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Mrs. Obama seems to favor Isabel, Ruben Toledo designs

Mrs. Obama seems to favor Isabel, Ruben Toledo designs


Isabel and Ruben Toledo had no idea an ensemble she designed would be chosen by First Lady Michelle Obama to wear for the inauguration of her husband, President Barack Obama, until Ruben’s mother called them as she watched the historic festivities on television. While that singular event has catapulted the New York-based designer and her fashion illustrator husband to international fame, in fact for some years Mrs. Obama has favored Isabel’s clothes, buying them at a Chicago boutique. Subsequently, at Mrs. Obama’s request, Isabel designed several things for her to wear during the Presidential Campaign.

Before Inauguration Day, the Toledos had been invited to speak at The Thomas Schroth Visiting Artist Series presented by the College of Arts at Kent State University where they are no strangers to the School of Fashion Design and Merchandising and Museum. In 2000, the KSU Museum hosted an exhibit entitled Toledo/Toledo: A Marriage of Art & Fashion, two years previously shown at the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum, chronicling their collaborative career up until that time. Both born in Cuba, Isabel and Ruben immigrated with their families to the United States and the couple, who met as high school students in New Jersey, was married in 1984. After Isabel studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Parsons School of Design, she had an internship with Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts Costume Institute. Meanwhile, Ruben, a gifted artist in several mediums, started creating window displays followed by murals for such well-known stores as Tiffany’s, Barneys New York and others, and illustrations for magazines including but not limited to “Harper’s Bazaar,” “The New Yorker,” “Vogue” and “Town & Country,” all work he continues to do to this day. Currently Ruben is the illustrator for Nordstrom’s national ad campaign, his whimsical designs instantly recognizable although you might not have known their creator’s name. His paintings have been exhibited in such prestigious venues as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre and Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Their relationship is totally symbiotic in their artistic creations, although Isabel and Ruben said each promotes the other in their disparate disciplines. Innately reticent, Isabel said that she is completely at ease advancing his work while the naturally ebullient Ruben not only speaks for her designs but also for them as a team.

“I fell in love with sewing, working with fabric when I was about eight years old,” said Isabel, wearing her own stunning black wool lace top and matching short coat. Wool lace, she said, is actually very warm and has great dimension. Hence, she was inspired by a felted wool lace, lemon-grass colored fabric for Mrs. Obama’s ensemble, made from Ruben’s sketch of Isabel’s design. “I am totally influenced by Ruben’s art, and I love to engineer a dress. There is emotion in clothes, and you develop your own language in cloth.”

Isabel’s “language” is fluently connected geometrically, architecturally and organically to Ruben’s, with his exuberant illustrations, humorous and as sensual as her clothes. He too was wearing a design of hers, a beautifully cut black wool suit that, as did her ensemble, featured her signature shoulder-to-sleeve welted seam.

Of Isabel, Ruben said, “She is introspective,” a quality independent from him. “Artists want to communicate, you become a maestro and you flow with your instinct and your craft. The most important thing is to have passion, let things happen organically. There is no finish line.”

Writer’s postscript…

Michelle Obama wore an Isabel Toledo black and white sleeveless dress with a black jacket when she and President Barack Obama had tea with Queen Elizabeth on April 1, 2009.

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