Kate Schelter, author of CLASSIC STYLE: HAND IT DOWN, DRESS IT UP, WEAR IT OUT, does everything. She’s an artist, branding expert, design guru and stylist. Her work has been featured in Vogue, the New York Times, Domino, W and other publications. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Kate now lives with her husband and daughter in NYC and Cape Cod, NY.
I'm here today with Kate Schelter who is the author of Classic Style: Hand it Down, Dress it Up, Wear it Out, who does everything. She’s an artist, branding expert, design guru, and stylist. Her work has been featured in Vogue, The New York Times, Domino, W, and many other publications. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Kate now lives with her husband and daughter in New York City and Cape Cod.
Kate Schelter: Hi, Zibby.
Zibby: You do a hundred different things, styling for runway, editorial, advertising, collateral packaging, murals and hotels and restaurants. You make stationary and place cards, fashion branding illustrations, pajamas, and you wrote this book, which I bought as soon as I saw it in KRB Designs on 74th and Lex -- amazing store for anyone listening who wants to go.
Kate: Big shout out to KRB.
Zibby: Shout out to KRB. We met when you had a book party there. You had all of your illustrations up. What don't you do? How do you organize your time? Do you still do all of this? How do you schedule it? That's the first thing I need to know.
Kate: I do one thing at a time. You've just compiled my whole twenty-year career into one paragraph. I have done each and every one of those things. Right now, I focus on being an author. I published my book Classical Style. Mostly, I spend my time going between being an artist and an illustrator. I work in watercolor. I also do creative direction and branding for companies, which is something I've been doing since I graduated from college. The one thing that all of those different things -- the styling, the advertising, the art direction, and the murals and everything else, I forget all the things I've done -- what they all have in common is that I'm using my eye and my vision and my editing skills. It’s all about creating a composition. It’s all about editing with my gut, about what I love. It’s as much about what you don't use as what you do use. What's in the frame is important as a visual no matter if it’s an outfit, a piece of art that's hanging on the wall, a mural. It’s all about what you put in and what you leave out.
Zibby: That's so interesting. You can just tell? You can look at an outfit and see this needs this, this needs that? It’s just a gift. You just were born that way?
Kate: It’s composition. I don't have a musical composition ear, but I have a visual composition eye.
Zibby: That's so neat. I want to get one of those. [laughs]
Kate: For me, it’s like playing different instruments. People call it wearing different hats. I just can see it, for my own aesthetic. Different people have different aesthetics. For me, it’s very clear what things are in harmony and what things create a healthy tension that makes things interesting, things that can be subtle. It’s like using notes and pacing in music, but I can do it with colors and shapes, textures.
Zibby: Your classic style in all of your artwork and your watercolors, they have this simplicity. That's the wrong word because that sounds bad in a way. They're so interesting and almost photographic. I really love photography. I don't usually like the medium of painting as much. There's something about the way you do it that you get this emotional reaction to it the way you would from a photo. Does that make sense?
Zibby: What do you think that's all about? Why do people react emotionally?
Kate: For two reasons. One is that if you're talking about my paintings, I only paint things that I absolutely love in real life. In that way, again, I'm editing with my gut by choosing the subject matter to paint. If I'm reacting to it, hopefully someone else will be reacting to it. In writing they use the metaphor “If you're crying when you're writing it, the reader will be crying when they read it.” If you really go to the heart and the truth of what you're doing -- the other reason for that is that I work in watercolor. I have a very specific type of paint and type of paper and brush that I use. My palate is the equivalent to a photographer’s type of camera or film or paper that they would print it on. It’s very simple and very immediate. It’s not simple/boring. It’s simple/truthful.
Zibby: How did the book come to be?
Kate: I was just painting like crazy after I had my daughter. I was switching over from being a full-time stylist/art director to a full-time artist/illustrator and creative director. It just happened. I really didn't have a plan. It’s one of those things that in hindsight it makes so much sense. That was the path that you were on, but I didn't know it at the time. I was painting while my daughter would nap. I painted actually for about a year and a half while I was pregnant and before I was pregnant. I illustrated a book called Gypset by my friend Julia Chaplin. That was first time I'd had my illustrations published. Friends who were also in the industry, people started noticing it. I was playing around with Instagram and figuring out how that even worked. I thought it was a camera filter. I didn't understand that it was social media or why you would be on that. I'm not very social media savvy, late to the game, although now I really have fun with it.
Zibby: What's your Instagram handle?
Kate: @KateSchelter, K-A-T-E S-C-H-E-L-T-E-R. My agent approached me and said, “You have a book in you. I don't know what it is. It has something to do with fashion. It has something to do with your career. It’s going to be visual with your paintings.” We met with a bunch of different publishers, ended up going with Grand Central, which is a division of Hachette. It all bloomed out of our meeting and our conversation. Honestly, when I started writing the book, I didn't have an outline. I didn't have anything in mind. I just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Then I would paint and paint and paint. Sometimes in the same day I would write and paint. Sometimes I would do a week of painting. I don't even know what I was painting.
It wasn’t ‘til we were designing the book and my editor went through -- I fully credit my editor Brittany with architecting the book. She gave all of my improvisations that I was very clear about but didn't exactly know the format to, she gave it a structure. She gave it the blueprint. She'd say, “That paragraph that you want to be the conclusion or the last page of your book should be the introduction to your book,” something like that for example. I was really heavily involved in the design of the book, although I didn't actually design it. They let me get in there and pair all the artwork with different passages. Sometimes the designer would have an idea that would be really eye-opening to me. I would go with that. It was a completely improvised process that came from my heart, to be honest. Sometimes I would write passages and my editor would say, “You wrote three sentences, but I think you have about four pages. Keep going with that.”
I learned words such as writing prompt. I didn't know that was even a thing. It was a two-year process from when we sold the book to when it was published. I wrote and illustrated the book in about four months. It just came pouring out of me. I have no idea what I'm doing, but I'm just going to keep doing it. My editor organized me. When she would read through my drafts and then come back to me with comments, I was like, “Oh, my god. These are the most exciting emails to read.” That's how it came about.
Zibby: You had tried blogging, but you said you didn't like it at all?
Kate: I didn't really blog. I wrote maybe five or ten articles for The Huffington Post. It was in the mid-2000s when everybody was like, “Blog?” They tapped me to bring my sensibility, but it wasn’t really a -- oh, I know how it happened. I was interviewed by a style writer for The Huffington Post. They were like, “You should blog also.” I was like, “Great.” Again, it was a little bit too much improvisation. I didn't have someone to structure me in. I would be like, “Is this worth a blog post?” I just wasn’t into it. I'd much rather just style people and then write about me styling about people. [laughs]
Zibby: Your book told a lot about the history how you got into illustration and everything. What I loved the most was all the stuff about your family. Does that make me creepy or something? [laughs]
Kate: That's been the number one comment from every single reader, people who know me really well and people who don't know me. That was a shock that was even in the book. I would riff on “My mom used to do this. My sisters would do this. My brother did this. My dad said this to me once.” They were just peppered into the manuscript. My editor really encouraged me to go down those roads. I have a visual memory. I can almost remember everything I've ever seen in weird way. Sometimes I need a little reminding. I would go down to what type of fabric my sheets were made out of when I was thirteen years old. I still have that fabric in my house now. A huge part of my creative process started when I was a teenager. All I would do is sit in my room and make art when I wasn’t playing with friends or at school.
Zibby: You put forth this theory that as a fourth child -- when your parents got a divorce, you were in eighth grade. Your siblings had all left the nest at that point and you were left to sort through everything. Art and painting became one of the ways that you dealt with that. Is that right, or not exactly right?
Kate: It’s kind of right. First of all, my parents didn't get divorced when I was in eighth grade. They separated.
Kate: It’s okay. It’s fine. I'm just clarifying for myself. There was ambiguity. They didn't get divorced until after I got out of college actually. There was a lot of pain and ambiguity. It was very lonely. At the same time, I had these really loving siblings who were constantly checking in on me. My parents were doing the best they could. I had always done art. I had always loved to make things with my hands. There's pictures of me always dressing up and always making bangs. I don't even realize it until looking back on it. It’s like the glue that held it all together. It’s what I would do. I was really not even allowed to watch television growing up. There was a lot of quiet in the house. I filled it with making collages for friends, cutting up old magazines, always making things, patching my jeans in all my mom’s fabric remnants, Pierre Deux patches all over my jeans, Laura Ashley, Schumacher fabrics. I would patch my Levi’s and use my mom’s sewing machine. I was always making things with my hands.
Zibby: I feel like we grew up in the same time. All of those things that you are painting or you put in the book are things I'm like, “Oh, my gosh. Those Tretorns I had,” or what you said, Pierre Deux fabric.
Kate: Growing up in the eighties…
Zibby: I know. I don't know why I feel lately there's been this big eighties nostalgia. It’s everywhere. I'm thinking about it a lot more. It’s coming into vogue now almost.
Kate: I just always go with things that I love. My mom was an interior designer and has a really classic sense of style. Also, she actually lives in Europe, now she does. All the things that she always loved, I definitely loved. I do it in a slightly different way.
Zibby: It’s so cool. In the book, you have a lot of these two-page expert sprinkled in interviews with your friends, kind of like a end of Vanity Fair.
Kate: It was heavily inspired by that page. Yes, it was.
Zibby: But you didn't one for you. I wanted to ask you a few of the questions.
Kate: I felt like the whole book was my answers.
Zibby: I know, but just the cliff notes. Can I ask you just a few and then you just give me a cliff notes answer? We’ll try it. Preferred mode of transportation.
Kate: My vintage Schwinn bike.
Zibby: Always in your fridge.
Zibby: Quick description of your overall look.
Kate: Carefree. Simple. Seventies-inspired.
Zibby: Nice. Kate, by the way, is wearing white jean overalls and a white t-shirt sitting here and looks super cool with her brown leather clogs.
Kate: It’s the first day I've been able to wear these in a while.
Zibby: It’s this gross day outside and you're looking so chic and elegant.
Kate: Sparking water.
Zibby: Skill you dream of mastering.
Kate: That's a tough one. I love all the things that I already love. I'm going to pass on that one.
Zibby: I’ll give you two passes. Product you've used since high school.
Kate: Clinique foundation, the same exact shade -- new bottles of it. [laughs] And Maybelline Great Lash Mascara in brown.
Zibby: Most worn-out shoes.
Kate: Now, I would say my clogs or my Converse All Star sneakers.
Zibby: Favorite candy.
Kate: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
Zibby: Oldest item in your wardrobe.
Kate: Items from my mom.
Zibby: On your nightstand.
Kate: Picture of my daughter and lip balm.
Zibby: How old is your daughter?
Zibby: Aw. I have a five-year-old. Favorite place in the world.
Kate: Cape Cod, with Italy as the second runner-up. [laughs]
Zibby: Favorite season.
Zibby: Me too. Book you keep close and refer to often.
Kate: Classic Style.
Zibby: Classic Style by Kate Schelter.
Kate: I say this in the book. I keep a well-edited collection of self-help books nearby whenever I feel lost. They're heavily underlined, dog-eared, lots of notes written in the margins. Also, I would say cookbooks. I love to cook. I tend to only keep books around that I really use and read. It’s sort of like in your wardrobe -- there's exceptions -- but if you haven't read something in six months to a year or referred to it, consider sharing it with a friend or donating it to a library.
Zibby: You wrote in your book, “As a rule, I generally don't keep novels around. I lend them to friends or I borrow them from libraries. Books need circulation. Find your own measure for keeping books at bay and apply it ruthlessly. Books are meant to be shared, loved, and used, not collect dust.” I thought that was so interesting because I feel like keeping my favorite novels around, the characters kind of greet me if I look at them. I know that sounds ridiculous.
Kate: No, it does not. For me, I have this thing with books where I really like to read my own category I call “applicable knowledge.” I really like books that teach, that show you how to do something, for example, a cookbook, self-help book, a book on meditation, and any kind of design book where there's big monographs with photographs and images that I can refer back to that are history-related. I have so many favorite novels. I love Jonathan Franzen. I love Donna Tartt. For me, reading a novel is like watching a movie. When it’s done, I'm not going to pick up a novel and be like, “What was that one concept?” Maybe I would. For me, they're like movies. I was never the kind of person who had a DVD of every movie they loved. You see it, and then you let it have a life afterwards. I definitely have a large library of books, but I don't just keep everything because I read it once.
Zibby: You told a funny story in the book about how you met your husband. You said you met him at, “a dinner party on a freezing January night, the kind of night you want to bail on all your plans because you'd rather stay home, watch TV, and eat a burrito on the couch. But I braved the cold because I believe in showing up. I needed some cheer during the winter gloom.” Tell me about that.
Kate: What else could I tell you? I walked into the dinner party. It was small. There was eight or nine of us. I wasn’t set up with him. I actually was under the impression that he was with somebody else. He walked in. He had a certain look. I thought he’s not available. His best friend was also there. We had a great night. We ended up doing vodka shots and dancing to the Rhianna Pandora station. It was in 2009. He ended up going home early because he had a meeting in the morning. He needed to be fresh and ready for the meeting. I was like, “Okay, no big deal.” His best friend and my best friend are also really good friends. They played cupid. They were telling him that I liked him. They were telling me that he liked me. We got together for several more group brunches. After the second or the third one, it was history.
Zibby: I like how that came at the end when you were saying how you'd had this big party-girl, it-girl type existence for a long time, out every single night at every benefit, every fashion event, every everything, and that you were just ready. It was time.
Kate: I was ready before I met him for sure. For those of you who are out there who are listening, it wasn’t as effortless -- I had been in a period of my life where for several years I was ready for that transition.
Zibby: It was definitely fun to read about your life prior.
Kate: It was a totally different life. I'm so glad I have that.
Zibby: In the past? [laughs]
Zibby: Does your daughter love to paint? Do you do the watercolors with her?
Kate: I do paint with her. She loves to be outside. In the wintertime when it’s freezing and we’re in New York, I feel that I end up doing -- she does a lot of art and stuff at school. I don't paint with her as much as I feel like one would think. Sometimes I'm hard on myself. I think I should paint more with her. Certainly, there's art supplies everywhere. We do paint and draw. She's painting and drawing all the time every day. I do it with her as much as possible. I like to visit her school maybe once a year, twice a year, and do art projects with the whole class. Last year we brought in some real sunflowers. Inspired by Matisse, we did paper cutouts. We made sunflowers.
Zibby: You should come to my kid’s school.
Kate: It was a little preschool project. It was so cute. The teacher made a book of all the different artwork afterwards. My daughter is an athlete. She loves to run around, loves to swim, and be outdoors. It’s always, “When can we go outside?”
Zibby: Are you still close to your siblings? I wanted to know more about them. I feel like you need a follow-up book about -- you know how books do one chapter from each of your siblings and your parents? Then we go back, and you tie it all together. My curiosity was so piqued about what they were like. You would say just a few things about each sibling.
Kate: It’s one of those classic situations with siblings where everyone sees us and I'm constantly being mistaken for my two sisters. We all look alike. We all get along. We also are all very different. The older we get, we all have very different lives. We spend the summers together. It’s good. It’s like any family. The more time you spend together, the more sometimes things come up. That's a good problem to have. We’re a very open family. we talk about everything. We face everything. We’re a very emotionally evolved family. There was never a taboo topic or something that was not dealt with, at least that's how I feel. With the good and the bad, when there's problems and when there's great joys in our life, we do come together.
Zibby: That's great. I've noticed that with all of your paintings of objects -- I can't even think of a painting you've done of a person.
Kate: That's very good of you to notice that. I have done a lot of commissions. People often commission me to paint their children. I'm very specific about what I’ll agree to do. I always suggest a specific way to paint them. There's an impressionism in my work. Sometimes my work can be more realistic. There's an impressionism that happens with watercolor. Portraits are so tricky. Figurative painting is so much more interesting when it’s impressionistic. There's an expectation when somebody hires you to paint a commission of your daughter or your son. They're expecting it to look a certain way. I think a portrait is beautiful that Matisse paints or Van Gogh paints where there's a likeness, but there's not a photo likeness. Photography is so much better for capturing that actually.
Zibby: It’s almost a waste. I would want you to paint my daughter’s lovie or my other daughter’s polar bear if I were trying to capture my kid, you-style. Somehow the objects speak more sometimes about the person.
Kate: Some things that you don't even realize, the torn blankie that looks like swiss cheese that looks dirty and disgusting, but that's the most important object to your child.
Zibby: That clock you painted of your dad’s, my dad had that clock in the eighties, the Braun little black one.
Kate: We had them all over our house, still.
Zibby: I hadn’t seen it since probably 1989 or something.
Kate: My dad is obsessed with it. I’ll tell him, “Sometimes you can find these at Muji or some store in Chinatown or the MoMA Design Store.” He's like, “If you ever see them in New York, buy me ten of them.” I want to give them as stocking stuffers. We have them in almost every room of our house. I don't wear a watch, but I keep a clock in the bathroom. We all have computers and phones now, so that's a good time teller. The bathroom is really where I find that you're most thinking about time. You're usually going to bed or waking up and needing to leave the house. I don't keep a clock in the bedroom because I feel like that's stressful. I don't like to hear the tick, tick, tick, tick.
Zibby: Do you have any plans to do any other books?
Kate: There was a time where my friend Marina and I were thinking of doing a children's book together that she was going to write and I was going to illustrate. I had to focus on getting Classic Style out first. Then I realized that it was like having a second child with this book. It took me a long time to recuperate from all of the work and then a good, solid year of book signings and press. We were very fortunate with all of the love we got for the book. Then afterwards I was like, “Whoa.” It really impacted my life. I just needed to give it that space. My agent gave me great advice. She said, “Don't write a book just to write a book. Write a book because you have something to say.” While I didn't know what I was trying to say when I started to write this book, I knew I had a voice and I had something to get out.
I have thought about writing Classic Home and then Classic Travel. Those are two other things I'm so passionate about. I love interior design and architecture. I talk a lot about that in Classic Style. I also love to travel. I also talk about that. Travelling influences my work so much. We’re constantly aware of tiny, little details when we arrive in a new place that we would take for granted if it were the house we pass every single day of our life. For example, if you get off the subway in Paris, you're going to notice that their subway signage is different than our subway signage in New York. Those little blue enamel address numbers that are on the side of buildings, I love all those tiny, little details that maybe people don't notice. That's, to me, the soul of a place.
Zibby: Thank you so much. Thanks for coming. I really love your work. Again, the book is Classic Style, amazing book to read, to give as a gift, anything.
Kate: Thank you.