Kate Schelter is the rare fashion maven who makes you feel good about the contents of your closet. Long estabished as a stylist and professional photographer, Schelter doesn’t recommend stocking up on of-the-moment designer items or fast fashion, only to do it all again next season. In fact, she’d rather that you trust your instincts and then whittle down your wardrobe to the items that matter most.
It’s Schelter’s preference for the timeless over the trendy that prompted her to write Classic Style: Hand It Down, Dress It Up, Wear It Out (Grand Central Life & Style). The book reads like a style guide for real life, eschewing the aspirational for the practical but without sacrificing the sense of whimsy and appreciation of beauty that make fashion and design so alluring. Schelter, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate who now works as an artist full-time, also illustrated the book. She punctuates her anecdotes and advice with charming, quirky watercolors of items that have reached icon status — from Budweiser cans to Chanel bags. (Her prints are sold through New York gallery ArtStar.)
Her renewed appreciation for effortless, authentic style was sparked by her flirtation with excess while working in the fashion industry. During her tenure as a photographer, art director and stylist for places like Vogue and Vanity Fair, Schelter reveled in the perks of her position, showing up at fashion shows and red-carpet events wearing items she borrowed from top designers. But that lifestyle eventually became tiresome. “Burned out on ‘luxury’ and the constant trend race,” she writes, “I reverted to my original way of dressing — a lifestyle of irreverent, DIY freewheeling ease.”
Now, her personal dressing rules read less like fashion dictates than tactful suggestions from a close friend. [“Carry a pocketbook in the smallest size that will hold your belongings.”] Her thoughts on what make an outfit stylish encapsulate her high-low sensibility and appreciation for items of enduring value, like “a strand of pearls with a T-shirt” and “a weathered (gold Rolex) wristwatch that was made the year you were born.”
Although she recommends streamlining, Schelter is not a minimalist. She just believes in buying only what you truly love, even if it means saving up for it (and she admits that she has expensive taste). When she does splurge, she writes, “I go all out for what I really want. A masterpiece. A singular item. Something from a recurring dream.” This mind-set was instilled in her from an early age: “My dad always said, ‘Buy the best you can afford, because you get what you pay for.’” Schelter embraces the same philosophy in her home decor advice, recommending that you buy high-quality furniture you will use and love and eventually reupholster, but not replace.
Introspective caught up with Schelter at the shingle-style house where her mom, Kitsie, resides on Cape Cod, just down the road from her own home, to chat about finding one’s style and learning to let go of everything else.
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How long have you been coming to Cape Cod? Is this the home you visited growing up?
The house has been in my family for almost 50 years. It was my grannie’s, and we spent every summer here. Now, my daughter is part of the fourth generation here!
What is your favorite thing about the house?
The kitchen. It has the original stove and all my grandmother’s dishes displayed on beautiful open shelves, and the original pine mantel and fireplace. When I walk into the kitchen, I’m ten years old again, eating a soft-boiled egg for breakfast or ice cream in a wet bathing suit.
What made you want to share your style story in a book?
It wasn’t actually intentional. When I went back to painting after being a fashion consultant and stylist, it was about rediscovering myself in the purest form of play and passion. It didn’t feel like work. I was using the same muscle I use as a stylist — I was using my gut.
Going back to work as an artist full-time also coincided with the birth of my daughter. There was the whole gestation period of pregnancy, when my life influenced my style. Becoming a mother made me so intensely protective of my daughter, my family and my time. It also made me very protective of my work. My paintings are my other little babies.
Do you take similar approaches to home decor and to your wardrobe?
With home decor, the furniture has to work with the space, but I’m equally playful and willing to try things. I’m heavily influenced by my mom, who was an interior decorator, and I buy things that will really last. You shouldn’t feel you need to change things in your space unless the material gets worn out.
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How has your mother’s style influenced you? What have you learned from her?
Everything. My mom is Classic Style. She has an enthusiasm for making things beautiful that can’t be repressed! But more than a flair for fabrics, finishes and furniture, my mom always keeps the original details intact. She never chooses the easy or fast route. She painstakingly spends hours on the phone with the one electrician who can still fix the stove that has been discontinued for decades. Preservation is her passion. She understands that it’s all those charming details that make or break a space. When the thirty-year-old mustard-yellow dishwasher finally broke, she cried as they took it away.
Is there anything on your home-decor wish list?
I can’t get enough Scandinavian scrubbed-pine furniture.
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Your book contains style profiles of editors, designers, writers and other creative people, like David Netto and Jane Herman. How did you choose them?
They’re all friends whom I love and have known for more than a decade. Many have become clients, or vice versa. Each has a distinct style, but every one of them is authentic. They’re people I would invite to a dinner party.
In the book, you also talk about how the 2008 economic downturn prompted you to edit your wardrobe. Are there times that don’t involve a traumatic event when it might be good to rethink your clothes, furniture and other belongings?
The best time to pare down is when you are moving. But do it when you’re unpacking. By then, it will be clear what no longer serves you. Another great time is during big new chapters in your life, like graduating from college and getting your first apartment, or getting married and moving in with your spouse. Whether it’s a divorce, a breakup or a new job, a time of reinvention or growth will be reflected in your wardrobe and belongings.
How has the Cape influenced your style?
Mostly, I think one’s style starts in the place where style doesn’t exist on purpose. Style is your default. It’s what’s easy and trustworthy, what you keep coming back to over and over again — your favorite chair, your worn-out shoes. It’s what’s meaningful and runs deep in your bones.
Do you think your style is still evolving?
Yes, but I don’t consider my style fashionable. I just consider it me. I have a daily uniform, and I don’t feel that I have something to prove to anyone anymore. People who aren’t following any rules are the ones who are influencing others.
What style lessons do you hope to impart to your daughter?
I think family has had the greatest impact on my style, and the more time she can spend running around outside with her cousins, the better.