“Toledo/Toledo: Full Circle” at Miami Dade College’s Museum of Art + Design

Award-winning fashion designer Isabel Toledo and her husband, artist Ruben Toledo, will premiere their exhibition “Toledo/Toledo: Full Circle” at Miami Dade College’s Museum of Art + Design during Art Basel on December 6th. The retrospective showcases three decades of archival Isabel Toledo designs on mannequins created by Ruben Toledo, as well as a section of his legendary watercolor scrolls, illustrations and sculptures. There will also be a series of images depicting the Toledos during their rise to fame in New York’s artistic underground in the 1980s, along with iconic moments such as President Barack Obama’s inauguration, when First Lady Michelle Obama chose to wear Isabel’s lemongrass lace ensemble. The couple recently premiered their new book, Roots of Style, at the Miami Book Fair International. Essentially an autobiography of Isabel’s life, the work also served as an illustrative canvas for Ruben, who drew accompanying images. We asked Isabel and Ruben about their book, their upcoming exhibit and their inspirations over the years.

VAULT: Isabel, In Roots of Style you describe specific memories, from singing Michael Jackson’s “ABC” in a matching jumpsuit with a friend to going to discos and winning Hustle contests. You relate how your passion for going out on the weekends led to cutting and sewing your own clothes on a regular basis. Then, in your first fashion show with Ruben, you speak of the models walking down the runway holding boomboxes playing Cuban music until the battery ran out and warped the tape. How has music shaped your understanding of fashion and style?

ISABEL TOLEDO: For me, music is another language, another form of communication, as is fashion and style. Communication through music is so instinctive and subtle, but so powerful. It can lift your spirits and empower your soul by osmosis. Music has always been an essential ingredient in my creative stew since my childhood in Cuba.

V: What soundtrack would you use to describe this?

IT: It would have to be a heady mix of all the classic Cuban music my grandmother and parents exposed me to, and then morph into Stevie Wonder, Janis Joplin, Miles Davis, The Who, Barry White and all the early disco, punk rock and New Wave you can gracefully cram together to create a hyperluscious soundscape.

V: Have certain architectural landscapes influenced your designs, or are there even specific buildings you look at for inspiration during the creative process?

IT: I love profound construction and architecture and design, no matter who made it or where I find it. As long as it is infused with vitality, we can feel it talking to us.

V: Back when you interned at The Met’s Costume Institute, did you ever think that one day you were going to have exhibits of your own?

IT: No, I was never burdened with my future. I am always too involved with the present to plan a future.

V: It seems that the early moments of your careers were defined by seemingly effortless, almost accidental collaborations, like when Ruben’s photographs were discovered by Joey Arias at Fiorucci. What has it been like to collaborate as a husband-and-wife duo?

IT: I cannot imagine any other scenario. I always knew intuitively that I would be married to an artist and live in a creative world. Ruben is very headstrong in his approach to aesthetics and his working methods. His creative vision is completely different from my own, but that is precisely what makes our collaboration interesting for me.

V: Explain what the process was like for Roots of Style.

IT: I am not a word person; that is not my preferred form of communication. This process allowed me to discover a different part of my communication skills. I tried to keep it simple: I woke up each day and wrote every morning until noon. My husband would later read my writing on pads and begin to draw in the margins. We ended up with way too many stories and drawings, so the hardest part became editing. It all had to be chiseled down to a manageable scale for a book.

V: The boutique Fiorucci was an artistic mecca that allowed the two of you to meet prominent figures in the art/fashion world and enabled you to create your own voice. Did these early influences lead to your overall success as artists?

IT: Fiorucci was a phenomenon, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But it was not so much a mecca as a clubhouse for culture. Its charm and magic was that it was completely naive about how important it was to become! Fiorucci, like most of the folks who we met, worked and collaborated there, did not take itself so seriously. It was not in itself important. It was just a store, but with so much human potential all under one roof that the vitality acted like a magnet.

“Fiorucci was a phenomenon, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But it was not so much a mecca as a clubhouse for culture. Its charm and magic was that it was completely naive about how important it was to become!”

V: Ruben, in Roots of Style Isabel briefly recalls the time Andy Warhol offered you a piece of advice, saying, “Just do what you do already but do it bigger and you’ll be fine,” to which you listened and never looked back. Do you ever revisit that advice that Andy gave you?

RUBEN TOLEDO: Every day. And I pass it on to as many young students and artists as I can. I interpret Andy’s advice to do what is natural and evolve into an individual. As an artist, this is one’s signature.

V: How did Andy’s presence in your earlier years shape you as the artist you are today?

RT: In every way, his presence formed me as an artist. I saw in him the simple idea that to be an artist is to have complete freedom to do what interests you, no matter how mundane or insane it may seem to others.

V: What other artists have had as much of an impact on you as Andy has?

RT: Every artist I have been fortunate enough to meet and collaborate with, from Isabel, who has an incredible conceptual mind and vision, to Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring, whom I also met with Andy Warhol at Fiorucci, Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, Jean-Michel Basquiat—whom I overlapped with for a few weeks when we worked at another groovy shop called Unique Clothing Warehouse—and on and on. We have been so blessed and lucky to have come of age in the trenches of creativity—and it continues.

V: What sort of influence has the city of Miami had on you?

RT: Miami has a sort of mythic status for me, the place where I first “met” America and Americans—so futuristic and energetic. I have so many visual references in my mind’s eye about Miami that I would love to do an installation about it, just to release it all back.

“Miami has a sort of mythic status for me, the place where I first “met” America and Americans—so futuristic and energetic.”

V: The exhibit “Toledo/Toledo: Full Circle” is like a visual accompaniment to the book. What does it mean for you both to have an exhibit at Miami’s Freedom Tower, a central place to your roots in America?

IT: You can imagine the amount of emotional weight and the layers of introspection and content that will be revealed and hopefully felt in this exhibit. It is not only our body of work but also the visualization of our immigrant story: a 3-D Toledo time capsule. It feels like we are walking back and forth through certain times of our life, and that is a powerful experience.

V: How has your involvement in the world of fashion influenced your art?

RT: Fashion reconfirms that creativity is a living and breathing emotion. It’s alive, and must remain free to roam where it may—if not, it’s paint by numbers!

V: Isabel, how has your lack of restriction to the fashion world given you a better understanding of art?

IT: I try my best to bring to fashion the longevity, poetry and sincerity that speaks to me in art. Fashion makes me feel the difference between merchandise and things made with a soul, things made by an artist. And this is the clear definition of “couture.”