Roots of Style By Isabel Toledo
Isabel Toledo may have risen to fashion industry fame, but the American emigrant born in the throes of the Cuban revolution is interesting for so many other reasons. Roots of Style: Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion is a romantic autobiography that illustrates the life and inspiration of fashion designer Isabel Toledo. This book is filled with unintentional grandeur and a sweet little unexpected love story that soften this designer to the point of vulnerability. Her story is as intricate and delicate as her feminine designs and gently woven fabric choices. It reads like lace on smooth skin. The beautifully told story is painted with depictions of Cuba, France, and New York City – and even manages to make New Jersey seem exotic and desirable.
The designer has been molding her career since the 1980’s, but has recently become a household name after designing Michelle Obama’s inauguration day dress and jacket in 2009. In Roots of Style she describes the garment to the tee “I backed the lace in thin layers of cream silk radzimir and cloudlike silk netting,” Toledo further explains “Sandwiching the interlinings were thin weblike stitches of pashmina for extra warmth. The cream silk lining showing through the eyelet of the lace created the illusion of sunlight hitting water.” It seems as though overnight Toledo transformed from an under-the-radar fashion designer to a design star.
This rise to stardom almost feels removed from the topic of this book. Her humility bleeds though as she describes how surprised she was to hear that the first lady was wearing one of her designs, why she stopped showing in fashion week, and how important her husband’s art is to her process.
Toledo also does an astonishing job of tying in her childhood. The designer explains how her strong mother and her fifteen aunts raised her to one day design a line that would make Kim Hastreiter say “these clothes are made for women who don’t need men.” She explains to us how a love affair with her husband’s art as a child led her to a love affair with her husband. She cites the famous art director and illustrator, Ruben Toledo, as her unwavering inspiration and muse as well as her biggest advocate. Throughout the book she manages to weave relevant stories and tales from her adolescence through her young adulthood as a club kid into tidbits of lessons learned about life, beauty, and fashion.
In the book Toledo delves into details about partnerships like the one in 1990 with Virginia Estrada and Diane Pernet to design a lingerie collection called Dream Studio. She describes the process she and her husband took to develop the art and fashion magazine Visionaire, and how important it was for them along with co-founder Cecilia Dean to produce its strong visuals. Throughout the book the author hops between life’s pearls and experiences and her rise to fame in the fashion industry. In the same chapter, readers may find stories of hob knobbing with pop culture icons like Keith Harring, Andy Warhol, and Diana Vreeland alongside stories of her first fashion show in New York. She also discusses how her father’s trade in hardware dealing has led to her design aesthetic that is strong in construction and detail. The entire autobiography feels like a long version of a lifestyle magazine mixed with a bit of fine literary art.
Enter scene: Ruben Toledo’s art work. This talented artist and childhood sweetheart (now husband) of Isabel Toledo has been featured in fashion publications all over the world, including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and W magazine. He is established as a powerhouse in the industry as well. Toledo is a published author, the director of the fashion film Fashionation on French fashion, and the Toledo’s have been the subject of a few fashion exhibits including Toledo/Toledo: A Marriage of Art and Fashion at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Together they made this book into a bonafide work of art.
The book reads like poetry, and the rich Cuban traditional style of romanticism and neoclassicism bleed through in the language and storytelling. Someone who is familiar with the writing styles of great Cuban authors and poets like Pedro Juan Gutiérrez and Alejo Carpentier would appreciate her Cuban influenced writing style. The melodic, poetic writing still keeps a strong base in the world of fashion. She explains in one passage that “Fashion is the weave of life itself, and can address and express the fiber of the human soul.” It seems as though the book reads in such a melodic way because, to Toledo, fashion as culture is poetic art.