Isabel Toledo: Style AND Substance

Last week, I made mention of a new and highly noteworthy style book, Roots of Style: Weaving Together Life, Love and Fashion by Isabel Toledo with illustrations by her husband Ruben Toledo. At that time, I had only read press releases and skimmed the book’s introduction for clues as to what would be found within the 367 pages. But now that I have sunk my teeth into the gloriously entertaining, informative, and inspirational read, I wanted to share what I have discovered.

In addition to the many revealing insights into what makes Isabel tick as a person and artist (she does not consider herself to be a designer but a “seamstress, a maker of clothes) the book is filled with innumerable wise “personal credos and observations”. It also includes her thoughts on what constitutes style versus fashion. It’s a subject that has been broached by others ad nauseum. But, in my opinion, almost nobody has verbalized it better, or as eloquently as Isabel. Considering the fact that she is not a trained writer, and this is her first book, that is quite an accomplishment (yet knowing her, it is hardly surprising!)

Below are just some of Isabel’s observations and bon mots. They serve to remind us why we love Isabel and respect her as an artist. And why great, well thought out design matters:

Style vs. Fashion:

“Style belongs to no one, and to everyone”

“We are all born with a history and a style DNA. People with style, dress in harmony with their inner most, authentic selves.”

“The allure of personal style is to be in accordance with yourself first, and, by natural extension, with the world. Style is eternal. Fashion is all surface. Style blossomed before fashion arrived on the scene. Fashion introduced an international style so that no matter where we are from, or what land we come from, we have a common language- the language of fashion.”

“Fashion is as unpredictable as humanity itself. We all participate in fashion, whether we sew it, champion it, pretend to ignore it, or detest it.”

“Fashion is ephemeral. The flavor of the day and useful for refueling your style inspiration when you feel you’ve run out of gas. Fashion is easy to apply because it’s all surface. Style, on the other hand, is an effective way to carve out your individuality. Style is content. A person with true style is displaying a fertile and thinking mind.”

“Fashion may be the most democratic of all the art forms because we all have to go through the ritual of dressing ourselves.”

What makes Isabel Tick:

“Independent women are part of my DNA”.

“Everything I create is an extension of who I am who what I believe. This is why I rely on my intuiton and feelings when I approach a design.”

“Growing up and watching the women all around me express their emotions through clothing taught me that fashion can be an extension of your inner vision, reinforcing your individuality and style.”

“Fashion design begins with the sewing machine and pattern making table. I think of myself as a seamstress. A maker of clothing rather than a fashion person.”

“I design and make clothes that fit well, and allow my women to walk freely and purposefully down the street in full stride. When Paper’s Kim Hastreiter once reviewed one of my early collections, she wrote: “these clothes are for women who do not need men”. I completely understood what she meant as the cut of my early collections featured fearless and imposing shapes, soft armor for strong women.”

“My collections are woven from the threads of my own experiences.”

“Great designs represent the logical, timeless, well engineered, and well constructed”.

“How I make clothes today is about how I think and feel which in turn reflects how and where I grew up.”

“Understanding how something is built ensures that I can achieve my creative thought, thus reaching the highest quality in my designs”.

“Today, my fascination with the insides of things, and with the ingenuity of how things are constructed, remains at the core of my aesthetic.”

“It isn’t the abundance of choices and supplies that make you creative but the energy and originality you bring to the materials you have at hand.”  

Inspirational Words of Wisdom:

“Clothing can protect your vulnerabilities, enhance your strength, and highlight your potential. It can help you stand out and be noticed. Or, if you choose, clothing can help you comfortably hide in plain sight. What’s so great is that you get to make that call.”

“Clothing can enhance our powers of communication but only if we feel comfortable within the second skin. In this sense, fashion is a tool of self- expression that should set us free.”

“The interaction between body and cloth crates an emotion which can affect the mood of a person wearing that garment”.

“Fashion design moves forward when people think for themselves and dress their own minds and moods.”

“When you are in touch with your inner self, your outer self projects balance and confidence.”

“The beauty in the quality of an object surpasses the question of taste. Quality looks good even as it decays. This is why I say that if you have the discipline, buy less, but buy better”. If you can afford to buy the best, eventually pass it on, because it will most likely outlive you.”

Speaking of which, I cherish my beloved vintage pieces and appreciate their authenticity and integrity. I know full well that certain things stand the test of time, get better as they age, and cannot be improved upon. Among my “go-to” sources: vintage websites such as , , , , , .

And of course, I never miss the always amazing Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show at the Metropolitan Pavillion, 125 West 18th Street, which takes place on Friday, April 20th, and Saturday, April 21st (

-Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

1 Comment
  1. The following sentences makes me react : “Clothing can help you stand out and be noticed. Or clothing can help you comfortably hide in plain sight."

    Yes clothing can do that. And that's great indeed ! That must be the reason why I don't understand all those people, especially young people, who dress as if they desesparetly wanted people to immediately know everything about them. Just by looking at them ! Goths of course but not only them… How do you explain that ?

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