SOCIAL STYLES: Isabel and Ruben Toledo

Elysze Held meets Isabel and Ruben Toledo

In South Florida, the name Elysze Held is synonymous with style. As founder and president of the Miami fashion/image consulting firm, Style Out of the City, Elysze is the personal stylist to WSVN 7/Deco Drive’s hosts, Lynn Martinez & Louis Aguirre and has dressed CEO’s, models, super-models, celebrities, socialites & fashionistas! Elysze frequently commutes to New York, is a field producer for Mercedes Benz New York Fashion week, and styles national advertising campaigns. With her stylist’s eye, she lets us know WHO WORE WHAT to WHERE!

Isabel and Ruben Toledo arrived in Miami to begin the installation of their evocative retrospective exhibition, Toledo/Toledo: Full Circle at the MDC Museum of Art + Design, located at MDC’s historic Freedom Tower. I was thrilled to get a call to meet them.

Ruben & Isabel at the Freedom Tower

I am familiar with their combined and individual body of work. I had seen Isabel Toledo “Fashion from the Inside Out” in the summer of 2009 at the FIT Museum in New York-…twice. I have read their book Roots of Style: Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion, and have admired, photographed, worn and written about her unique designs, as well as recommended her couture garments in one of her flattering silhouettes to my clients.

And Ruben Toledo?

He paints; he sculpts; he illustrates; he draws; he designs furniture. Ruben is the author of a collection of unforgettable images in drawings and watercolors Style Dictionary. His fashion illustrations have appeared in magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Details, and The New York Times

I was prepared to meet one of the design worlds’ most prolific couples. I was not prepared for their humility, their laughter and their openness. Their very presence gives credence to the expression do what you love and love what you do.

The synergy between the two of them is remarkable and their temperaments infectious. They have such different aesthetics, different styles, yet clearly love what the other has to offer. This difference is essential in their collaboration.

Ruben was quick to point out how they are so different, and he understands as an artist the difference between drawing something and actually making something.

“I could never do what Isabel does,” he said. “I work in a one-dimensional method. Isabel actually makes something from the vision, from the illustration. She doesn’t sketch, but instead thinks about each piece three-dimensionally.”

In fact, Isabel is often known to describe her design process as ‘fashion from the inside out.’ She can describe an idea or even a feeling to Ruben, and he’ll sketch it – collaboration.

This couple has great respect for each other’s art and each other’s abilities, and has mastered their different disciplines from different angles to create one identity.

Ah, but the clothes, the actual clothes – timeless and meticulous design, impeccably constructed.

Isabel is known and respected for her experimental use of fabric. Since she began in the 80’s, her focus has been on creating collections that seem to go beyond fashion. She uses sculptural and architectural techniques, creating patterns as would an engineer or architect with a blueprint. Her ideas evolve as she manipulates fabrics, cuts patterns and works with fabric to do with it what she wants it to do.

As Ruben states, “she wills the fabric.”

Yet, the couture worthy fabrics that she uses are manipulated in a way that is easy to wear.

When gathering up the archives of Isabel’s body of work for the retrospective, they noticed connections between the individual garments through the years. For example, a sleeve constructed on a dress in 1988 shows up again as a collar of a dress created in 1997.

Toledo’s designs allow the wearer’s personality to dominate, which is perhaps why First Lady Michelle Obama chose Isabel Toledo to design and create the now iconic ensemble she wore to the Inaugural Day of her husband. The controversial piece is now part of the National Archives. Why was the dress, a simple lace sheath with a matching coat, controversial? No one could pinpoint the color. Was it green, chartreuse, yellow?

Isabel calls the color of Obama’s outfit “lemon grass” because “it’s not yellow and it’s not green.” It began as a sage color, but in adding the dimensions of lace upon lace upon lace with a white lining that gave it an almost iridescent look, it took on a changing tone.

“The idea that the coat and dress are gold to some and pale yellow to others, gives much more depth to that moment when you happen to catch sight of it,” she said. “It provides the wearer and the viewer with an individualized experience.”

I saw the ensemble in the exhibit three years ago at FIT, and was astonished by its three dimensional depth (the lace upon lace upon lace).

Isabel was actually the first living designer to ever be feted with a retrospective of her body of work in the late 1990’s. Now, she is the first living American designer to have one of her creations in the National Archives with Michelle Obama’s ensemble.

Isabel and Ruben have taken their brand to a mass level. Isabel now has a collection for Payless Shoes. During my time with her, she was wearing a pair of espadrilles from that collection.

Ruben’s wonderful and cynical drawings (cartoons) showing the absurdity of the sometimes humorless world of fashion (published in Details Magazine) will also be shown in the exhibit at MDC.

His sleek illustrations and commitment to form and function are seen in his most recent project with Ralph Pucci — hand painted surreal and whimsical images on limited edition Ralph Pucci Furniture; the collection was called “historic” by New York Magazine design editor, Wendy Goodman.

We in Miami’s fashion community should be honored to have the Toledos as a part of this year’s Miami Book Fair International.

Like any true artist, Isabel Toledo’s collections and individual pieces are given names:

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