There’s love for fashion, yes. It’s epidemic. But love in fashion? Just in time for Valentine’s Day comes Toledo-Toledo: A Marriage of Art and Fashion , an exhibition that will run until April 25 at the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology. A book of the same title, designed by Stephen Gan and Visionaire magazine, has been published to coincide with the exhibition, chronicling the creative collaboration of childhood sweethearts Ruben and Isabel Toledo, the artist and fashion designer, respectively, who were married over a decade ago.
Born one year and a day apart in Cuba-she in 1961 in the Cuban countryside, he in old Havana in 1960-the couple met in West New York, N.J., just across the Hudson. It happened one day in Spanish class at Memorial High School, Mr. Toledo recalled recently over coffee at Ms. Toledo’s Fifth Avenue studio.
“For me,” Mr. Toledo remembered, “it was love at first sight. Totally. I was 14, still evolving. Boys bloom late. I was missing a tooth, and my hair was funny, but I knew that’s my woman. No question.”
Ms. Toledo smiled. Relishing the memory. For the uninitiated: The Toledos, rich in talent but not exactly rolling in commercial hype and profits, are heroes in the style world, especially to its younger constituents. Valerie Steele, who co-curated the F.I.T. exhibition, said recently that Ms. Toledo, whose women’s clothes are sold at Barneys, is an artist whose designs are like “liquid architecture … Ultimately, it is Isabel’s focus on the juxtaposition of material and sculptural shape that is her most original contribution to the art of fashion.” Richard Martin, the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, has written that Mr. Toledo is “the greatest fashion illustrator chronicling our time.”
At the F.I.T. exhibition, the dance between her fashion and his art is immediately evident, a collaboration like that of two baroque lovers on a Saturday-night subway heading downtown. In person, the Toledos are very still. Their dance is verbal. He speaks in booming, masculine tones; her voice airs gently. They finish each others’ sentences so seamlessly that if you close your eyes, they could be one person. “Our relationship is all about respect,” Mr. Toledo said. “People think we’re so alike, but, really, we’re so opposite.”
“It’s respect for each other’s opinion that sparks us.”
“For instance, if I made a dress,” he said, “it would be decorative, over-the-top nonsense. Isabel is pure and logical.”
Isabel Toledo was 8 when her family came to America. Ruben Toledo was 6. “My biggest memory of Cuba is an emotion,” she remembered. “An emotion for the light, the way the sun hit every color. Shadow. In New York, the first thing I remember is that bridge.”
“The Pulaski Skyway,” he offered.
“Intricate. Summer. The industrial feeling,” she whispered.
In interviews, Mr. Toledo likes to describe himself as part Ricky Ricardo, part Salvador Dalí. Isabel, he said, is part Morticia Addams, part Frida Kahlo.
“I had an art class with his brother.”
“He was a jock. I used to do his art homework,” he said.
“Landscapes. Beautiful landscapes,” she recalled. “I was amazed.”
Ruben always drew, but never thought he should do it professionally “until she told me.” Isabel was a quiet student, someone whose idea of a great afternoon was gardening, a passion for green things she continues now on the terrace of the couple’s apartment-”an architectural Disneyland,” he said-on top of a 19th-century building south of Herald Square.
She always sewed. Made clothes for her older sisters. “When I was able to make things for myself, I finally was able to express myself,” she said. “I guess that was my first awareness of this thing called fashion.” Years later, Ms. Toledo got into the design business when, one morning when she was at work as a restorer at the Costume Institute, Mr. Toledo went into her closet and took three of her designs to Bendel’s and Patricia Field’s. He came home with her first-ever orders. “I sewed for weeks,” she said.
As teenagers in high school, their courtship consisted mostly of afternoon bike rides and his visits to her family’s house. “I proposed marriage so early, so many times, I forgot about it. It took forever to get an answer. Until Isabel reminded me.”
“Wait a minute. Does that offer still stand?” she asked a few years after they graduated from high school. They were commuting by day into the city. She was studying at F.I.T. and Parsons School of Design; he was taking classes at the School of Visual Arts.
“I missed him,” Ms. Toledo said.
The wedding dress: Isabel and Ruben shopped for the lace she fashioned over a sheath of blue gauze. The Toledos, by their account, were married three times. “When Isabel finally said Yes to marriage after all these years, I called City Hall,” he explained. “‘How do you get married?’ I asked. They said, ‘Come to such and such an office.’ So we told our parents. We got all dressed up.”
“The rice and everything,” she laughed.
“Drove to the city,” Ruben continued. “Go up to this window in City Hall, and they say, ‘Here’s your permit. Come back next week.’ I said to Isabel, we can’t tell our parents we aren’t married.”
“And since they didn’t speak English …” she added.
“We left town for our honeymoon. Came back. Got secretly married, and didn’t say anything so our Catholic families wouldn’t know we’d honeymooned in sin.”
They drove to Niagara Falls. “Of course,” Mr. Toledo laughed. “Where else?” The car they borrowed, “It was broken. So we couldn’t turn it off, otherwise it might not start again.”
“So we traveled around for, like, seven days?”
A month later, following their civil ceremony at City Hall, they had a church wedding. The Toledos did not write their own vows. They do not celebrate their anniversary, as they have three, they say. If they celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, it’ll probably be dinner in a neighborhood Japanese restaurant advertising a special lovers’ prix fixe.
Then it’s back to work. Recently, quite unexpectedly, choreographer Twyla Tharp wandered into the F.I.T. exhibition and, as a result, commissioned Ms. Toledo to design costumes for a ballet that will premiere next month in Miami. Ms. Toledo, who describes herself as “the oldest living young designer,” will present her next collection on March 30, around the time that the Toledos will open a shop, called Isabel Toledo Lab, at 277 Fifth Avenue. In addition to women’s clothes, the store will have men’s wear by Ms. Toledo and objects for the home designed by Mr. Toledo.
“We value age here,” Ms. Toledo said when asked what she and Mr. Toledo want to achieve by the time they are 100. “We’d like to be doing exactly what we’re doing now,” she laughed, “just easier.”
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