ABOVE: ISABEL AND RUBEN TOLEDO. PHOTO COURTESY OF RANDAL BACHNER.
Isabel Toledo and her husband Ruben are one of the most charming duos in fashion today. While relatively social-media shy, there are relics of the couple on every available surface in their shared New York studio, including many portraits of Isabel by Ruben. Since dressing First Lady Michelle Obama at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Isabel has been designing costumes for After Midnight on Broadway and collaborating with plus-size mega retailer Lane Bryant. Between all of her current projects we sat down to talk about where she comes from, what she’s out to do, and how to paint.
LAUREN CHAN: You’ve had an extremely varied career. Tell me about how it all happened…
ISABEL TOLEDO: Lauren, it’s one of the oldest stories in the book. Girl meets boy in high-school Spanish class, the nerdy artist boy—Ruben—falls in love with the wise-before-her-time dreamer—me—they marry at 23 [years old] and to survive in New York City, they start a fashion business. They have their ups and downs… Move to Coney Island, run off to show in Paris, sleep on many a great friends’ couches, and grow up to one day dress the First Lady of the United States on a historic Inauguration Day.
CHAN: I wonder if that sort of spontaneity still exists among people making it in fashion these days. Do you think the magic has dwindled in fashion and the arts?
TOLEDO: Magic never dies, Lauren, but it has morphed into the digital age. Although, digital magic can never be compete with human magic—the magical chemistry created by us humans. It’s in a look, a voice, a sensation, a feeling that transmits through the air from person to person without words. This is what sparks art, fashion, and culture to flourish. We cannot allow technology to dull our magical human senses.
CHAN: Who are you a fan of in fashion and art these days? Besides Ruben…
TOLEDO: Ruben and I grew up with each other as muses and conspirators in art. [We] were spoiled to be surrounded by so many talented designer friends like Narciso Rodriguez, Alber Elbaz, Francisco Costa, Rick Owens, the filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, photographer Ruven Afanador and Paige Powell, the choreographers Bill T. Jones and Twyla Tharp, artists like Terresita Fernandez, and performance artist extraordinaire Joey Arias—who is like our son! All of these friends and many, many more make up some of the important ingredients which bring us joy and spark the urge to keep on exploring and working at what we do.
CHAN: How has the Isabel Toledo brand or image changed over time and how do you want people to see it now?
TOLEDO: I don’t think of myself as a brand, simply a designer. A fashion designer who is married to an artist and together we have woven a body of worth through the years—with hopefully a recognizable signature. I look forward to one day becoming a brand… But that takes a business structure with brilliant business people to run it. I do look forward to that chapter in our life.
CHAN: Tell me about working in costume design on Broadway. What are your thoughts and feelings on that world compared to retail?
TOLEDO: I love theater. I love a performance and designing a visual spectacle. It is like creating a composition with clothes, which have to fit the psychology as well as the body of characters. With dance, [it’s] even more demanding because of the physical demands night after night! Most of us don’t put such wear and tear on our clothes that often. Also, the performance is frozen in time, the clothes have to stay reliable and help to define the story. Fashion can be much more abstract. It needs no story because the woman is the story. She supplies the text and content. Fashion for retail is the opposite of frozen, it has to change and morph constantly to stay relevant—to be the “fashion.”
CHAN: You have designed a beautiful collection for Lane Bryant. Have you been involved with a major retail brand since Anne Klein? Why now and why this?
TOLEDO: This has been a long time coming! Fashion is every woman’s language, [and] every woman’s tool. Fashion is anatomy for me, creating your second skin is one of the most intimate art forms I can think of. I love that Lane Bryant specializes and excels in the construction of many a woman’s actual size. The average adult woman is not a traditional standard fashion size zero, yet they are such keen and enthusiastic consumers of fashion. I have always believed in fashion for all—all ages, sizes, and styles accepted. This is their ideal woman.
CHAN: As a plus-size model, I have strong opinions and passions about and for the world of plus-size fashion. What are your opinions on diversity in the fashion world?
TOLEDO: Fashion lives in the world of ideals; it is not necessarily grounded in the real world. The question becomes whose ideal it is. My ideal happens to be diversity. I love difference. I love change. I love experimentation and eccentricities. I like not knowing something and then discovering. [Ruben and I] came of age in a very accepting time where your difference was a plus. Fashion can only reflect this diversity if we designers have an open and curious mind…
CHAN: Do you think this millennial age will see fashion become more accepting or more exclusive?
TOLEDO: Fashion wears many faces; it has the urge to belong to a group—to charm—but also the urge to be exclusive and snobbish to carve out individuality. That is the genius of fashion! Fashion is what time looks like, and it’s up to us all to shape what our own time looks like. Fashion is a collaborative art form in this way… We all paint the picture.
AFTER MIDNIGHT IS CURRENTLY ON BROADWAY.