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The X and Y of Fashion

TIMES FASHION WRITER

She’s a neat freak, he’s messy. She’s stubborn, he throws in the towel. She doesn’t like to shop, he does. Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, New York designer Isabel Toledo and her artist husband, Ruben, have managed to become one of fashion’s most innovative teams.

They are lesser known than duos like Dolce & Gabbana or Badgley Mischka because they have chosen optimum creative freedom over commercial interests.

Isabel, 41, who has shown her collections in New York in the past and once in Paris, is regarded as a designer’s designer. Influences of her intricate architectural, geometric and origami designs are readily recognized in many of her colleagues’ work. Ruben, 40, is a fine artist but better known for his fashion illustrations in magazines and books, most recently in “Sweetie: Tantalizing Tips From a Furry Fashionista” (Warner Books, 2001).

Their work is the subject of a newly opened exhibit, “Toledo/Toledo: A Marriage of Art and Fashion” at Otis College of Art and Design here. The show, which runs through Jan. 26, debuted in 1998 at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, where Isabel has been the only living designer to have such an exhibit. It has shown in London, Vienna, San Francisco, Wolfsburg, Germany, and Kent, Ohio.

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There is Isabel’s voluminous space-age dress made from two circles sewn together and cut with holes for neck, arms and legs. Couture in spirit--and shape--it folds as flat as paper, for the traveling woman. Equally intriguing are her meticulously seamed matte jersey dresses that cascade along the body’s natural shape. Ruben’s art reveals a whimsical fashion take. For example, sculptures are free-form mannequins of different shapes, just like women.

Married for 17 years, the Cuban immigrants, who met in a New Jersey junior high, are now considering working with a major design firm, but aren’t saying which. Here’s what the couple had to say, in separate interviews, about fashion, the future and each other.

ISABEL:

Question: What’s the secret to collaborating with Ruben all these years?

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Answer: I think we don’t realize we’re a team. He does his art, I do my fashion. We appreciate each other’s personal observations. We trust each other’s opinion, even if we don’t take it. And he brings me coffee in bed. That’s our corporate meeting. We schedule. We dream. We imagine.

Q: How is Ruben your muse?

A: I fell in love with Ruben’s work before I fell in love with Ruben. I love to be moved, and his work moves me unlike anything. His sensitivity, as a person and in his work, attracts me, inspires me greatly.

Q: Describe yourself as a designer.

A: I’m withdrawn and very self-absorbed. That’s a strange way to be for fashion, but my point of view is so personal to me. I search my insides as opposed to what’s around me. I don’t like to be categorized. I need freedom. While I’m working, while I’m alive; do not put me in a box. The day I’m dead you can put me in a box.

Q: Describe Ruben as an artist.

A: Ruben really loves information. He draws everywhere, even on the walls. Our home and studio are a diary of our lives. He’s a constant visual person taking in what’s around him. I don’t live by visuals. I live by emotion. We work so different. Maybe that’s why it works.

Q: You’ve described your shapes as liquid architecture. What do you mean?

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A: I’m a Latin woman, and I have a shape. I also love working with jersey, so how do I make jersey attractive on me without seeing every single mound? So I control the seams. Every strategically placed seam has excess fabric that literally becomes like boning on the garment, so the dress falls where it should and not become a tube. Garments should flow and yet be structured.

Q: What mistakes did you make early in your career?

A: I wouldn’t call them mistakes. I’d call it a learning process, experimentation. When everyone was doing the power suit and the little pencil skirts in the mid-1980s, I was designing my packing garments [geometric shaped dresses that fold as flat as origami paper]. That was a tough time for somebody to come out with these amorphous shapes. They were counterculture to what was going on. But my naiveness of the industry allowed me to give my honest, unedited point of view. I still work this way.

Q: What’s wrong or lacking in fashion today?

A: Intimacy, which is why I stopped doing runway regularly. I want to be intimate with my customer to the point of not even showing a collection to editors or magazines, so that the clothes can be fresh for the customer. I dress an emotion. I like to make people experience that.

Q: Why have you survived in the world of fashion?

A: I think because we really do work as artists in the corporate world. We’ve survived at a time when a lot of other designers went out of business. Even now, with the huge conglomerate fashion houses, we’ve managed to stay alive because we offer our own point of view.

Q: What are your frailties?

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A: Everybody thinks I’m very fragile, but as a person I’m really an ox. It’s hard to let go of an idea. I go to bed thinking about how to figure out a problem.

Q: What talent other than what you do now would you most like to have?

A: To have ease of communication with my words. In my heart, I long for that. A best friend to me is a writer.

Q: Ruben has been described as a cross between Salvador Dali and Ricky Ricardo. Which one is he most like, and why?

A: He’s my Humphrey Bogart--sensitive but tough.

Q: If you could change one thing about him, what would it be?

A: His messiness. I’m organized. But he’s messy because of his immediacy with everything. And he’s passionate for everything he does. Especially food. I’m passionate very privately. Out in the world, I’m much more guarded, harder, even cold, I suppose.

Q: Do you dress Ruben?

A: Oh, yeah, I make suits for him, It’s like his uniform. But he sees something for me and buys it, because I’m not a shopper.

Q: What was the last thing he bought for you?

A: Oh, my--new panties! I’m just not a shopper.

Q: You’ve been described as a cross between Frida Kahlo and Morticia Addams. Which one are you more like, and why?

A: Frida. I have a connection to her about pain and sad thoughts, which I keep private and don’t really communicate very often. Also, maybe it’s my Frida-like eyes. Or it could just be the mustache.

Q: What do you miss about Cuba?

A: I miss the light, the way the sun creates the most incredible shadows and emotions. Light is very important to how I see things.

Q: How is L.A. style different from New York’s?

A: Here, you have the freedom not to dress in a uniform. You have frivolousness, which is actually very much about fashion. In New York, it’s almost like everyone is wearing a uniform, like camouflage, blending in, being less distractive in order to get work done.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: I garden. I have a green thumb. And I clean. That’s my spa. That’s how I keep in shape.

Q: Who leads when you dance?

A: Oooh, it depends on the dance.

Q: What’s your motto?

A: Peace.

Q: What is Ruben’s motto?

A: I have no idea, I’m happy to say.

Q: What’s next?

A: I’m working on my next collection and have clients by appointment only. But we’re also in negotiations with a good company I have admired for a long time. They want to grow, and I would do that for them as a designer. If it works out, it will be a good marriage.

RUBEN:

Question: What’s the secret to collaborating with Isabel all these years?

Answer: I think it’s because we’re both self-taught and we have different talents. Isabel never sketches, although she’s a really good artist. But she doesn’t like to capture ideas that way. She’s very sculptural. She’ll make a hand gesture or a movement saying the dress should feel like this. And I try to capture that. I’m very visual, so when we talk I’m always sketching.

Q: What about her inspires you?

A: She looks for what you would never expect and for what you thought you didn’t like. That inspires me--and her body language, her speech pattern, her thoughtfulness.

Q: Describe your work.

A: I’m proud to wear the label as fashion illustrator, even though I do painting and sculpture and some would even want to call me a fine artist.

Q: Describe Isabel as a designer.

A: She’s much more profound than I am. I’m totally chaotic, easily distracted, very spontaneous. She’s the opposite: no music at the studio, everything’s clean and precise and focused, like her work.

Q: What have you learned about fashion?

A: That it can all be a facade, all smoke and mirrors, like believing in Santa Claus. I love the mistakes, the ridiculousness and the triviality of fashion. It’s all part of the soup.

Q: Why have you been a survivor in the fashion world?

A: We started out with a lot of people who aren’t around and others who have gone on to bigger things, like Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors. We’re lucky that what we do is still relevant. We’re not a big company and have no ad money, and if you’re not advertising and not doing the mega shows, you almost don’t count in fashion. But I think what we offer to the fashion world, as well as to culture, is our souls.

Q: Would you and Isabel like to be better known?

A: A lot of people still don’t know who the hell we are. That’s good because just the right blend of people know us enough to let us do great projects or an exhibit like this. But we are not so overexposed that people feel they know everything we do.

Q: Do you want to be more corporate and commercial?

A: Out of fairness to Isabel’s talent, I wish we were more corporate, but on the other hand, I love the way we create, the freedom that’s so valuable. I never want to lose that. That’s why we’ve never made it big in business. And because I’m the business guy selling the clothes. I’m terrible at it because I’m an artist. But I do it sincerely.

Q: There seems to be a renaissance in the art of fashion illustration. Why is that?

A: Because when I do an eight-page story for a magazine, I’m in control drawing a woman wearing Jean Paul Gaultier. That Gaultier dress becomes my dress. I know what that dress feels like. I know how it wears, how heavy it is or how it twists or caresses the body. I put all that in the illustration, which is why it becomes a very personal message. That’s the strength of an illustration. There’s no one else involved, no stylist, no makeup or hair people, no fashion editor looking over your shoulder. It’s just me and the watercolors. And I think people get that.

Q: What are your frailties?

A: My one horrible frailty is that I’m very--how should I put it? If someone doesn’t like my work, it really crushes me. Isn’t that horrible? It’s stupid, but I’m very vulnerable that way.

Q: Which other talent would you most like to have?

A: I’d like to be able to cook. I can make great coffee--cafe con leche. That’s my expertise.

Q: Isabel has been described as a cross between Frida Kahlo and Morticia Addams. Which one is she more like, and why?

A: Probably Morticia’s sexiness and severeness. I think with Frida it’s bravery and that “I can do anything” attitude. Isabel could move a mountain.

Q: If you could change one thing about Isabel, what would it be?

A: Her stubbornness. She’s really, really stubborn. She rarely throws in the towel. I’d change that in a minute.

Q: What’s the last thing you’ve bought for Isabel?

A: The most beautifully shaped bottle of champagne I found in the weirdest place.

Q: You’ve been described as a cross between Salvador Dali and Ricky Ricardo. Which one are you most like, and why?

A: As wonderful as Mr. Dali and Mr. Ricardo are, I don’t think I measure up. But I have a good sense of humor. That’s a given for all Cubans.

Q: Was it love at first sight with Isabel?

A: I met Isabel in high school Spanish class when I was 14 years old, and I knew ‘that’s my wife.’ It took six or eight years for her to reciprocate, but I’m a very patient guy. That’s my other virtue. I have all the patience in the world.

Q: How is L.A. style different from New York’s?

A: Out here, style is deliciously self-indulgent, much more media-oriented and personal. I like that. Everyone gets in their car and lives in their own bubble, and that’s gutsy and amazing. That’s real art performance. In New York, style moves like a fashion virus--someone shaves an eyebrow, everyone does it--in a week it’s over. That’s what makes New York fashionistas so good.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: The most ridiculous thing we do for fun is once or twice a year we go to Coney Island with friends to ride the Cyclone.

Q: Who leads when you dance?

A: I would like to say I do, but Isabel is a better dancer. So sometimes I end up following. But I set the pace.

Q: What is your motto?

A: I love symbols, so I’d have to say the yin and yang symbol. I live by that.

Q: What do you think Isabel will say is your motto?

A: The smiley face. When we came from Cuba, my parents bought me a smiley face plate that I still have.

Q: What is Isabel’s motto?

A: Be true to yourself.

Q: What’s the message you want guests to take away after experiencing the exhibit?

A: Collaboration--working with people who do what you don’t, who don’t think like you do. That’s how you end up with interesting things. That’s my and Isabel’s strength, and I think that comes from being immigrants. That’s the strength of America.

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“Toledo/Toledo: A Marriage of Art and Fashion,” at Otis College of Art and Design, features nearly 200 of the couple’s works from their archives.

The exhibit continues through Jan. 26 at Otis’ Ben Maltz Gallery, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., Los Angeles. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Parking and admission are free.


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