It’s hard to describe Kate Schelter’s career in one word or even one sentence. The artist, illustrator, creative director, stylist and author has clocked up some seriously impressive miles when it comes to all aspects of the fashion industry, but it was after the birth of her daughter, Charlotte (now aged 3) that marked a major turning point in her career...
“It was my daughter who prioritised and pronounced my greatest passions — and motherhood. My daughter marked a turning point for me. That’s when I decided to 100% follow my heart back to art — painting watercolors and murals. I didn’t even know I had it in me. It just happened, no plan. Just patience and passion. And no extra time.”
Kate’s dreamy watercolours have graced everything from Julia Restoin Roitfeld’s website, Romy & the Bunnies, to collaborations with brands such as Chantecaille and Bonpoint, and large-scale murals for iconic hotels (think free-hand drawn florals all fully improvised without sketches). Her latest project, a new book titled Classic Style, Hand It Down, Dress It Up, Wear It Out, combines her fashion prowess with her signature whimsical illustrations to create the ultimate personal style how-to tome, with a strong focus on buying less but better and reworking existing items in your wardrobe.
Read on to hear how Kate got her big break in fashion (hint: it involves dancing with Mario Testino!), the best advice she’s ever received about motherhood and how she favours schedules and routines over “juggling it all.”
“ That night, at the after-party I met Mario Testino and danced with him. That was the moment my heart compass was set on fashion — I never looked back ”
How would you describe what you do?
Author (Classic Style—Hand It Down, Dress It Up, Wear It Out), artist, creative director, illustrator, collaborator. I’m very lucky, I get to do what I love.
What is the best advice you’ve been given about motherhood?
Ask for help. Take time for yourself. Have your kids “eat what you eat”— a metaphor for including children into your lives, not creating a separate baby world. Eat the same foods, use the same dishes, talk to your kids with respect (they are smarter than us!), bring them along to museums and restaurants you love. Get outside, don’t over schedule. And commit to a schedule that works for you. And sleep fixes everything!
Can you tell us about your childhood...
I’m the youngest of four kids and I grew up in Philadelphia. I am very close with my family and they influenced me so much. It’s such a dear subject to me. I talk a lot about my family and childhood influence on my life in my book. It informed everything that I am today.
Where did your love of fashion begin?
The dress-up box. I have always made clothes out of fabric, scraps, and by disassembling clothes. I had hand me downs from siblings and friends and I really learned to be resourceful with what I had and reinvent things into what I wanted. I made so much with my hands.
Have you always been ambitious?
Yes. I have always been driven because I am passionate about what I love and do professionally. I wanted to be a lawyer when I was in high school because I am very focused and I had a need to prove myself as the youngest child —reaching. As a creator, a belief in visualising what you want and working hard. Anything is possible with the idea and execution.
Can you tell us about some memorable and life defining moments in your life such as living in Rome, moving to Paris to intern for Christian Lacroix, dancing with Mario Testino…
When I was in college studying graphic design and photography, I was secretly more interested in fashion. I applied to their campus in Rome and was accepted. But I was not allowed to go. It was for painting and architecture majors. But I found a way by writing letters and getting teachers’ signatures! When I got to Rome, it was beautiful but I wanted to intern at a magazine so I applied and got an internship at Colors magazine in Paris. I hand drew my resume with a graphic pen and was accepted with a letter in the mail. I went. After it was over, I went back to Rome and decided I must return to Paris. That summer I reached out to a contact at Christian Lacroix for an internship. I made a “Lacroix” collage with hand lettering and sent it through the mail. Monsieur Lacroix himself wrote a letter back to me. He said his atelier was closed for the summer. I went to Paris anyway and called my contact again. Same answer. I said: I will do anything, it doesn’t have to be a fashion internship. So they let me assist with the window display design for the boutiques. Life is so much about showing up. They invited me to their Haute Couture show as a thank you. I took the bus and dressed up. They sat me in the front row. That night, at the after-party I met Mario Testino and danced with him. That was the moment my heart compass was set on fashion — I never looked back.
How would you describe life as a working mother in New York?
Very committed to a childcare schedule and very loose when we have free time. I try not to juggle (more on that in the book). Every minute I’m working is scheduled so I can maximise my efficiency when I work. I am with my daughter half the day and the other half she’s with a nanny whom we love. When I’m with her I don’t like to be doing anything digital or work related. I am passionate about what I do so I don’t feel “pulled” because I think girls need to have mothers whose careers they can aspire to. It’s wonderful to be a role model when you love what you do. My mom had an office in our house growing up and I’m sure I learned that professional joy from her.
What has been one of your biggest career challenges?
The biggest challenge is to focus on what you really want to be doing (and getting paid for it). I have been lucky to work in so many mediums with wonderful clients over my career, but the biggest challenge (fear, not reality) was when I was pregnant and anticipating my daughter’s birth. I thought my career would be over and I my business would fail. I was wrong. It was my daughter who prioritised and pronounced my greatest passions — and motherhood. My daughter marked a turning point for me. That’s when I decided to 100% follow my heart back to art — painting watercolours and murals. I didn’t even know I had it in me. It just happened, no plan. Just patience and passion. And no extra time.
What are your time management tips – how do you juggle it all?
I plan. Juggling doesn’t work. Schedules and routines do (more on that in the book!) and so does good childcare. The Internet and social media can be the biggest time suck. I turn it off when I’m faced with hard deadlines. I also jot hand written notes. I have pads of paper in every room. I transcribe my lists into a to-do list in Word. My list is my boss! Who doesn’t love crossing off items on a list?
How long does it take you to paint a mural – can you take us through the process?
First I see the location and help suggest what could go there (subject, scale, and colour palette). Then I climb up the latter with paint and brushes and start painting. I don’t sketch. It’s fully improvised.
When is your favourite time of day to paint?
Daylight. I can’t mix colours without the sun.
Favorite social media platform and why?
Instagram. Because it has such reach and it’s very personal — your friends come along for the ride with you and see behind the scenes. I like how alive it is. I’m always like: time to feed my IG! I was a late bloomer with social media but for imagery-based art, especially for works in progress — it humanises all of us.
What is your approach to health and wellbeing?
Pilates, love cooking and eating, tennis, walking everywhere. Turning off my phone. Unplugging often. Laughing. Comedy is my second passion.
What are your daily beauty essentials and how long does it take you to get out the door in the morning?
Ponytail, razor, ChapStick, moisturiser, toothpaste, eyelash curler, no mascara. The same Clinique foundation I’ve worn since high school. My “uniform” (striped shirt, jeans, clogs) saves so much time!
How to you treat yourself?
Eating out on weekends, asserting my need to exercise when my husband can watch my daughter, buying nice jewellery for myself at career milestones. Massages (I wish more frequently).
Do you prefer to text or call?
I prefer to meet in person. I love when people call instead of email but I never have time to talk on the phone and you can communicate more information quickly with writing.
Coffee or tea?
What is your definition of success?
Feeling thrilled weekly, sometimes daily.
What’s your approach to interiors? How would you describe your home?
I’ve become more interested in interiors than fashion! Everything you love goes together. Textiles are a new world. When we bought our house in Cape Cod, we decorated the entire place ourselves. I comb estate sales, and painted murals and floors and all the dreams I’ve ever had for interior design came to life within the walls and garden. It’s deeply fulfilling and still a work in progress. You must live in a space to get to know it before you decorate.
Are you tidy or messy?
Tidy, with a lot of little notes strewn about or placed just so. A formal table sprinkled with confetti.
What will we find in your handbag?
Not much. The same wallet my dad gave me when I was 15, ChapStick, lipstick (Chanel Coromandel and Beautycounter Twig), pen, notebook, iPhone, keys, Farrow & Ball colour chart.
What was your last investment purchase?
Earrings which I designed and had made as a little gift to myself when my daughter was born. I found the stones and had a magnificent jeweller cut them, polish them and I designed the setting.
What are your fashion essentials – the items on high rotation in your closet?
No. 6 Clogs, Isabel Marant jumpsuit, Ulla Johnson dress, Little Lace dress, Manolo Blahniks, YSL leopard coat, Mansur Gavriel bag (splattered, scratched, paint-stained).
Kate’s little list of loves:
Fresh flowers (anemones, peonies, sweet peas).
Billy On The Street (TV show).
Tubes of watercolour paint.