There’s a picture of Miuccia Prada that über- stylist Karla Welch—whose clients include Ruth Negga, Sarah Paulson, and Tracee Ellis Ross— thinks about a lot. It was originally part of a magazine shoot featuring designers and their muses; in it, Prada sits alone next to a mirror, looking at herself. As for her own style in influences or icons, “I’m my own muse,” Welch says. “I really, really am.”
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Born in the little Canadian town of Powell River, British Columbia, Welch has been ex- posed to the idea of personal style from the beginning. She grew up creating the window displays in her father’s haberdashery, and she fell in love with the CBC Television documentary series Fashion File. As an elementary school student, she longed for the day when she could abandon her uniform for her own clothes. “We didn’t have a ton of money,” she says. “I remember when Esprit came out, I was allowed one piece of Esprit a year—and it was a major decision. I think when you have a little more restraint, you learn how to thrift and how to be creative.”
In her early twenties, Welch took what she calls a “detour” into the restaurant business. During a stint as a sommelier in Vancouver, she met her now-husband, the Los Angeles–based photographer Matthew Welch, who was in the city shooting for Rolling Stone. “It was kind of like love at first sight—for him, obviously, not for me,” she jokes.
Welch moved to L.A. in 2001 and started working toward her long-held “secret goal” to be a stylist, first producing her husband’s shoots and soon striking out on her own—albeit in a far less glamorous position than she has now. “I used to do Getty Images shoots and tons of low-budget music jobs and ad jobs where I would do props and wardrobe,” she says. “I definitely paid my dues.” But while the grunt work, at times, left her wondering, What am I doing?, she also learned the craft of styling in those early years. Welch says her secret was “never being afraid to ask people questions,” whether about on-set etiquette or how to work with a particular vendor to pull clothing for a client. “I never wanted to act like I knew everything, because I didn’t.” That mentality, she says, has proved effective throughout her career. “People are pretty willing to help. Sure, a few people pooh-poohed—and guess what, they don’t get my business now.”
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Welch is well known for her ability to transform clients not into entirely new people, but rather into the best version of themselves. And while Welch may be her own personal style inspiration, each time she works with a new celebrity—whether it’s Olivia Wilde (who was her first big-name client) or Justin Bieber or Kaia Gerber—that client becomes a kind of muse, in a process that Welch calls “organic and a little hard to explain.” Welch focuses on drawing out aspects of each person’s personality—Sarah Paulson’s strength and elegance, Wilde’s boyish sexiness, Ruth Negga’s romantic, gothic side—and channeling it with, say, a sleek suit or frothy ruffles. She’s also never been one to shy away from expressing her inclusive political views on social media, and she works with similar-minded clients: During Elisabeth Moss’s press circuit for The Handmaid’s Tale, Welch dressed Moss in socially conscious designers, like Rosetta Getty and Prabal Gurung, and encouraged her to accessorize with ACLU and Planned Parenthood pins.
Given her years spent searching for the best items among collections by other visionaries, it’s only natural that Welch started custom-making her own designs for her clients, most memorably T-shirts and drop-crotch pants for Bieber. This past spring, Welch partnered with Hanes to launch a line of white T-shirts, ideal for the kind of effortless uniform dressing that Welch herself loves—with a nod to famous white T-shirt wearers from Marlon Brando to Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. And in a market where well-designed white tees can run far above the $100 mark, each of Welch’s universally flattering tops is a veritable steal at $30 a pop. The shirts will be available on xkarla.com until they sell out, but if you miss them, don’t worry—while Welch says that she would never call herself a designer, she also already has plans for future projects.
To dress well, “You have to be able to know yourself,” Welch says. “But if you’re just not sure, find someone you think looks cute and keep working it; eventually it’s going to come to you naturally.” All this month, she’ll be helping you along on your sartorial self-exploration, with a new lesson in styling each week on ELLE.com.
Tune in to ELLE.com all November for Welch’s personal- style boot camp.
A FORMAL AFFAIR
November 6: Some functions call for more than a great pair of jeans and a white T-shirt (even if it’s designed by Welch). This week: how to dress up— way up—without losing your personal style. Want to try a long black dress or a slinky suit, but not sure how to style it? Welch to the rescue!
November 13: Welch arms you with the tools to build your own uniform. “You don’t have to have a ton in your closet,” she says, as long as you love the pieces you have—and they go together. If it ain’t broke…
WEAR YOUR POLITICS ON YOUR SLEEVE
November 20: The personal is political, and that goes for your style as well— whether it’s voicing your stance via a statement tee or choosing designers whose views and practices align with your social conscience.
November 27: Fleeing the cold for warmer weather? Heading home for the holidays and into the snow? Wherever you’re traveling, Welch has your weekend checklist to make sure you look your best.