Badass Women spotlights women who not only have a voice but defy the irrelevant preconceptions of gender.
Before Karla Welch was prepping Sarah Paulson for The Met Gala or dressing Amber Heard at Cannes, she was working as a maitre d' and sommelier at a restaurant in Vancouver. Welch, now a powerhouse Hollwood stylist, basically got into the restaurant business because she had a chic muse—Michelle Pfeiffer’s stylish restaurateur character in the 1988 drama Tequila Sunrise.
When her husband, a photographer whom she met at her restaurant, needed a stylist for one of his shoots, though, Welch jumped in to help and hasn't looked back since.
“I remember thinking, ‘Maybe one day I'll have a client that goes to an award show!” she tells InStyle of her early styling days. Plenty of successful award shows and magazine cover shoots later, Welch has a client roster that includes Karlie Kloss and Cindy Crawford, and it's hard to imagine a time when the red carpet was still a dream for her.
Both The New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter have called Welch one of the most powerful stylists of our time, and she understands what that kind of platform can do. Welch most recently wielded her influence to support Everytown For Gun Safety, rallying Levi’s, in honor of their Levi’s 501 x karla collection, to make a donation to Everytown's Support Fund that will exceed the total US profit. “We’re in a bit of a glamorous, superficial business, but there're so many wonderful people who are a part of it,” she says. “And I think that I can contribute by leveraging my platform and my collaborations to do good.” Below, Welch opens up about her start, her celebrity clients, and how to build a look.
Her styling start: Welch grew up surrounded by retail. Her father owned a menswear store, and she always loved fashion. “I kind of just jumped right in,” Welch says, adding that her work in the restaurant industry actually helped prepare her for styling success. “[Working in the restaurant industry] gives you such a greater understanding on how to treat people and how to be of service,” Welch says. “And I've kind of always been in service, one way or the other, in retail and now as a stylist.”
Proudest achievement: Last week, Welch announced her collaboration with Levi’s in celebration of the 145th anniversary of the brand's iconic 501 jeans—but creating a collection that both honored the classic denim and spoke to the future of vintage wasn’t enough. She's damn proud of Levi's donation commitment to Everytown for Gun Safety and the all-female cast of clients who showed up to model the line. “To me, everything I'm doing right now is about the American love story—a white T-shirt with Hanes, blue jeans with Levi's,” Welch says. “It's my ideal rock 'n' roll. And it's really about strong women.”
Creating the collection was a passion project for Welch, who has fond memories of 501s from childhood. “I stole my brother's 501s when I was 13. I have never not wanted 501s. And for the collaboration, I didn't want to look back because I think everybody looks back. I wanted to look forward and think about what vintage is going to look like 300 years from now. So that was mainly my approach—that and also don't fuck it up.”
The (glittery) grind: Welch says the toughest part of her job is also one of its greatest joys. “It’s very non-stop. But I'm so lucky to be in the position where I have all these amazing opportunities. So I just want to take them because one day they might not be there.” Welch says although the job can send her jet-setting from her home in L.A. to NYC for The Met Gala to France for Cannes and back again in about a 10-day time span, she does try to leave work at work and enjoy time at home with her husband and daughter. “It’s still a job. It’s really part of your life, but I like going home and spending time with my husband and my daughter.”
Star-studded clientele: How does a stylist whose clients range from Justin Bieber to Elisabeth Moss speak to each celebrity's individual style? “It's a little alchemy and a little magic,” she says. “I never, ever, ever, ever, ever want to be literal like, ‘We’re going to do Audrey Hepburn’ or ‘We're going to do Grace Kelly.’ That's not how I work.” For Welch, putting together a look is more of an exercise in storytelling and an exchange of ideas. “I think the more you're willing to collaborate with people and enjoy other people's visions as well, the more you get out of it.”
Style legacy: “I am not a personal shopper. I'm an image architect, and my girls look baller,” Welch says when asked how she’d like people to view her career. “I would like people to say, ‘Okay, she's got a sense of humor. She's kind. And she stands for something.” Most importantly, she says, Welch wants her styling to come across as fearless as the women who wear her looks. “There's such a sisterhood with all my girls. And I have so many amazing activist women who are just getting a lot done. No one is twiddling her thumbs. I love seeing all of their passions.”