Get to Know Kate Schelter
An artist, illustrator, creative director, stylist, and owner of a luxury brand consultancy, Kate Schelter has made identifying great style her career. You may recognize her illustrations from Julia Chaplin’s Gypset Travel or know her for her work with Zac Posen or Andy Spade. She’s created commercial paintings for such firms as Dior, Bonpoint, and Diane von Furstenberg, and her freehand murals adorn the walls of her Manhattan loft.
Now, in the pages of the newly released Classic Style: Hand It Down, Dress It Up, Wear It Out, Schelter chronicles her own early influences and her journey toward a brand of minimalism that’s colorful, sentimental, and completely her own. Focusing more on theory than how-to, the book is a lifestyle bible for knowing your own taste and celebrating the things that are truly you. To mark its publication, we sat down with Schelter to discuss what it means to have classic style and how to develop your own sense of it.
“Classics define their category, like the trench coat, the little black dress, a fisherman sweater. . . . They are immune to trends and have no expiration date in sight. In other words: your favorite things.”
The Maryn: What inspired you to write Classic Style?
Kate Schelter: I paint objects that I love. I use the same editing and curating muscle that I used as a fashion stylist: my gut. The book idea stemmed first from my paintings. My editor, Brittany, encouraged me to write about the things that I love to paint, and why. I didn’t know I had all this writing in me! Like opening up an old photo album, when I started writing about the things that have had the greatest influence on me, the memories just flooded my pen and paintbrush, and one anecdote led me to another. The structure didn’t appear to me until I had written 60,000 words and painted more than 500 paintings. Enter Brittany, and many revisions!
TM: For readers who might feel lost when trying to determine their style or identify their own classics, where would you encourage them to start?
KS: Ask yourself: What are the five items in my medicine cabinet and makeup bag that I use every day? What are my most worn-out shoes? What would I pack for my dream vacation? If I had to limit my wardrobe to five looks, what would they be? I think focusing on favorites will give you more wear. The key is to highlight what you already use, and work around that. I always like to start with what excites me most—what do I want to wear today or tonight, or right out of the store?
“Remember, editing isn’t about cold, boring uniformity—just utilitarian basics. It’s expressing your personality in a simple, unique formula. It’s about turning off the noise and letting a single note shine. Don’t lose yourself in an edit; leave room for joy.”
TM: You’re a proponent of reinventing what you already have and buying less. Is this mindset of choosing fewer, better things second nature to you now, or do you often need to refocus your vision? How do you stay disciplined in this area?
KS: Restraint comes easily to me when I’m focused. I pull the trigger—swipe my AmEx—only when I’m deeply excited about something. If I’m on the fence, I never buy. I will dream about a dress or a pair of shoes for weeks. It’s possible to harness great style with great spending restraint.
TM: Where would you advise someone who wants to pare down a household or a closet to start?
KS: Buy a rolling clothing rack and empty the entire contents of your closet onto it. Then try everything on and return to your closet only the items you love and wear. Put the rest in a “donate” or “maybe” pile, hide them for a month, and then if you don’t need them, get them out of the house ASAP! Ditto for the medicine closet. Twice a year, I go around my house with a cardboard box and take items off the shelf or from the depths of a stuffed drawer and get rid of them. Clutter sneaks up on you so fast! The best time to do this is immediately following your return from a vacation or trip because it allows you to see your space with fresh eyes. Ask trusted friends if you need help.
TM: You write that a uniform—such as those worn by Lauren Hutton, Ali MacGraw, Steve Jobs, or Coco Chanel—exhibits personal restraint and consistency that allows the wearer’s style to speak volumes. What is your uniform?
KS: Striped shirt (I have two or three of the same shirts), Ralph Lauren men’s cable-knit sweater, jeans, No.6 clogs (Chanel ballet flats if I want to be fancy).
“Houses serve a function of design; they shelter us. They nurture us. . . . The mixture and juxtaposition of things is more important than the stuff itself. If you love everything in your house, it all goes together.”
TM: How would you describe your decorating style?
KS: Old and new; cheap and splurgy. Somewhere in my soul is a granny who lives in Maine with a gorgeous house on the sea filled with worn-in family heirlooms, chintz, and old monogrammed towels—I am channeling her and Henri Matisse, who painted on every wall, fabric, and surface.
TM: You quote your father as advising, “Stop buying furniture that will end up on the curb next time you move. Save up for what you really want.” How have you applied this principle in your own home? Do you generally start with a plan when setting out to design a room?
KS: I start a room the same way I start an outfit: with one thing I’m passionately obsessed with (a shoe, a table, or a print, for example). If I love a fabric, I will wait a year until I can afford it or figure out how to use it. Haste makes waste. Style takes time.
TM: Part of your aesthetic involves creating tension with opposites, which you say teases the eye and makes for a glamorous moment. Can you share a few tried-and-true decorating pairings that work in any space?
KS: Formal furniture paired with casual fabric; I love French settees upholstered in Indian block prints. I love hand-painted faience dishes on colorful tablecloths.
“[Children] are completely original. They know how to mix and match and point to what they love. They are not afraid to make mistakes.”
TM: You write about how having your daughter, Charlotte, changed your approach to your career and style. How do you encourage her to develop her own sense of style?
KS: She has a mind of her own, and I just watch her go! I try to give her art supplies and space to create with, but not the finished product. I support her choices and show her my excitement. Figuring out solutions on one’s own is the biggest key to creativity.
TM: How does building a wardrobe for a child differ from outfitting your own closet? Do you amend your philosophy at all when buying clothing for Charlotte?
KS: Charlotte wears the dresses I wore because my mom saved everything. Hand-me-downs are the best for kids! She can’t be forced into wearing “a look.” I buy her things that I love, and she wants to wear crazy combos; it’s not a battle worth fighting! I’m just excited that she dresses herself every morning at age three! And she likes to clomp around in my shoes. Occasionally she’ll copy what I’m wearing, and I melt.
“While your work should speak for itself, who you know is important. Introduce yourself; get in front of people. Relationships are the key to life. You can’t fake them. They must be sincere, nurtured, and protected, like all good friends.”
TM: The book contains numerous career tips, as well as your thoughts on prioritizing what matters. What is your dream project? What’s on the horizon for you professionally?
KS: It was a dream to collaborate with Andy Spade this year. I’d love to collaborate with Matouk, The Rug Company, Astier de Villatte, D. Porthault, or Williams Sonoma to create a line of fabrics and wallpapers. I am excited to create a line of textiles, fabrics, ceramics, bedding, and tabletop with my next partner—to apply my artwork to a lifestyle brand. My other passion is to travel the world and paint “in residence”—everything that inspires me about the place in situ. This summer, I am going to an artist retreat on the island where impressionist painter Fairfield Porter lived and painted.
TM: What do you hope readers will get out of Classic Style?
KS: I hope my readers will feel encouraged to follow their gut and let style be slow and steady. I feel like style takes effort and refinement to a certain point, and then it can come naturally if we tune into it. I hope my readers breathe a sigh of relief and gain confidence, knowing that you don’t need to keep buying expensive things to have great style—phew!
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Excerpted from CLASSIC STYLE: Hand It Down, Dress It Up, Wear It Out by Kate Schelter. Copyright © 2017 by Kate Schelter, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Life & Style, New York, NY. All rights reserved.