs her. The clothes, the designs, the sets, the drawings come from a beautiful, very rare place between both of their minds.

For a couple whose image embodies sophistication, counter-culture and defiant style, there is something wonderfully traditional about their relationship. This contradiction seems of a piece with their Cuban-American identity. Theirs are hard-won convictions. They know what they know. And what they know, essentially, is love.

Kinfolk 24 twenty-four

This story is from Kinfolk Issue Twenty-Four

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