Marilú Menéndez

There is not much more that I could add to what has already been saying about Isabel ’s exceptional talent and unique point of view. Dozens, if not hundreds, of articles in the international press and countless tributes from friends and devotees, have described her life, work, achievements, awards, and passions—as well as her remarkable relationship with Ruben, her creative partner, husband and alter ego, the perfect medium for Isabel, who did draw, to concretize with precise exactitude, every detail of her powerful imagination. “I can describe an idea or feeling to Ruben and he sketches it exactly as I had thought or…felt it,” she said, capturing the essence of their legendary symbiosis. Seldom has there been such genuine heart-felt grief expressed on the death of a personality in the world of fashion and celebrity—the deep emotion reserved for those who are not only admired… but beloved. It has been humbling and profoundly moving to those of us who witnessed her trajectory up-close.

For those of us who saw her evolve from a downtown-cult-figure in a then eccentric high-voltage New York, to the designer of singular originality and confident craft who, like Balenciaga and Geoffrey Beene before her,  distilled the classics of the future, converting notions of geometry and physics into designs with flawless architecture, pragmatic function and definite purpose. For those of us who were first-row witnesses to that arc, the recognition has offered, if not consolation, solace——particularly to me, who had recently reconnected with her after a silly, silly fallen out a few years ago. “My stubborn Cuban beauties”, Ruben wrote, “my bull-headed…” unwittingly rubbing salt on irrecuperable time, irrevocable loss. But I can add, perhaps, to what has been said already, that what impressed me most of Isabel’s work was the coherence of her vision:  cerebral and idiosyncratic and innovative, but at the same time, constant. Her ideas emerged, developed, appeared and reappeared again and again, always surprising, but always, always, essentially the same: an endless refinement of concept and technique; always magical but always modern and sophisticated.

A “radical classicist” indeed. And I can most definitely add, that hers was a vision underlined by an atavistic memory of an increasingly and relentlessly far away from Havana. “No soy diseñadora, sino una costurera…como las de Luyanó…” she told me with a mischievous wink in 1998, at the opening of the retrospective exhibition of Toledo Toledo, a Marriage of Art and Fashion, at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, evoking the masterful seamstresses of that old Havana barrio, lest the adulation goes to her head. “Make me a Cuban party…” she asked me one summer in the early 90s while dancing to Cuban classics at Boca Chica in the East Village. And such was the opening of her boutique at a newly minted Barney’s, long before that theme became fashionable. That night the beat of two congueros’ drums and the voice of a recently arrived Albita, brought the purest guaguancó to Madison Avenue -and a group quintessentially Toledo, a mix of downtown bohemians, Cubans of all kinds, A-list Park Avenue socialites,  and Joey Arias in a red dress, danced with abandon till late, fueled by turquoise frozen daiquiris and miniature tamales. A subtext powerfully projected in Full Circle, the triumphant 2012 exhibition of Isabel and Ruben’s work at MDC-Museum of Art & Design at the Freedom Tower in Miami, where they both had been processed as refugees in the early 60s, a story about the power of stunning creativity and inexorable perseverance. It is this Isabel that I will remember most inconsolably. The muse and model of Ruben’s best work…of his best life….The romantic icon of long black hair, intense gaze, and elegant mien… the mythical Cuban woman, the Longina of the old song, the mirror, and reflection, the remembrance and echo.