Whatever springs from the mind of star fashion designer Isabel Toledo, her husband Ruben, celebrated illustrator, watercolorist and sculptor, brings to life in drawings.
She doesn’t have to say much. When it comes to Isabel’s design concepts, Ruben is like a sketch artist with a direct line to his wife’s muse.
“I can describe an emotion and he’ll draw those lines,” Isabel said over café con leche in the sun-filled sales center for the Rem Koolhaas-designed Park Grove luxury condo towers, overlooking Dinner Key Marina and its assemblage of bare-masted sailboats.
“I’ll just sort of draw with my hands, letting him know that I want a gown to cup here or drape there. He knows exactly what I’m thinking.”
“To get Isabel’s clothes, you have to wear them,” said Ruben, who today is in a suit coat she designed specifically for him, structural but sleek, without the typical padding of men’s coats, which he hates.
“They move with you in a certain way. There’s an architectural element to them. She’s more author than couturier.”
One of the art world’s best-known power couples, the Manhattan-based, Cuban-born Toledos were enlisted to imbue Park Grove’s planned three towers, which take their organic shape from the barrier islands of the Grove (though, think Mr. Peanut sans top hat and limbs) with their jaunty, edgy aesthetic.
Ruben’s signature spare drawings, invoking the good life in the tropics — palm trees, nautical symbols, a fashionable woman with poodle, three swim-suited beauties with surfboard aloft — make up much of the clever marketing material for Park Grove, where units offering soaring ceilings, deep balconies and wide views of the bay start at $2 million and climb to the stratosphere.
It’s a joint venture between two of Miami’s mega developers, Terra Group and the Related Group. Terra president David Martin, a longtime fan of the Toledos, brought them into the project.
Whatever you want to say about the building boom right now, what is being built is not being built without thought to the culture.
“Miami has changed so much,” Ruben said. “It’s become so cosmopolitan. Whatever you want to say about the building boom right now, what is being built is not being built without thought to the culture. This project gets the soul of Coconut Grove. We’ve been coming to Miami for years, and we remember when the Grove was so bohemian and beatnik. As high-end as the Grove can be, there is always a sense of being a castaway here, of living life at the edge of the water under an open sky.”
Ruben likely will design permanent murals or sculptural pieces for the towers, though exactly what he’ll contribute is still up in the air, Martin said. This past spring, Isabel presented her latest collection at a fashion show in the posh sales center, a crowd of potential condo buyers applauding fanciful designs meant to invoke the spirit of the Magic City. The models all wore big floppy headpieces Isabel won’t call hats.
“They are more like shades, or veils,” she said. “They are more about giving a tint of color to the face. I like mimicking Ruben’s watercolors and the way they fade away. I wanted to reference the light and translucency that is so unique to Miami. I have a collection of paper umbrellas that Ruben started bringing to me from Chinatown from the time we were kids. Open one up in the sun, and suddenly, you’re in color. You’re yellow. Or you’re blue.”
They met when they in their early teens, in Spanish class at Memorial High in West New York, New Jersey. For Ruben, it was love at first sight. For Isabel, not so much.
“I was slower to come around. I mean, he was a baby,” she said. “He had braces.”
“I also had all the patience in the world,” he said.
The couple, now in their mid-50s, married in 1984, several years after Ruben first proposed. Ruben quickly became one of the fashion world’s most in-demand illustrators, working for Tiffany, Nordstrom, Barneys, Louis Vuitton and more.
Isabel developed a reputation as a designer’s designer, known for her particular genius in cutting and technique. Among her famous clients is First Lady Michelle Obama, who called on Isabel to design the wool lace dress and overcoat in a subtle tone of sage that she wore to her husband’s inauguration in 2009.
The Toledos have collaborated on endless projects, including a recent line for MAC Cosmetics.They live and work in a quirky four-story loft atop an old Midtown Manhattan building, with a drop-dead view of the Empire State Building. Day or night, they are rarely apart.
“When the time comes to buy her a birthday present or a Christmas present, it’s impossible,’’ Ruben said. “The minute she’s out of the room I’ll do something like call my friend Ted Muehling who designs jewelry.”
The couple keeps an apartment on Collins Avenue in South Beach, but if there’s one thing they don’t agree on, it’s whether they could ever live full time in the 305.
“Even through we both grew up in New Jersey, coming here is like coming home,” Ruben said. “We love it here. It’s the closest thing to Cuba, for one. But I couldn’t live anywhere else but New York. I’m a real city rat. But I could see her moving here in two minutes.”
“I would be here in two minutes,” she said. “I love the light here. I love how green it is. Give me a bit of soil and I’ll plant a tree. And it’ll grow.”
So what’s the secret to their longtime artistic and romantic collaboration?
Ruben: “Actually, we have very different aesthetics. We’re always arguing about everything. But I’m always inspired by her work, by her shapes and the complexity of her layering. I’m the opposite of her. I’m a very graphic guy.”
Isabel: “And I’m totally not graphic. I don’t see anything. I feel everything. That sense of the graphic I grab from Ruben.”
Plus, from the time they were just kids, they figured out how to let each other grow.
“I understood that the woman I fell in love with was a free bird and the minute I caged her, I’d be finished,” he said.
“It’s about not thinking that you know everything there is to know about the other person. The minute that you think that, it’s over.”