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How Karla Welch Went from Being a Sommelier to Hollywood's Top Celebrity Stylist

"The Hollywood Reporter"'s most powerful stylist of 2017 tells us how she got there.
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Stylist Karla Welch. Photo: Courtesy

Stylist Karla Welch. Photo: Courtesy

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.

To list off just a portion of stylist Karla Welch's clients is to name A-Listers across every field of entertainment: Lorde, Olivia Wilde, Ruth Negga, Sarah Paulson, Justin Bieber, Hailey Steinfeld, St. Vincent, Karlie Kloss, Camila Cabello, Kathryn Hahn, Michelle Monaghan, Katy Perry, Carrie Brownstein and Amy Poehler all have Welch to thank for their slots on best dressed lists everywhere.

It's certainly a motley crew of celebrities, but that's just another feather in Welch's cap. While many celebrity stylists have an aesthetic that ties their work together across clients, the common thread through Welch's work is people who consistently look like the most stylish version of themselves. She is equally adept at helping Bieber design his blockbuster "Purpose" tour merch with Fear of God's Jerry Lorenzo as she is cementing Negga as a fashion darling; as skilled at taking Steinfeld from child starlet to pop star as she is at changing the pregnancy red carpet game with Wilde. Just this past weekend, she covered both coasts, prepping Lorde for her "SNL" appearance in New York City and Cabello for her Kid's Choice Awards performance in Los Angeles — how's that for multitasking?

Somehow, in between all of that, Welch found time to hop on the phone from her hotel room in NYC to fill us in on how she made the switch from being a sommelier (seriously) to Hollywood's hottest stylist. And that's not just hyperbole: The Hollywood Reporter just dubbed Welch the most powerful stylist of 2017. 

When did your interest in fashion begin?

I was into my Barbies, and I wore a uniform, which, I think a lot of kids who are forced to wear a uniform develop creativity with their clothing. I was super obsessed with this show [in Canada] called "Fashion File," which Tim Blanks was the host of, and it was really about high fashion.

Did you always know that it was going to be a career for you?

I think that deep down I probably knew. When I was little, I always wanted to be a fashion designer and then I took a few [different] paths as I got older but then, you know, here I am, so it kinda just all worked out.

Where did you go to school?

I went to school in Canada, and I went to a university there. For quite some time, I was actually in the restaurant business, so I was just doing food and beverage management and I became a sommelier, so I did do a total detour. 

How did you go about getting into styling?

I assisted a stylist in Los Angeles, a couple. And then my husband was a photographer and it wasn't really working out with the stylist. [My husband] was working on it, and I was like "God, I can do this better," and so I started [styling] all his jobs, which just kind of segued into getting more and more work. It was pretty organic but focused; I really forced myself to learn on the spot.

So you were really always on your own.

Yes, totally. I did a little bit of assisting, but I kind of just had it in me. I was lucky because I had my husband, and I have always had a lot of confidence to know how to figure things out. And I always tell people this: I had an amazing assistant and she really helped me — Ashley Sinclair. She was into costumes and she was like "Oh, this is where we need to go for this, and this, and that." I worked a lot with her. 

I don't know that I would suggest [starting on your own] to everyone because there were a couple good situations, but at the same time that I was working, I was also assisting.

What challenges did you face getting started?

I think it's just the onslaught of it: Figuring out how to make a tiny budget work, how to execute your client's vision. But it's like any job, just learning. At the beginning, I was doing a lot of small advertising jobs, so it was not hugely glamorous, but it was figuring it out.

I remember doing a job where, literally, they were like, "You can have this job, but you have to do the props, too." — which seems hilarious to me now that I was doing props, but that's how a lot of jobs were for me when I started out. They were more basic, but I think it gave you a real skill of understanding, "Oh, this is how a regular person would look going to the grocery store," so you have to put that in your memory bank and figure out how to execute it. 

What skills did you learn in the food and service industry that you apply to your job now?

In the restaurant industry, you work under a lot of pressure, and it's a people business. You are a little bit of a hand holder and a psychologist, and you're kind of leading the way. It's not all the same; I'm just saying there are skills that, I think, lead to being a better human that you can learn from working in a restaurant. I was working in a pretty upscale restaurant, so there was an elegance to service, and when you fully understand that you're not the star, you're providing, I think that goes a long way.

How did you know that you wanted to go into styling in particular?

When I was [starting out] in L.A., you saw the Rachel Zoes, you saw that element of it, and you realized what a huge industry celebrity styling was. When I got older, I understood the process of the editors and the stylists making the picture come to life — fully realizing what a stylist was — and I was like, "Yes, that's what I want to do."

How did you start building that celebrity clientele?

I was working with a lot of musicians and then my agency became The Wall Group, and they are very celebrity focused, so it just kind of evolved that way. I'll never be the person who's like, "I'm gonna check off these squares, then get these things done." I've always been a little more open to my goals and let them develop organically and see where the wind is taking me, and that's where it took me.

How would you say that you differentiate your work from other celebrity stylists?

I don't know that I want to compare myself to anyone else. When you're working at a certain level, you're all having access to the same thing. I'm about my clients, that's it. There's so many amazing stylists working, and I like to applaud their work when I love it. But, for me, it's only about what my clients' needs are and who I'm working with at that time and what we're gonna do for them.

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You have such a wide range of clients; how do you decide who you want to work with?

I'm in the luxurious position where I do get to decide who I want to work with, which is amazing. You start, and you're just like "Yes! I'm doing my job!" But now it's more if someone's interesting, if I think their work is interesting. I don't ever think, "Oh my god, that's the youngest, hottest thing," or, "She's gorgeous;" that's not how I'm ever going to pick who I'm going to work with. I'm like, "Are they smart, do I think that they're interesting, do I like their work?"

What do you think has been your greatest achievement so far?

I don't know that I have a "greatest achievement;" I think being employed, that's a pretty good achievement in a freelance industry. I love all the opportunities I've gotten with Justin [Bieber], to design his tours, to do some collaborations with him, because he's so fearless that just getting to try things is always fun. Everybody brings something really different; in awards season, everyone brings something so fun to the occasion. Going back to being a kid who liked [fashion], I love the designers, so being able to work with someone on a custom dress or something, that to me is like, "Ahhh!!" 

How have you been able to build those relationships with designers?

It just comes with the biz: reaching out and working with their incredible press teams and developing the relationship. You can tap on that from working hard and having a good reputation and creating good experiences; you can go back and ask for another one.

What do you think is the best part about your job?

I think the best part of my job is that it changes a lot. I genuinely like what I do and I think you have to like what you do, because we work really, really long hours. I like the very interesting people I work with, from all aspects, whether it's the press people, my team, my clients, the designers.

What's the worst part?

Sometimes the hours can be the worst part. I have a family, so sometimes that's rough — but that's the juggle, right? I think that is inherent in anything you do: You have to know that there's struggle, it's not all sunshine.

What do you think people misunderstand about your job?

We don't just shop for a living. People don't maybe realize the amount of work the stylist does; we're prepping a job a week out and showing up and doing fittings and lugging trunks, unloading, loading. First to arrive, last to leave syndrome, you know? There's a lot of thought and a lot of prep and legwork that goes into a single look.

Your clients always look like the most stylish version of themselves; how do you hit that balance?

It's super important to me, so that's exciting that it's actually recognized. I don't like cookie cutter, and I think that, in a way, I'm just an advocate for my clients. When I get a client, what I try to do with them is figure out what it is we're going for. When I started working with Sarah [Paulson] two years ago, we knew we wanted to streamline things, and she's quite edgy, which maybe people didn't know. It's almost like — it's going to sound crazy — but I conjure a muse for them. It's not a literal muse, it's more of a feeling of a direction and then we go for it, and we stay true to the path. What happens because of that is very often, we'll try one dress and that's it for big events. We know where we're going.

If someone didn't think they had a stylist, that they had great personal style, that would be the best thing.

How has social media changed how you approach your job?

Until the last year, I didn't really post a lot of work and then someone was like, "You've got to post your work." It's a really interesting process; designers love to see their clothes being posted and shared. Which, I don't blame them — a lot of them get a bigger hit out of things [on social media].

If you've ever been on my Instagram, I'm a pretty political person; I like that I have a platform to share my beliefs and what I believe in strongly, so for me that's been the best thing about it. It just developed in a very non-strategic way that I was going to start posting politically; but that's who I am. It's not like we're in just regular times.

What advice would you give someone starting out looking to be a celebrity stylist?

What I think the best thing kids can do nowadays is find a mentor and go to work, or become an apprentice, and not think that within one year you're going to know it all and you're going go on your own. I know this sounds funny, because I did start [on my own], but I don't think you can compare starting 16 years ago to starting now. I think the best thing for them to do is to find someone to really learn from, and commit to that person instead of committing to yourself, because that's how the best learning takes place.

I think that happens in almost every field: There's always a master and his student and eventually the student goes on, but the student commits to the master and I think that's the best way to learn. I think a lot of people nowadays want it to happen instantly and it doesn't happen instantly for anyone. It really doesn't and there's so much to learn and you'll have so much more gain if you invest a little more.

Do you have any favorite looks?

There's so many! I loved when Olivia Wilde was pregnant; I think she really changed the pregnancy game. When she wore that cute green Gucci gown years ago at the Golden Globes, people were like, "Oh my god, she's so hot," and nobody would normally have said that. I loved that. The awards season we're on which I did with Ruth Negga and Sarah Paulson. I don't know; I think, "Yay, we did it, I love it!" and then I'm on to the next. That'd be like picking a kid, I couldn't pick one — well, I only have one, but still. 

What is your ultimate career goal? 

God, I could retire tomorrow and I'd say this is great. I don't know that I have that ultimate goal. I would love to be an editor of a magazine, but I don't know that that's a goal, to be really honest, because I don't think that's the way anything's going these days. I have lots of things I wanna do; I love making stuff. When you've worked like I've been styling, doing this for 14 years, you get the fruits of your labor, and I think maybe getting to make things and design things would be the next step of that, and that would be amazing to me.

You never know. You never know what's coming around the corner. I'm a very happy, satisfied person. I like to work, so it's good.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.