ABOVE: RUBEN (LEFT) AND ISABEL TOLEDO.
Since they met as high school students decades ago, designer Isabel Toledo and her illustrator husband Ruben rarely step out solo—it’s always Ruben with his tiny mustache, and Isabel on his arm. As a couple, they’ve gifted the fashion world with looks galore from her, and peppy drawings of the fancy dresses from him. It’s no surprise, then, that when Isabel needed someone to fill her new memoir Roots of Style (Celebra Hardcover) with little drawings, she looked no further than her husband. His art brings to life Isabel’s story—from a childhood in Cuba, to party-hopping in New York City, to the steps of the Capitol on Inauguration Day, when Michelle Obama famously wore an Isabel Toledo dress and coat as her husband took the oath of office. The duo was in full-on tag-team form when they arrived at a celebration for the book at Treasure and Bond in Soho. “Step into my office!” Ruben said as Isabel led us through the packed room. His office? Ah, right—Ruben had covered the walls of the elevator with his distinctive painted figures, doll heads with flowing hair. While shuttling up and down from one floor to the next, we talked with the first couple of fashion about their work, love, and relationships with the places they came from.
NATE FREEMAN: So, I read the wonderful book.
ISABEL TOLEDO: Oh you did? I’m impressed!
RUBEN TOLEDO: Tell me what you learned.
FREEMAN: The beginning, when you were talking about Cuba, was really fantastic. My mother is Cuban, but I’ve never been.
ISABEL: You really should.
RUBEN: Let’s all go!
FREEMAN: I’m trying to find a way. When was the last time you were there?
ISABEL: Well, I left in ‘68, but I went in 2000, just to visit. It was three weeks, and that was way too long.
FREEMAN: I think my mother left in 1960; she was three, but she has some very small memories. My grandfather has all the pictures…
ISABEL: I experienced school in Cuba, up to the third grade. It was an interesting transition to see. I grew up in communism, you know.
FREEMAN: Reading the early chapters—that’s what my mother’s life must have been like.
ISABEL: The island is actually a lot like New York, as [there are] so many different types of people who live together and exist and collaborate with each other. It’s a beautiful island. You should really go.
RUBEN: So, you’re Cuban. [Do] you speak Spanish even a little bit?
FREEMAN: A little bit. It used to be better, though.
RUBEN: You need a Cuban girlfriend…that helps!
FREEMAN: That would be nice.
ISABEL: Do you drink cafe con leche?
FREEMAN: Well, yes.
ISABEL: Oh, that’s all you need. You’re Cuban. It’ll come back.
FREEMAN: How exactly did the book happen? When did you start planning it and writing it?
ISABEL: I was approached maybe a year ago to write a tip book. I was like, “No way, man, not me! I won’t do no tip book!” But they were really incredible about it. They let me do whatever I want. “I’m not a writer,” I said, “so I’m not going to write a book—I’m going to weave a book.” I’m not even a wordy person! But I was able to make a map out of my life and what I do.
FREEMAN: And what are your hopes for the book?
ISABEL: I hope to inspire, I hope to express another voice, another way of working. But I don’t know what to expect of the book, or what’s going to happen. I hope students pick it up, that’s my main goal, really. I keep telling them, it’s another way of having success, without having to go the corporate way.
RUBEN: There are so many ways to be an artist or a designer or a creator. There’s not one main highway, and you forget that. I feel bad for young creators who are forced to be big overnight, that’s not the way it’s meant to be. You have to ferment a bit and figure it out before you’re in the spotlight.
FREEMAN: It’s hard to acquire that patience.
ISABEL: Well, it’s not like I had patience either. If you were to have told me that it’ll take 30 years? I would have said “Nuh-uh! No way, honey!”
RUBEN: You’re talking to a very impatient woman!
ISABEL: Yeah, I am, aren’t I?
RUBEN: You’re so impatient. I’m super patient. I could wait forever for something. Not at all like you.
ISABEL: And yet, here I am.
THE ROOTS OF STYLE IS AVAILABLE NOW.