In 1974, Ines Di Santo, who was 22 at the time, left her home in Argentina and arrived alone in Toronto, pregnant, nearly penniless and with just one suitcase.
“There were a lot of political problems, so I couldn’t bring money with me and had to come without my husband or family,” said Mrs. Di Santo, now 70. “I knew how to make dresses because I’d studied in Paris and Italy. My dream was to teach fashion, have a store and give a sewing education to my daughter.”
Two out of three isn’t bad.
The teaching career never came to pass, but she did find herself using those sewing skills to create a business designing wedding gowns. In 1998, she launched the luxury bridal company Ines Di Santo. Her daughter, Veronica Di Santo, who grew up by her mother’s side in the fashion industry, became her managing partner in 2001.
The company now has a flagship store in downtown Toronto and a design and administrative office in New York’s Fashion District. Then there is the 13,000 square-foot headquarters, also in Toronto, where design, cutting and production take place.
Veronica, 46, lives with her husband, Jake Abramowicz, 44, and their son Gabriel, 10, in the North York neighborhood of Toronto; Mrs. Di Santo lives in the Kleinburg area just outside Toronto with her second husband, Frank Augello, 74.
Is it true that a tossed-aside sewing machine saved your life?
Mrs. Di Santo: When I arrived in Toronto, I got a job sewing by hand for a company that made wedding dresses. I was pregnant, single and only had $10. A friend called and said,
”There’s a sewing machine in the garbage.” I told her to grab it and that I would fix it. I did.
This beautiful machine was everything for me. I didn’t have enough money to pay the rent. I took the $10 and bought 10 rolls of fabric — each was $1 — and started making patterns, which I showed to companies who bought them. I got help from a fabric supplier who gave me his fabrics after promising I’d pay him once I sold the patterns. I got a loan from the bank so I could do a fashion show and started making my collections. I had to make a future for myself. I still have the machine.
When did you know your mom was creating something special?
Ms. Di Santo: In 1998, she did her first bridal market trade show in New York. We drove to the show from Toronto in a van with her dresses in the back. We got one of the last spots, which was near the bathroom.
The bridal industry had turned away from Princess Diana in her big puffy sleeves and to creating other looks, like shorter trains, natural waist cuts, and more A-line silhouettes. My mother brought a different look to the industry. Her gowns were strapless, had beading, lots of corsetry, and delicate details. They had an understated elegance.
When the buyers used the bathroom, they would see our booth and look at the collection. They’d ask for our business card. They started placing orders. The crowd got bigger. I witnessed the demand and interest, and it reinforced what I knew: that her craft was different and she was on to something.
How is your work different from other wedding designers?
Mrs. Di Santo: I have a very specific cut and fit. My details are more European. I do a lot of hand embroidery and big flowers. The corset is done on the inside.
I have a vision. The challenge is to make people understand that vision, then remember it, then envision themselves in it. I’ve been criticized a lot. I’d rather be criticized than be no one.
I always wanted to show something different, that makes people pay attention. I had a tiger in my first fashion show in 1984. I sold all the dresses in that collection. In 2001, I had a woman wearing a wedding gown with a naked man with a tattoo on his back lying on the floor. That was very bold.
I did color while everyone was doing all white. I did a high neck and backless dresses and was focused on fit at a time when others didn’t.
Who makes what decisions in the business?
Ms. Di Santo: We have always worked very well together. I leave the styling to her and I focus on all aspects of the business. We trust each other. There’s a lot of thought and discussion for every piece: Is there something for each bride and every personality? Is this the right moment for this specific collection? Does it tie back to who Ines is?
What does your daughter add to the business?
Mrs. Di Santo: Patience and passion. We both have ambition. I create; she has the vision to grow the company. I have the ideas; she takes the ideas and makes them happen. I started the business, but we have been in it together from the beginning.
How did you stay connected to clients and retailers during the pandemic?
Ms. Di Santo: When we were not able to travel to trunk shows we offered virtual one-on-one appointments with stores and their brides. We created a blog and series called Inspiration with Ines as a way to stay connected with retailers, industry partners and clients, and keep our voice and passion alive when things were dark.
We streamed 13 Instagram Lives and later put them on our site. Some of our guests were the cake expert Ron Ben Israel, the photographer Christian Oth and the party expert Darcy Miller.
How do you see the industry changing?
Mrs. Di Santo: The market that has been repressed with the confines that Covid has brought is having renewed energy. Brides are coming back. People are taking this opportunity to go big. People want that big ball gown they always wanted. They are doing second and third changes because they’ve had to reimagine their weddings.
What issues in the industry are you trying to solve?
Ms. Di Santo: We are continuing to explore how we can support sustainability in our collections. This is our third season using and incorporating fabrics that help reduce our carbon footprint. We have a printed watercolor jacquard that is made with sustainable viscose fabric derived from wood pulp. The satin back crepe is made using 70 percent recycled plastic. Currently, 15 percent of the collection offers sustainable options.
Do you have a goal for each dress?
Mrs. Di Santo: Yes. I’m creating history and love with each wedding gown while keeping the bride’s personality in that dress as well. That’s very hard to do. I believe in energy when you sew. There has to be positive energy put into every dress. When you get married, it’s the beginning of a new life. It’s one day, but it’s forever. I believe in love. Love never goes out of fashion. You can live with a little money or a lot, but you can’t live without love.
What’s your favorite moment?
Ms. Di Santo: There’s a moment that’s identifiably special when a bride finds that gown. She sees herself in the mirror, there’s a sensation as they imagine what they will look like at their wedding in that dress. I witness them shine and smile. That gives me goose bumps and re-energizes me.