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The X and Y of Fashion

Design duo Isabel and Ruben Toledo turn their differences into clothing with an artistic flair.


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.

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.


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

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?

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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