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posted: 3/13/2012 6:00 AM

'Roots of Style' tells designer Isabel Toledo's story

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  • "Roots of Style: Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion" by Isabel Toledo

      "Roots of Style: Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion" by Isabel Toledo
    ASSOCIATED PRESS/CELEBRA

 
Associated Press

Isabel Toledo's "Roots of Style" is a very well-dressed little book.

That will come as no surprise to fans of the Cuban-American fashion designer who rose to national prominence when Michelle Obama chose one of Toledo's dresses to wear on Inauguration Day.

Looking like she's ready to be painted by Goya, Toledo graces the book's cover wearing her hair tightly in a pair of buns and dressed in an elaborately constructed black-and-white dress of her own design.

Inside, spry illustrations by Ruben Toledo, her husband and longtime collaborator, dance jauntily around the text, providing an added bounce to the story of the young girl from Camajuani, Cuba, who went on to become one of America's pre-eminent clothing designers.

In Toledo's telling, the transformation seems almost effortless.

One moment she's playing with the family sewing machine, the next, she's a preternaturally talented seamstress for whom doors exist to be opened.

As an added bonus, she's also a very talented dancer, coming of age in the late '70s New York City disco scene rubbing shoulders with the likes of Halston and Thierry Mugler at places like Xenon and Studio 54.

Toledo's unconventional rise has an almost fairy tale quality while providing fascinating glimpses of fashion luminaries like Diana Vreeland and over-the-top eccentrics like Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi along the way.

But designing clothing -- which often succeeds more through suggestion than revelation -- requires slightly different skills than storytelling, and the book often seems to lack a narrative arc: Where is the conflict when Toledo calmly overcomes any obstacle thrown her way?

She can also be maddeningly obscure, as when she casually tosses off that Karl Lagerfeld was the first person to call her a "couturier." The reader is left to wonder whether the older designer said this after carefully examining her work or merely upon glancing at one of her early self-made outfits.

The book is filled with observations and advice, most of which rings true but also comes perilously close to sounding like platitudes.

"What most people don't realize is that time really is on your side if you stop watching the clock," she offers at one point.

"Spending time on the things you love and that are important to you defines not only your work, but your personality as well," she says at another.

Sometimes Toledo seems almost naive, too sweet to have ever made it in the cutthroat world of high fashion, and the reader begins to suspect that -- along with some of the awkward English constructions that crop up occasionally -- this may be calculated.

At one point Toledo, speaking of one of her dresses, explains: "The result looks deceptively simple and graceful, hiding its inner mathematical equation."

She could also be talking about her book.

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