We sit down with the creative couple during their visit to Cbus:
Or maybe that should read "A Chat with IsabelandRubenToledo," because after an hour spent talking with the Toledos, it is clear that these Cuban-born, American-made success stories of fashion, art and design truly are one living, breathing organism, talking with, through and around each other the whole time. And though many of the photographs published of the couple emphasize the elegantly beautiful figures they each cut, to meet them in person is to know best their warm accessibility and infectious joie de vivre.
Isabel is perhaps best known right now for having designed First Lady Michele Obama's inauguration outfit for the January 2009 ceremony and stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue. It was an exquisite coat and dress combination, made with Swiss felted wool, lined with pashmina for warmth and dressed in an iridescent lace which photographed so differently that no two media descriptions of the color and texture were quite the same. The Toledos favor "sage" as the color descriptor and marvel at other suggestions of its construction.
"People thought it was beaded, and it wasn't," said Isabel.
"She was padded, that's for sure," added Ruben.
"I wanted her to be illuminated, as from within," Isabel said. "I was asked originally to design for the ball, but that just wasn't me." (That honor went to young American designer Jason Wu.)
"You have done gowns," Ruben said.
"Yes, but here I wanted to be part of what was new, the new beginning, a symbol of hope," Isabel said. "And ordinarily for these events, you see only people dressed in red or blue. With this, she stood out against that sea of red and blue and brown and black."
Isabel and Ruben were sitting in the Columbus Museum of Art's Derby Court on Thursday, a few hours prior to headlining the inaugural event in a series of presentations that will honor Charles Kleibacker, the CMA's late adjunct curator and world-class couturier. Following Kleibacker's death in January 2010, the CMA established the Charles Kleibacker Endowed Fund for Excellence, and the Toledos' support has been critical. The New York-based couple and Kleibacker met nearly 10 years ago at an exhibition of Kleibacker's work at Kent State University, and they immediately formed a mutual-admiration society.
"We hit it off on shirts," said Ruben, himself an in-demand sculptor, author and fashion illustrator (you probably would recognize his delicate yet vibrant figures from advertising for Nordstrom, Barneys New York and the Louis Vuitton organization). "He had on these great, crazy-colored shirts with a tie and very conservative jacket, and I had to know where they were from. Carnaby Street, 1967."
"He was just such a very special person," Isabel said. "A master of the cloth. Even if I didn't know him, I would still say that I had a dialogue with his work."
Kleibacker's multi-faceted creativity also resonated with the pair. Though all three have been denizens of the haute couture world of Paris, they developed a devotion to ready-to-wear fashion and especially to arts education, visiting schools often. In fact, the Toledos had been to Ursuline College outside Cleveland the night before arriving in Columbus to meet with design students there.
Like Kleibacker, the Toledos are also committed to keeping fashion accessible to the masses.
"You know, he was the first to bring fashion to the malls," Isabel said. Ironically, it was the Toledos' aversion to the increasing depersonalization of the haute couture scene in the early 1990s that lead Isabel to stop showing collections there.
"They were losing the intimacy and the relationship of women to their clothes," said Isabel. "Even the photographers were told where to stand."
"In a pen really," Ruben added, "so that you can only see the clothes from one angle."
By leaving that rarified world and embracing a more egalitarian ethos, Isabel feels she's been able to create work that is more truly her own, yet accessible to more women. While her work is carried in a variety of boutiques and high-end department stores, she is still acutely aware of what's real and how real women like to dress in everyday life.
On Thursday afternoon she was wearing an intriguing mix of her own beautifully detailed work -- a heavy Swiss-cotton jacket, embroidered in blocks of grey with a grosgrain ribbon pattern across the back, over a delicate mesh top, also embroidered with tiny, colorful circles of floss. A tangle of meaningful pendants hung from her neck -- one with an evil eye, another an amethyst pebble set in a cradle of gold wire and created by a late friend, and other small conversation starters. From the waist down? A purloined pair of her husband's white cotton duck carpenter pants (artfully cuffed at the mid-calf point) and a prototype pair of blue-raffia pumps from her very successful new line for Payless Shoes.
"I buy the pants by the dozen from the hardware store," said Ruben, who came dressed in a nattily-tailored, three-button black suit and perfectly polished dark brown shoes (Bruno Magli, if we had to bet on it, but knowing the Toledos, they have probably found an even more intriguing source for their men's shoes).
The Payless partnership has been a good one for Isabel. Launched last fall, she's already onto her third collection for the discount shoe company. The line, priced at $60 or less, features colorful espadrilles, pumps and ballet flats. The Toledos have relished the challenge to add the constraints of industrial manufacturing to the design process, all while maintaining a commitment to proper technique.
They've come a long way from their childhoods in Cuba -- each a Freedom Flight emigre from Cuba with their families in the 1960s. They met in high school in West Teaneck, N.J.
"It was love at first sight," Ruben declared. "It's true. I said to myself, 'That is my wife.' But of course she wouldn't date me."
Well, eventually she did and together, after 26 years of marriage, they share a rich and varied life. And when they have a chance to give back, as they are with honoring the memory of Charles Kleibacker, they do.