Most Americans who orbit outside the taffeta- and tulle-draped planet of high fashion were introduced to designer Isabel Toledo on Jan. 20, 2009: Inauguration Day. Style-savvy first lady Michelle Obama lit up television screens around the globe wearing an intricate lemongrass-hued lace coat and matching dress designed by Toledo for the event.
At the time, Obama’s every sartorial choice was being eagerly dissected by the fashion press. The nation had become so engulfed in Obamamania that the first lady’s inaugural gown quickly spurred cheap knockoffs. After she walked down Pennsylvania Avenue in Toledo’s ensemble, the designer received so many e-mails her computer crashed.
Toledo devotes a healthy block of verbiage to the occasion in her fashion memoir, “Roots of Style,’’ a thoughtful chronicle of her journey from awkward girlhood in Cuba to immigrant adolescence in New Jersey to artistically precocious club kid, and finally to fashion superstar. All the while she traces the experiences and individuals who supported her rise.
Since dropping out of New York Fashion Week in the late 1990s to create collections at her own pace, Toledo has maintained a lower profile in the industry. She has been the subject of two major museum retrospectives and received several awards, but many younger women might have a difficult time placing the name. Keeping with that theme, her book represents more a portrait of a designer striving for innovation than a catalog of recent runway trends and accessories.
What is most remarkable about Toledo’s story is her pluck. The moments where her narrative breezily highlights her ability to consistently create something out of nothing are the most enthralling. But too often she slips into abstract meditations on concepts such as time, or the “inner landscapes’’ developed out of childhood observations. That duality can be frustrating at times, informative at others.
Her book opens with her childhood in small-town Cuba (she was born in 1961), but it does not gain real traction until she comes to the United States and finds herself in a Greenwich Village hair salon where she experiences “fashion as culture for the first time.’’
Her interaction with the medium quickly intensifies in the discos of New Jersey and Manhattan. With a sewing machine to design her own ensembles and a neighborhood boy using her hair as a canvas for experimentation, Toledo concocts looks sophisticated enough to win her entree into adult discos at age 14.
There, she rubs shoulders with legendary fashion designers such as Karl Lagerfeld and Thierry Mugler. It is also at this time that she meets her husband and artistic collaborator, Ruben Toledo. He provides charming illustrations for “Roots of Style’’ reminiscent of those dotting the pages of 1950s cookbooks.
She nurtures her sense of style at the all-you-can-eat buffet of art, ceramics, and fashion of New York’s burgeoning, gritty downtown scene. Her reminiscences of the 1980s New York fashion scene is where “Roots’’ soars. She recounts how she and her husband met Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf. While working at a warehouse full of surplus clothing, Ruben helps Grace Jones and even sells the band Devo their iconic orange jumpsuits. Isabel vividly paints the New York of the period as a place where celebrities happily mingle with poor club kids, and all share ideas and inspiration as readily as cabs.
Her descriptions of spending time with legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland while working among the massive historic collection of couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art help to explain why Toledo developed an interest in construction, surrounded by examples of how masters such as Dior and Balenciaga put together clothes.
From there it is a short hop to her first show (with music supplied by a boom box) and then a steady and certain climb to the top of the fashion world. What is impressive throughout is that Toledo always maintained a tight grasp on the reins of her work. Unlike fashion designers who are eager to turn themselves into brands, Toledo conducts herself as an artist.
It is, however, that very perspective that sometimes mires “Roots.’’ The balance of the book tips unevenly from convivial recollections of building a business out of nothing to in-depth explanations of her design process. Still, the book is essential reading for those patient fashionistas looking to dig beyond the outer sheen of the runway.