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Creative Coupling

Culture Watch
Creative couple Ruben and Isabel Toledo.

By Bee Shapiro

Call it the power of two, but in fashion, music and art, duos are often tremendously productive. Take the husband and wife team of illustrator Ruben Toledo and fashion designer Isabel Toledo. Their decades of unique, intimate and intertwined work is now the focus of a museum show Bodies@Work: The Art of Ruben and Isabel Toledo at the Columbus Museum of Art.

“Every morning we make these choices: we put on our clothes,” she says. “To make that as a bridge for more aesthetic discussions or social discussions is tremendous, and fashion is a really good vehicle for that.”

Unlike most fashion shows at museums which focus on designers’ archives, all the pieces for this exhibit are new, and took six months of nonstop work to achieve according to Ruben. “The exhibition is in the new contemporary wing,” says Ruben. “Therefore the work had to be created as one writes in a diary—to the day, to the hour, to the moment until it left our studio—in order for it to be contemporary.”

Indeed, entering the exhibit feels like overhearing an ongoing visual conversation. Two tables line the space, one featuring Isabel’s work and the other Ruben’s creations. Both are heavily inspired by art (they ran around with Warhol in their youth). “It is all art all the time at our house,” Ruben says.

But Isabel elaborates more on their ability to apply art to real life. It pervades both their high end (such as her eponymous label worn by the likes of First Lady Michelle Obama) and mass endeavors (like her collaboration with Lane Bryant). “I love the unexplained, the poetic,” she says. “I live in that sphere constantly. I’m comfortable in this place and it’s where my ideas start and are formed—even for practical things like clothing and shoes and interiors.” A nod to Warhol, likely, but both Isabel and Ruben won’t draw a line in the sand between art and commerce.

As an illustrator who has worked with large fashion houses like Chanel, Ruben finds that after working for the last 30 years side by side, he’s still “constantly surprised by Isabel’s ideas and points of view,” including her tailoring. “I find her work to be mystical, like a secret language between the body, mind and soul,” Ruben says.

In real life, it might mean Ruben’s gorgeous line drawings transformed into a custom print for an Isabel Toledo for Lane Bryant dress. For the exhibit, the influence is more abstract. Ruben used his wife’s patterns and forms to create felt paintings, which he calls “a fertile, alive landscape.”

Isabel was also thinking landscape but her table reflects more what she calls “landscape of women” and her thoughts on how women can change their appearances and how that’s “achieved through clothing.” She also wanted to lend her table a feeling of permanence to an anchoring piece: her first ever sewing machine encased in tailored black silk taffeta. Should outsiders view their working and martial relationship as a blissful idea, Isabel reminds them that in fact, their relationship is far more complex and, daresay, creatively violent than just a pretty picture. “Creative friction was my starting point,” she says. “I wanted to freeze that moment when an object becomes art.”


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