'I've lived in this space long time—since '95—but I moved to the States when I was 8. I was born and raised in Cuba, a place I'm actually looking forward to going back more often now since it's easier...I have about 120 cousins and aunts there, so we're in every corner of the island. All very strong women, and all beautiful individuals. When we left, we first moved to West New York, which had a great view of the city. It was like seeing the future. I think we got lucky that I had that close contact with New York. I always knew that I’d end up here.
As a kid, I was into not thinking about fashion. I had older sisters that were very much into fashion, and they were beautiful and they had bodies, and they had the looks—and I was a scraggly, skinny little insect. I was into sports and a great runner, that was my forte. But I was totally intimidated with the beauty aspect of life because, especially being Cuban, skinny was not a good thing. I hadn’t grown into myself, so I avoided it in every way I could—I wore jeans and a t-shirt and I didn’t want to go shopping because I had to face the fact that I didn’t fit into anything. So what I did—and this is why I came into fashion—I started taking my sisters' clothes and adapting them to me. As they were done with their clothes, I took them. And I used to style myself and redo shirts. Maybe I was 10 or 11 years old and already I understood that I was in control of what I could look like. That's how I learned about fit and how to train the eye to see things. Fit is such an important part of quality. That was my training.
When I went to school—FIT and Parsons—I took a lot of courses that had nothing to do with fashion. Ceramics, drawing...I knew I wanted to learn about fashion, but you do that by studying other things, too. At that point in my life, I understood the psychology of clothes, but I didn’t know there was a profession—I just did it because I loved it. And then once I graduated, my father kind of looked at me and wondered what I was going to do. I hadn't found exactly what I was attracted to yet. And then I went to the Met, and I really learned how fashion is history, and I wanted to participate in my time. Since then, I’ve never worked a day in my life. I make clothes for people. Is that a job?
I love makeup the way an artist loves his paint. I mean it’s beyond pretty—it’s enhancement. It’s an expression of art, you’ve got this portrait in front of you and you can play. When I was young, I used to wear all the best colors, because there were all these little independent makeup artists that used to make these great things, like yellow eyeshadows. Back then I was always experimenting, and I think it’s a must for every young person to do. I mean, please experiment. That’s when you get that opportunity to just explore, to not be perfect at it, I think that’s just great, because you’re raw.
[My husband] Ruben and I collaborated with MAC on some colors and that was great. That team knows their stuff. Making it was like going shopping—what colors do you want? Now I only have a few left and I treasure them. With the collection, I wanted to create texture with makeup, something three-dimensional. It was about the lash for a lot of it. You know, if you have green eyeliner and you put on green eyelashes, now you’re three-dimensional with the makeup. It's going back to sculpture, where my head is always at.
The first thing I really did with makeup, when I decided that I was going to be a woman, was pluck my eyebrows. Now that's empowerment. And all I left was a pencil line! My mother almost killed me! I looked like Bowie. I let them get bushy again but in order for me to even think of beauty, I had to prepare my face. I plucked my eyebrows, and that totally gave me the permission to put on makeup. My mother couldn’t stop me now.
Another thing that goes back to my mother—and my grandmother—is pressed powder. I wear the Shiseido Powdery Foundation all the time, lightly for every day and then heavier if I'm going somewhere. Then I have a lot of eyeliners, I have to admit—my eyes are my biggest canvas. And eyes are easy for me. Lancôme Artliner has a great brush, MAC Smolder Eye Kohl is good when I want to smudge, and Lancôme Hypnose Mascara stays on forever. For blush, I have a lot of redder colors... Lancôme Color Design Blush is on the lighter side. That's why the blushes I did for MAC were gradients, so you could have both ends of the spectrum.
I don't leave the house without lipstick and earrings. I can put on a pair of glasses and go out, but I have to have the lips. I'll do different colors, but red just feels like an extension of me. Chanel Rouge Allure in Pirate is a good red that I'll apply differently depending on my mood. Like, very heavy on the inside but light on the outside...or I'll really paint my lips. The real fun is in the doing. I don't really care if someone likes it or not—it's about what I find attractive. And Ruben loves me no matter what. I could put on anything and he'd be happy. That's real love.
BODY + FRAGRANCE
The one rule in my house growing up was brush your teeth and wash your face before you go to bed. I watched my mother do it, I watched my sisters do it, and I just used whatever they were using. That's why I love Olay and things like that. Another one I still use is Johnson's Baby Oil to remove my makeup. And when I'm just out of the shower and still a little bit wet, I put it all over. It really makes a big difference because you are massaging your whole body. Or sometimes I use La Mer. That’s the first thing I do.
The second step is once I come out of the shower, I put on perfume. You have to do it while you're still hot so you can wear it on your body without it overpowering your clothes. I do it in sections that I call my North and my South. Right now, I use the fragrances I made with Lane Bryant— Kuba Rose smells sexy to me and I call it the lover's scent. I can see how Ruben reacts to it and that's simple enough. Then there's Crystal Honey, which is very social so I call it the girlfriend's scent. It's one that you wouldn't mind other people wearing as well. One of the big golden rules of women is don’t tell your scent. And there are scents that you don’t mind sharing, because it goes on everybody and it smells differently.
Perfume makes me feel pampered, like you're taking care of yourself but also communicating something about yourself. And I like what it does on my skin, because it’ll smell like me no matter what perfume I’m wearing. And that’s the thing—I can tell someone else to wear the same perfume, and if you spray it on your body, it smells like you, not me. There’s a chemical reaction that I think is important to the perfume process that becomes very individual. It becomes your scent.
How I wash my face depends on how I feel. Some days I just wash it and some days I scrub. The weekend is the heavy duty, when I scrub my face, maybe I’ll do a bath and salts...On my face, I use Chanel Sublimage because it makes my face feel moisturized but not oily. Then there's the oil from the bath and with that, it's enough. Oh, and I drink a lot of water—that helps with everything.
Throughout the day, I like Natura Bissé Diamond Mist. I'll come up here in the middle of the day and use that just to refresh. I have some other sprays and it makes such a difference. Afterwards I feel so soft and my skin feels repaired even though it's drier now that I'm over 50.
People experimented more with makeup back in the '80s. Now it's more about hair, I think. For me, because I'm constantly at work, I just need it out of my face. So usually it's pinned up. In order for me to have it loose, I need to work at it. One hundred brush strokes with a Mason Pearson! And I have these Japanese wooden combs in a couple of sizes to travel with. They keep all your oils in as you brush and don't give you any static electricity. When I use Garnier Fructis Sleek & Shine, my hair is silk. I don't know why—it just works. I don't have a ton of time go to shopping for new products, but I know I can send Ruben out to get that and he'll come back with the right thing.
You want to know one routine I have? I wake up in the morning and I stretch. In bed, not outside. I never knew it was good for me! Ruben always laughs because he says I’m like a cat. But now I know it's actually something good to do, so I'm going to do it even more. I tell Ruben, 'Go bring me breakfast because I'm going to stretch.' And he does! Also, I hula dance every day. For me, it's like meditation. When you hula, you just really center yourself, because your abdomen is being strengthened, and that’s the core of life. It really makes a difference.”
—as told to ITG
Isabel Toledo photographed by Tom Newton at her home in New York on October 20, 2015.
Read more red lips: Stacy London takes lipstick cues from women of a certain age, Anna Sui is inspired by drugstore reds, and Amanda Lepore is very particular about her shade. Or check out more of The Top Shelf.