“Clothes tell our history. I wanted to be a part of the history of how we look.”
at FGI Conference, NYC - on why she became a fashion designer
Last week I attended the Fashion Group International Director’s Conference in New York City, where I had the pleasure of meeting Ruben and Isabel Toledo (me with them above). I have long admired their incredible work and creative force in the industry, but having met them I’ve gained an even deeper respect. They greeted the audience with grace, humor and appreciation, treating all of us as friends.
Ruben and Isabel are true visionaries with an innovative spirit that drives everything they do. They have a deep love of art, their craft and “discovery” everyday.
Isabel is a technical genius in fashion design, known for her industrial style, skilled construction and draping. Her designs start with a feeling – expressing an emotion or responding to a fabric. She loves shape and imagining what it will do on the body, which is evident in the non-traditional way she works with a form (sometimes she’ll turn it upside down).
She describes her style as an odd twist on Victorian, with proper form and fitted shape. If you bring something original and sincere to your design – the original ingredient is what people will take in.
I admire Isabel’s grounded approach to her business. She is an artist that designs because of her love of clothing and the “Art of the Make.” To that end, she focuses on what she is good at and presenting it in her way – staying out of the spotlight. She purposely keeps her staff small – 25-30 people – where at times Ruben still answers the phone and their 85-year-old dad remains their best cutter. Keeping the staff intimate also allows them to remain exclusive because they truly can’t produce a lot. She wants to have time to create a legacy for the future in fashion – something that will stand the test of time and not marketed in a mass way.
A highlight of her career came not too long ago when Michelle Obama wore her design to the Inauguration. The dress, a pale-yellow brocade shift and jacket, was made of Swiss wool lace and lined with a "secret layer” of pashmina tulle inside (a thoughtful touch for warmth on that frigid day). When Isabel spotted Mrs. Obama on CNN wearing the dress, she was “floating.” Isabel says that she was so committed to that piece and wanted that optimism to come through in the garment. She was thrilled that Mrs. Obama felt what she did when she created it and selected it for this momentous event. She believed in it and wanted so much to be a part of that moment in history.
Ruben’s art has delighted the fashion world with it’s whimsical perspective on the human figure. He believes that a good fashion illustration will make clothes look even more wondrous than any model could ever convey. For over 10 years, Ruben’s illustrations have been the face of Nordstrom designer advertising campaigns. I have been such an admirer of his work over the years that I’ve become a “collector.” I’m sure I have most of his Nordstrom ads as well as other illustrations I’ve loved. While Ruben and Isabel were speaking at our conference, I took the opportunity to tell him about my collection and admiration of his work. I felt a little like a schoolgirl afterward, but I’m glad I did it. His eyes lit up with genuine appreciation and he was very engaged in my little tale.
Following are examples of Ruben’s Nordstrom ads, a portrait of his wife and a sketch of the First Family in Isabel’s designs that he was asked to create for a story.
What struck me most about this dynamic couple is their adoration of one another. Both born in Cuba, Isabel and Ruben met while attending high school in New Jersey, where Ruben describes meeting Isabel as "love at first sight." They married soon afterward, and entered the New York fashion world almost immediately.
They genuinely adore each other, they laugh at and with each other and they inspire each other creatively. When asked what designers they admired, Ruben immediately and enthusiastically pointed to Isabel and said “I admire this one.”
I'm convinced that if all couples were as connected as they are, we would have world peace.