Interview by Alexandra May, Detroit Contributor
As artists and designers, Isabel and Ruben Toledo have constructed a creatively diverse vocabulary since 1984. Born in Cuba, they forged a romantic and professional love affair as teenagers, which flowered into a wide-reaching repertoire. Traversing disciplines such as fashion, costume design, illustration, graphic design, animated films, furniture, mannequin design, and ceramics, their efforts resulted in a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in 2005. In 2015, The Toledos launched their first fragrance collection, “Hot House Beauties," which garnered a Rising Star Award from Fashion Group International. Isabel received a Tony Award nomination for Best Costume Design in 2014 for the musical After Midnight. The Toledos have exhibited their work in numerous museums internationally, including Toledo/Toledo: A Marriage of Art and Fashion (1998) and Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out (2008) at the Museum at FIT; Bodies @ Work: The Art of Ruben and Isabel Toledo at the Columbus Museum of Art Ohio (2017); and most recently Labor of Love at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Ruben Toledo’s installation work has also appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy.
Described as a radical classicist, Isabel Toledo designs and constructs her namesake collections at their legendary midtown studio and has participated in New York, Barcelona, and Paris Fashion Week presentations. She is most highly regarded for her iconic lemongrass Inauguration dress designed for First Lady Michelle Obama in 2009. Her insider/outsider status has allowed her to collaborate with major brands such as Anne Klein, Target and Lane Bryant, while her couture designs remain a well-kept fashion secret.
Ruben Toledo is a painter, sculptor, fashion chronicler, and critic. His illustrations have been published in top international fashion magazines including The New Yorker, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Town & Country, Visionaire, and the New York Times. His watercolors of one hundred global cities are found in the Louis Vuitton City Guide series for LVMH. He created an animated film about the history of couture entitled Fashionation, and has illustrated many books including Nina Garcia’s series of books on fashion and Laren Stover's The Bombshell Manual of Style.
Alexandra May: I love all of your stories about your teenage years in NYC. Can you tell me where you are originally from and how you ended up in NYC?
Ruben Toledo: We were both born in Cuba…I was born in Havana and lived an interesting, complicated, and fascinating communist childhood until we came to the USA in 1967.
Isabel Toledo: I was born in Las Villas Camajuani, a magical-realism town surrounded by mountains and tobacco in the center of Cuba. I arrived in the USA in 1968 just in the middle of the hippie, free-love, Woodstock world which continued the revolutionary feeling but in a polar opposite direction. For my parents it was culture shock, but for me it was a joyride that led straight into NYC .
Ruben: We both jettisoned into NYC as teenagers and accidentally bumped into the cultural sushi of mid-1970s Manhattan where the downtown culture of art, fashion, film, dance, music, and performance art was just starting to percolate. I attended the School of Visual Arts.
Isabel: I enrolled at both Parsons School of Design and Fashion Institute of Technology to learn all I could about tailoring and sculpture and pattern-making and ceramics. In my mind, fashion and art were co-dependent.
Ruben: New York City was a very important character in our development as artists: the people we were exposed to, the aura, and the mood of the city at that time (1975-79), the opportunities that one could sniff out, were essential in developing our DIY approach to creative fulfillment. I think this is why doing this project at the Detroit Institute of Arts is so heartfelt for us. Detroit is one of the most creatively fertile cities alive today. Its people power is infectious.
AM: How did you two first meet?
Ruben: The very first day at Memorial High School in West New York, New Jersey is when I first met Isabel…love at first sight for me and not so much for Isabel.
AM: When were you first inspired by art and fashion?
Ruben: I learned from Isabel that “fashion is what time looks like.“ It is the most inclusive human and democratic of creative expressions open to all and fueled by everyone whether they know they are participating or not, but art did come first for me. I was born drawing, according to my mom. It was not so much “art“ but the fact that I am an addicted draftsman. I can’t understand anything unless I draw it first. I needed to draw myself a map to get to school even in Havana. I still make graphs, maps, visuals, to make myself understand a situation or a person. I think best in symbols . My fascination and respect for fashion and design came later when I met Isabel. Her explorations and investigations into the mystery of patterns, flat 2D pattern making and the way Isabel transforms them with gravity, working with the empty space between the wearer and the cloth, the element of movement and the sensual mystery of cloth, all of this is very nutritious food for my imagination.
Isabel: For me, art and fashion are in the same family tree: different intentions, different disciplines but a similar urge to exist, to communicate. Except fashion has one other responsibility…to serve the wearer. Art was always my vocabulary, my reference point and compass. Even as a kid making my first sewing projects (stuffed animals that looked like abstract soft sculpture), everything I made had to have a soul.
AM: I know you have lived very interesting and rich lives in NYC and have interacted with so many wonderfully creative individuals. Are there any people who really stand out for you that truly inspired you?
Ruben: All of our creative intersections were accidentally profound and naively significant: the way Andy Warhol told me to draw bigger—paint bigger—do what I was already doing (when we met at age 16 at Fiorucci), just all on a bigger, bolder scale. Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, two ultra-talented performance artists who constantly created, hourly, in their everyday life—teaching us by example how the act of urban living can be raised to the level of art form. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, Halston, Lena Horne—all talented artists who we were lucky enough to interact with when we were just kids, who really lived art and creation on a second-by-second basis.
Isabel: Interning with Diana Vreeland at the Met’s Costume Institute was a liberating, eye-opening experience for a shy, technically gifted builder of soft sculptures. It transformed me into a designer. My weekly walk down the corridors of the galleries through the Egyptian gallery presented me with the path for expressing my voice. I always trusted my hands’ ability to create and my spirit’s ability to feel, but the freedom and importance to share with the world was born from seeing the significance of cloth through history, since the beginning of time.
AM: When did you first collaborate?
Ruben: High school art class. Isabel painted a stormy seascape, all glorious atmosphere and moody, foggy, misty, fearful, Turner-like colors—and demanded I paint her a floating, shipwrecked, navigation shape somewhere on the canvas. Luckily for me she liked my hand.
AM: Can you describe Labor of Love at the Detroit Institute of Arts? How did you come up with the idea for the exhibition—both the scavenger hunt of works throughout the museum as well as those in the exhibition gallery?
Ruben: On our first visit we were stunned by the Diego Rivera Detroit Industry Murals. The draftsmanship, the fluid energy, the “story,” we could almost hear their voices—the humanity is so evident that it made us instantly want to talk back and communicate with Diego—to continue the conversation.
Isabel: We wanted to dress the museum, not so much to create an intervention with just one artwork, but to address the galleries, the entire space, including the history of the museum, the city of Detroit, the DIA curators, the visitors who pass through…for us this was the most contemporary exercise we could embark on. There were certain patterns that we noticed from the DIA collection across cultures and different periods.
Ruben: We wanted to connect the dots between the eras and practices to broaden the conversation.
Isabel: In studying the collection at the DIA, we discovered certain poses, certain moods, and intentions which could appear in an African ancestral doll, later in a medieval statuette, and then re-appear in some early, colonial American portraits. The visual vocabulary of all these art objects felt very instructional as if each epoch and culture were communicating with us across the centuries. It felt like they had something urgent to share with us now. It felt as if we were witnessing a guided tour of civilization. The director of the museum, Salvador Salort-Pons, really encouraged this freedom of exploration and the sense of discovery we felt. He really wanted to let the collection continue to speak out loud.
Ruben: We were so very lucky to be able to work with the Diego Rivera cartoons, the original charcoal drawings for the industry murals which are monumental in scale and ambition. These set off my completely new body of work for the DIA. His Four Races panels inspired my Color Code series painted on pleated linen canvas. I treated them like ancient coded scrolls, with hidden cave drawings and sketches and text living within the folds, hiding like camouflage in plain sight.
AM: Did you always have a fascination with Diego and Frida?
Ruben: I loved both their works separately, before I realized their importance as a couple. Both are fearlessly sincere artists whose works affected their time and continues to give birth.
Isabel: They understood the importance of indigenous art and culture of South America and Mexico, in particular helping to connect the dots from the ancient to the modern art of their time. Through them America and Europe discovered and fell in love with the exoticness and profundity of the incredibly diverse native culture and were encouraged to dig deeper—no small accomplishment. A real testament to both their visions and talents.
AM: I love that there is a community engagement component to Labor of Love. Can you describe how and why you decided to work with Sew Great Detroit?
Ruben: We both love the way art and design must connect to the public—the community—and must involve the audience and wrap us all into the fold of the communal experience of art as much as possible. When our amazing curator Laurie Ann Farrell introduced us to the Sew Great Detroit team and their mission, we knew this would be a fortuitous collaboration.
Isabel: For me discovering the act of sewing was such an empowering process, I welcome any opportunity I get to share that power. I see it time and again how sewing, making something with your own hands and heart and soul, transforms an individual and by extension transforms the viewer.
AM: I am fascinated by your first sewing machine wrapped in black and with a black “cloud” of designs suspended above it. Can you tell me what this means?
Isabel: I wanted to mummify and create a symbol of my first sewing machine and make her a landmark. She gave me so much freedom, so much empowerment, it is the industrial part of my being. As my industry has dissolved and so many talented operators have lost their voice, it is impossible for me not to mourn my community. My goal was to bring her to the forefront and let her be admired. But like a great big sturdy insect, I wanted to cocoon her in silk like a giant silkworm, ready to morph and emerge with new vitality. The floating designs are thought bubbles, dark and beautiful. The urgency of art and the creation of ideas are never stopped.
AM: Your social and political cartoons are beautifully drawn but also so full of meaning, especially in today’s less-than-certain climate. How do you come up with the content and images?
Ruben: These are part of a long series of political, social-satire cartoons which is how I started making a living in art since the 1980s. Social commentary comes naturally to me—our friend Bill Cunningham (from the New York Times) was the first to tell me I was an instinctive journalist. I still consider myself a journalist. My satire drawings are an observational conversation with the streets, the people I know, what I overhear on my way to work, the mood of the crowd. This is what I’m good at—sensing the ethereal, emotional temperature of the time, a talent I honed working in fashion. I was floored to discover the Diego Rivera satirical drawings in the DIA collection. The way he depicts the market place, the vendors, the clients, the high life and low life—they are gems full of life, and as vibrant and disconcerting as our modern times. Humor is such a subversive and powerful element which communicates directly to the human soul, surpassing the intellect and making them timeless—like sophisticated, witty, and sharp cave drawings.
AM: You have done many different things in your artistic careers, from museum exhibitions to costume design. Do you have a favorite?
Ruben: All of our threads are woven together—set designs, costume, fashion design, animation, photography, murals, paintings, and my large-scale watercolors all require different disciplines but are all part of the heart.
The exhibition, Labor of Love, runs through Sunday, July 7, 2019. For more information click https://www.dia.org/laboroflove