It’s a warm spring afternoon and light is shining through the glass roof in Isabel and Ruben Toledo’s studio. The midtown space houses a pair of ceiling-high cactus plants—one was a gift from Woody Allen—standing guard outside the fashion designer’s workroom, office, and ever-fluctuating archive. Lately, the sketches and designs in the studio have taken on the distinctive feel of Harlem’s Jazz Age Cotton Club, the inspiration for the new Broadway musical After Midnight.
“When they came to tell us about the project, they also gave us the music,” says Isabel, whose costume designs were just nominated for a Tony. “Then Ruben started to do sketches based simply on feeling.”
“We collaborate on a lot of projects, but this is a whole new world,” adds Ruben. “It’s like painting a picture that moves.”
Below, we speak to the duo about costuming a revolving cast of characters and how that differed from creating pieces for, say, Bergdorf Goodman.
On working together…
Ruben Toledo: We’ve worked together since we met at age 13, and we do very different things. I’m not a designer, but I can draw anything in the world—I’m not limited by the reality of making anything. That gives me a great feeling of freedom and is why I like to collaborate with architects or interior designers.
Isabel Toledo: I always say I’m a soft engineer.
RT: Absolutely, you are. So that’s fascinating for me to work with people who make things. Isabel’s involved in all of my projects, whether it’s a painting, a sculpture or a mannequin.
IT: I make them stand. [laughs]
RT: And I think that’s what makes our work richer. Aesthetically, we’re really different.
On being approached for the show…
IT: We heard that it was David Rockwell who first suggested it!
RT: David is an incredible set designer and architect. He did Kinky Boots. But we know him from working for a charity that fights AIDS. When I got an email from David saying that someone’s going to call you about something, it was very mysterious! [laughs] Finally Scott Sanders called to say that he and his director Warren Carlyle wanted to talk about a Broadway show.
IT: ‘You can’t say no!’ they told us.
RT: They just popped over on a Saturday, and it snowballed from there.
IT: This was in June, and we were on Broadway in October.
RT: We’d never done anything like this.
IT: We didn’t know any better not to!
On the inspiration for the costumes…
IT: When Warren Carlyle came, he went through the whole routine and showed us what he was thinking. All we had to do was watch him.
RT: He danced nearly the whole thing. Then we went to rehearsals to watch every single performer in their exercise clothes before the costumes even existed. Isabel was already dressing those gestures. Every costume tells a story. Fashion is such a visual spectacle.
IT: I meet the person and I see what color I think I’m going to react to them wearing. It’s an emotion.
RT: And texture. Isabel loves the way a buttery, silky fabric will work against a stiffer felt. She likes that juxtaposition.
IT: It gives you movement before you even move.
On designing for the rotating special guest…
IT: It’s great that a new star comes in every month or so because everybody reacts to them differently. It’s like a new show.
RT: It’s always different because there’s no strict format, so there’s a lot of room for improvisation.
IT: The hardest part is that they don’t come into town too early! Sometimes I get some of their measurements and we work on that before the design. Then it comes together when they arrive for the rehearsal. It’s really very collaborative. I watch the lines that they’re making, and that’s the line that I want to mimic. That’s how I choose my fabrics, actually, when I see them on stage. Do you want it to flow and stay up a little longer during a twirl? Do you want it to just drop down with weight? All that affects the costume.
On the performers’ demanding schedules…
RT: There were constant alterations to be made because they lose a lot of weight!
IT: That blew my mind.
RT: If you ever want to lose weight, just join a Broadway show. Both the men and women drop two or three sizes.
IT: Then they come back and we refit them. They have this great group at the theater that makes this happen every day.
RT: The staff just blew my mind. It’s a heavy group of people that are there from the early morning, making sure everything’s washed, ironed and pressed. They’re doing alterations and fixing sequins.
IT: Even if there’s one little hole in the dress from a heel, that has to be fixed because the dancer could trip.
On the magic of live theater…
RT: It’s amazing how the cast reacts to each performer.
IT: They stand in the wings watching when the new person comes in. It’s beautiful.
RT: They play off of the people who are right in the first few rows. Sometimes the audience gasps when a character appears, and sometimes they’re quiet. It’s a very different mood every night.
IT: You really experience this as a group. It’s one of the last art forms done this way. We always stand in the back because we’re too excited to sit.
RT: I couldn’t watch it sitting down. It’s kind of like a sport: I want to move around.
IT: When we don’t go, we miss it. It’s so strange—you get addicted.