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Drawn to Fashion

An illustration by Ruben Toledo for Nordstrom depicting the Chanel Winter Collection, 2005.

The work of Ruben Toledo has come to define a life in style.
Lynn Yaeger meets the image maker.

When the painter, sculptor and illustrator Ruben Toledo walks through the door of his favorite French bistro in Manhattan, clad in his trademark painter’s pants, a perfect pencil moustache animating his face, he looks like nothing so much as a 1930s movie star or a famous tango dancer.

But on second thought—did Latin-lover film stars order their pants by the dozen from hardware stores? And were their natty jackets made by their wives—in this case the renowned couturier Isabel Toledo—and waterproofed to protect them from their husband’s paint drips?

“I’m sort of an absent-minded professor guy, not very concerned about what I wear,” Toledo says, waving the waiter over and ordering steak frites. “Before Isabel, I shopped at Sears. I looked hideous,” he laughs, which on balance is funny in a different way, since he is known as a visual master with a roster of clients that includes Nordstrom and Louis Vuitton.

The couple, both of whom emigrated from Cuba as young children, have been together since just after high school. They married in 1984—though Toledo spotted her across the room in Spanish class in New Jersey when they were 13 years old. Back then, he says, she was more interested in dating his older jock brother. It wasn’t until he emerged as an artist that she fell for him. “When you meet so young, you curl around each other,” Toledo says. “Culture won her over. That’s why I love culture, and art and design.”

The culture he is referring to is the thriving downtown Manhattan art scene of the early 1980s, which quickly became the young couple’s spiritual home. In those early days, Isabel was interning for Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute of the Met and Ruben was pursuing a number of career paths in addition to his art—namely table-waiting and taxi-driving. (“I was terrible at everything,” he says.) At night, they palled around with the late Klaus Nomi and the performance artist Joey Arias, who is still one of their best friends. In fact, Arias was responsible for Toledo’s first success as an artist. On a high school field trip to Manhattan, Toledo wandered into Fiorucci, the legendary boutique next to Bloomingdale’s (there’s a Zara there now). Arias was working behind one of the quirky store’s counters; for good measure, Andy Warhol was in the shop that day as well. Toledo happened to have a portfolio of sketches under his arm; when Arias saw them, he ordered some handmade postcards, which is how the artist got his first commission—and also paved the way to Isabel’s heart.



Toledo attended the School of Visual Arts “for about a week”—he admits he didn’t have much patience for the gallery scene. “I was always an artist, drawing and doing other creative things, but being a fine artist was way too serious for me,” he says. “That’s why I love fashion—its profoundness is totally frivolous! Fashion is a Little Rascals world, my dream of America—a ‘put on a show’ mentality.”

The pair’s big break came when they took a selection of Isabel’s creations to an open call at a few stores and immediately got orders. “We cranked out those denim dresses—thank you, Pat Field!” Toledo says reverently, citing another downtown icon who remains a close friend.

He and Isabel share combined living and work spaces, and Toledo swears he learned everything he knows about clothes from her. “She is the whole reason I do fashion illustration. Because of her I know clothes; I understand how they’re made. That’s my super-duper talent—the deep knowledge of clothes she gave me. I met the fashion world through her, the whole machinery, the models, the buyers.” You couldn’t find a better teacher: in addition to having developed a cult-like following among the fashion cognoscenti over the past three decades, Isabel is perhaps best known for the ensemble she created for Michelle Obama to wear the afternoon of the inauguration—a lemongrass-colored fantasia of lace over wool, lined in pashmina to keep the First Lady warm, a typical Izzy touch, marrying wild luxury with intense practicality.

Still, though he has a tendency to lay all the laurels at Isabel’s feet and is touchingly modest about his own work, Toledo reveals a few clues to his own estimable success when pressed. “Fashion illustration is all about immediacy. You have to feel. Your head and your heart have to collaborate with your spirit and the world. Style is the way you breathe, your DNA,” he sighs, then pops a French fry in his mouth. “My style is sincere and instinctive. Complete freedom is my favorite thing, when people don’t know what they want! If they know what they want, why would they need me?”


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