During a high school field trip to New York City in the late 1970s, Isabel and Ruben Toledo stumbled upon Fiorucci, the now-defunct U.S. outpost of the Italian fashion label on East 59th Street. Ruben, with his portfolio of illustrations under his arm, managed to impress the customers of the legendary store owner, which included Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and performance artists Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi. Suddenly the two young, Cuban political refugees living in New Jersey, managed to establish crucial connections in the New York City art scene they would later become an integral part of.
The husband and wife team—she a couturier, he a fashion illustrator and artist—recounted this, and many other anecdotes Saturday at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Fullerton Hall during their public lecture organized by SAIC’s Fashion Resource Center (FRC). Joined onstage by FRC directors Gillion Carrara and Caroline Bellios and faculty member Donald Yoshida, Isabel and Ruben recounted enthusiastically the highlights of their career so far, many times finishing each others sentences. Carrara at times read out loud from their memoir “Roots of Style,” prompting them to reflect on their career.
Throughout the lecture the Toledo’s reminisced about their eventual move to New York in the 1980s, explaining that during this time there weren’t rigid boundaries between film, art, music and fashion. Isabel took classes at Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology while interning at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art under noted fashion editor Diana Vreeland. There she looked at garments from the inside out, noticing the times they had been adjusted for size and becoming aware of the evolution of a garment. Rubén made a living as a political cartoonist, illustrator and artist, getting recognition for his distinct angular and playful style. Since Isabel does not sketch, he would put her mental constructions on paper, Ruben explained. Once she developed a portfolio, he hustled it to Henri Bendel and Patricia Fields where he was able to successfully sell her designs.
Wrapped up in the nightlife of 1980s New York, Isabel would show her creations anywhere and everywhere, including the bathroom of Danceteria, a popular nightclub. But eventually, she got tired of the New York fashion scene because it became a brand-making industry, more of a visual treat rather than a place where you could go “hear the ruffling of the tafetta on the runway,” she said. She took a 10-year hiatus from the runway, even as friends and colleagues warned her that she’d be forgotten in the fickle New York scene.
Their singular vision, however, assured success for the couple. What she was able to achieve, Isabel explained, was a casualization of the women’s silhouette, in an industry that was dominated by the 1980s power suit. She found a way to use matte jersey fabric for daywear, an aesthetic choice that is now a standard. She took on the role of engineer, to this day finding new and inventive ways to handle fabric in her creations, making “jigsaw puzzles of ingenuity,” Ruben added.
Throughout the lecture, the Toledos acknowledged the SAIC fashion students in the audience, some of whom they had met earlier that afternoon for critiques, and reminded them of the importance of not only artistic skill, but of problem solving, of knowing how to get from one place to the other. “It’s about keeping broad horizons,” Ruben said, “You can still make money from art as long as it’s sincere.”
The visit from the Toledos kicked off the 25-year anniversary celebration of the Fashion Resource Center — the visitors’ hands-on, organic approach to fashion echoing the FRC’s mission of providing garments for students that they can look at and examine from the inside out. The couple’s lecture was part of a four-day sojourn that not only allowed students to have personal access to the couple but also allowed the Toledos to access the city’s resources, including illustrations of the late artist and personal friend Antonio Lopez, housed at the Chicago History Museum.
The Toledos think of Chicago fondly because First Lady Michelle Obama purchased Isabel’s garments at Ikram, the local-high end boutique. When Barack Obama was elected, Mrs. Obama’s team asked Isabel to design an ensemble that the First Lady could possibly wear for his inauguration ceremony in 2009. While describing the memorable event to the audience — seeing her, all of a sudden, on CNN wearing her creation — Isabel held back tears. “For Michelle Obama to choose a design by a woman, an immigrant, an owner of a small business, was important,” she explained. “It was because of her that we become a household name; after that day we were contacted by people from every corner of the universe.”