In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
If Lena Dunham is the voice of a generation, Kelly Wearstler might be the interior designer of it. In the last few months, the reigning queen of interiors has designed Cameron Diaz's mansion and launched new collabs with Paperless Post and Thierry Lasry. We know her wares--both of the fashion and interior variety--so we set out to learn more about her.
For one, her move into fashion was a fluke. Wearstler launched ready-to-wear and accessories in Fall 2011 to much fanfare, but she admits to the move being happenstance. “It took me by surprise, and fashion is for sure the hardest business I’ve done.” She also cops to not having it all. “There’s definitely sacrifices.” Social time, for one.
Wearstler is remarkably grounded and candid for someone who designs Bergdorf Goodman... and then sells her clothes in it. The sweet Southern drawl doesn’t hurt, either. For more reasons on why we love Wearstler, read on as she shares her approach to design, taking risks, and keeping up with fast fashion.
How did you get your start in design? I’m such a passion whore, falling in love with new things that I create and see every day. I first went to school for graphic design before deciding I preferred the three-dimensional, and I changed my major to architecture. When I graduated I realized I was actually very interested in interior design, and went back to school to study that in New York. I also started an apprenticeship with Milton Glaser, who did graphic design and interiors, which was a really interesting combination.
You have traditional interior design training, but what you’ve done to interior design is anything but traditional. My work is all about texture and being a little more dramatic. I think it’s because I studied graphic design first, where I learned to make things that were powerful and made a page come alive. That marriage helped shape my style and use of color, and has made me more likely to take risks as a designer.
Is interior design generally a risk-adverse industry? Yes. And there does need to be a balance because you want to take risks, but people are also living in these spaces so they need to be functional and lasting and not feel forced. You can easily cross over into something that’s too much. And trust me, I’ve made the mistakes, I’ve gone overboard. But that’s how you learn.
What’s the creative process like for you? I can look at an object and know instantly what I want it to be. Inspiration is everywhere, it’s just how you look at things.
What are you in love with right now? A little bit of everything. I’m a stone lover, but right now I’m doing more with tile--it’s a little friendlier, more of a geometric and organic form. I’m really into Italian furniture from the '60s right now. And art that’s a little more painterly and less geometric.
Does your inspiration for interiors run parallel to what you’re doing in fashion? It has to, because all the collections are going to be in our store at the same time. You have to have those synergies. There is an inspiration for the season, and all the different disciplines feed into that so there is a cohesive theme. So the stone I’m using in my interior objects, you’ll also see in the jewelry.
Did you always intend to do both fashion and interiors? No, I had no idea. I hadn’t even thought about getting into retail. It was when I had finished the Bergdorf Goodman restaurant that they came to me and said they had a space on the floor they’d love me to fill. I was thinking to myself, “I have no product to sell, I don’t know what to do!” But I realized I actually had designed many things for clients and that I did have a lot of product design in me. We pulled from what I had already done and added to that, and did everything including manufacturing in about six months. It was crazy.
Tell me about your design process specific to fashion. It’s just what I’m feeling. It starts with collecting things that are inspiring me. Then a few months before the season I lay everything out and see where it focuses. I keep feeding those ideas and see which emerges as the strongest. After that it’s tons of sketching. I’m involved in every single decision--from the packaging, to how we talk about it and what the website looks like... I’m building a lifestyle brand, so I have to be involved so that the voice is tight.
How do you do so much while still allowing yourself room to be creative? It’s about being organized and being an amazing multi-tasker. You also have to be confident in your decision and then be done with it so you can move on to the next thing.
Is there anyone who can talk you out of a decision? I do have people I listen to. My team will say “No, that’s too much” or “Let’s give it more love.” And I listen to my clients. The projects where our clients are most involved are the most successful. I’m taking their vision and running it through my filter.
Take us through a typical day. There are not enough hours. I get my boys up and then go the gym--this is at 6 AM. Then go straight home, get ready and take them to school. I’m at the office by 9 AM and go straight into meetings with each category. It will be like that all day long--I’m getting it done.
Have you had to sacrifice some of your personal life to be able to accomplish so much? For sure. I’m working and focused, and then I’m home with my boys and focused on them. But there’s not a lot of social time. There’s definitely sacrifices.
What are some of the challenges specific to fashion? Fashion is so hard. I’ve done a 50-acre resort in the Caribbean, and fashion is harder. There’s so much coordination with production and manufacturing. Finding people that have the same vibe as you is really difficult. It’s also becoming so fast, there’s pressure to put out nine collections a year now. Companies like H&M and Topshop are doing an amazing job and making it very difficult to keep up.
How do you compete with H&M and Topshop? You’ll never be able to compete directly with them. You just connect with your customer the best you can, and listen to your stores the best you can. We’re only doing three collections now, and they’re much smaller and artisanal. We’re elevating it with a lot of hand-done and proprietary details that can’t be copied, and just keeping it really tight and focused. At the end of the day it’s about following your heart and believing in your instincts and vision. As a brand you have to have a voice and a story.
What is your story as a brand? Color, texture, spirited, and loved.
What should every home have? A soul.
What should every woman own? An amazing leather jacket.
Melanie Bender is a brand and marketing consultant with a work portfolio including Sephora, We Are Handsome, Topshop and Louis Vuitton. She is a contributing writer on topics of business and tech, and can be found online at melaniezbender.com and on Twitter at @melliebe.