Isabel and Ruben Toledo

When I think of Isabel Toledo, I think of the hula hoops in her studio. One sees many curiosities in the high houses of fashion, but not hula hoops, not usually. Isabel was anything but usual. “Hula hoops?” I asked, looking at photos of her studio interior with her a few years ago.

“Of course!” she said, smiling. “For a workout. Who needs a gym?”

“I love it,” I said, laughing at the image of Isabel hula-hooping, exhilarated in the sheer joy of childhood fun.

Isabel carried that same joy with her into every room, every collection. She and her exuberantly gifted husband Ruben very much brought that rapture to SCAD when they spent time on campus with students. Isabel was his muse, and he hers, giving shape to her sensuous and brilliant creations. Their very public relationship was also intensely private, defined by infinitely mutual respect and perfectly singular oneness.

When they last walked through the SCAD Museum of Art, they held hands and spoke in the quietest, sweetest, gentlest tones to one another. True romance.

Isabel was always very kind to SCAD and our students looked up to her with an awe and reverence befitting design royalty. She spoke to architecture students just as eruditely and comfortably as to students of fibers and fashion. She didn’t play it safe and the students loved her for that. She eschewed fame and commercial success, preferring to live life as she wished, unrestrained by convention within a passionate, almost ephemeral existence. Students saw that. They drew strength from her character, how her passion and resolve showed through every word, every move. She was warm and witty and intensely human.

SCAD toledo exhibit

The Ruben and Isabel Toledo exhibition at SCAD’s Red Gallery, in 2009.  Courtesy of SCAD.

I am so very grateful for the time and generosity of Isabel and Ruben Toledo to SCAD over the years, donating their time to students and contributing fabric for use in student collections. The university is proud to have their work in the SCAD Museum of Art Costume Collection, including a jacket and dress currently on exhibition through 2020 in “Leather, Lace and Luster” at SCAD Museum of Art.

A few years ago, they chaired a scholarship fund-raising gala, where Ruben spent most of the night merrily inscribing copies of “Roots of Style with personalized reader portraits. This couple has been a source of strength to our university community and to me as I grew SCAD.

More than anything, Isabel taught us how to live, how to seek perfection in play. She took her work intensely seriously, creating brilliantly complex and geometrically fascinating compositions that were not designed so much to sell as to engage the intellect and excite the senses. And yet, there was also an unmistakable aura of wonder in her life and work.

I’ll always cherish that image of her in the New York studio, pulling the hula hoop off the wall for a spin around the floor in a moment of sheer creative exhilaration. Her great love was to make, to live, to create with unbridled joy.

Isabel once said, “Clothing is what time looks like.” Together, Ruben and Isabel plucked time from the heavens and have given it form. She will be forever missed and fondly remembered. What a wonder. What a blessing.

Paula Wallace is the founder and president of SCAD.

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