Meet Karla Welch, The Stylist Responsible For The Wardrobes Of Your Favourite Celebrities

She's also the brains behind Tracee Ellis Ross, Kristen Wiig and Amber Valletta's red carpet looks.

amber valetta kristen wiig tracee ellis ross

by Laura Antonia Jordan |
Updated on

A quick test to reveal how well your fashion antennae are working. Do you look at Justin Bieber in his baggy, haute-lazy, post-skate ‘scumbro’ threads and see someone who is the definition of IDGAF cool? Or an entitled Gen Z-er who simply can’t be bothered? Do you see Sarah Paulson in vinyl red Calvin Klein and feel compelled to lavish Instagram with fire emojis or wonder what sex club she’s off to? Do you look at Tracee Ellis Ross in her explosive, own-the-room, hot pink Valentino couture and think “major” or wonder what’s wrong with a nice black dress? (Fashion people, by the way, very much ‘stan’ all of the above.)

Stylist Karla Welch, the architect behind these outfits and the most exciting looks on the red carpet at the moment, doesn’t mind what you think, so long as you think something. ‘I don’t care if you love it or if you hate it. I like the extremes, I want you to have a reaction to it,’ she tells me on the phone from LA, adding, ‘I mean, I really don’t send a look out if I don’t love it. Like, it kills me! Even though I’m very serious about so many other things, I am also really serious about my work, as surface as it is.’ And she is serious about glamour, albeit a plucky, unpredictable version of it. In Karla’s world, women don’t just enter a room – they own it.

Karla is a woman who occupies a unique position in Hollywood, both in and out of the spotlight. At the top of the super-stylist league (she is an annual fixture on The Hollywood Reporter's 25 Most Powerful Stylists In Hollywood List), she works with a suitably glittering roster of leading ladies and rising stars, including Tracee Ellis Ross ('always incredibly confident in what she wears'), Elisabeth Moss and Kaitlyn Dever, and is no stranger to seeing the creations she puts them in dominate column inches and attract industry adoration. And yet, being behind the scenes is exactly how she likes it.

‘It is always my goal that it doesn’t look like I was here,’ she says. ‘I don’t want anybody to be like, “Oh, that’s a real Karla Welch look.” I want it to be Sarah Paulson’s look. My job is to give my client ownership of their dominion of what they wear.’

karla welch
Karla Welch ©Matthew Welch

Despite her protestations that there’s not a ‘Karla Welch look’, there is a Karla Welch signature, defined by a fearless, to-hell-with- it spirit. ‘I never want to wear a boring dress! I just can’t do it. Life’s too short,’ she says. ‘It’s fun to take risks.’ For Karla’s clients, those risks are worth taking. Just look at Elisabeth Moss unleashing her sass in a plunging Dundas gown, or Amber Valletta in Big-Bird-goes-to-a-rave neon green Saint Laurent feathers and little else at the Met Ball. It’s under Karla’s eye that actor Ruth Negga became a bona fide fashion darling and US women’s soccer captain Megan Rapinoe cultivated a kick-ass reputation off the pitch in a succession of champion suiting. In 2014, Karla smashed up the rules of apologetic maternity dressing by persuading a pregnant Olivia Wilde into body-con Gucci sequins. Whoever she’s working with, the goal is to ‘make it look as easy as possible’.

Of course, what appears easy takes planning and precision – right down to 'what earring I want in what earring hole'. When we speak she's about to start working with Kristen Wiig. 'I don't want to copy stuff or say, "We're going to Audrey Hepburn." I think more, "OK, what is this person? What's the vibe? What's the project?" Then I add just a little bit of that and off we go', Karla explains. Then there's call-ins, editing and fittings, so she can what's working and what's not. 'It's trying stuff and then seeing where you can push a bit. It's not infallible,' she says. 'But it's pretty, pretty close.'

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Amber Valetta ©Getty

When Karla sees a look she wants, she's tenacious. Take the fringed neon Prada she dressed Sarah Paulson in (right) for the Ocean's 8 world premiere in 2018 ('she loves fashion and I love dressing her'). As soon as she saw it on the catwalk she emailed the brand directly. 'I worked so hard to get that damn dress. I was like, "I need it, I need it, I need it. Give me the fucking dress!" She laughs. A few days later a custom gown version showed up. 'I died,' she says. 'It was such a moment.'

Moments are Karla’s speciality. ‘She has the Midas touch,’ says The Vampire’s Wife’s Susie Cave. The key to securing a ‘wow’? ‘That the dress doesn’t wear the woman,’ Karla says. ‘That’s the magic.’ Ensuring her clients feel comfortable is non-negotiable. ‘In a way, we’re psychologists and counsellors – we see our clients in a very vulnerable place a lot of the time,’ she says. ‘If you’ve ever been on a red carpet, it’s insane. People are screaming at them, there’s a lot of judgement and pressure in that moment. But what I love about the women I work with is we find a way to make it fun. And my job is to make sure that they feel amazing.’

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Kristen Wiig ©Getty

Karla, 44, has always been serious about style. Growing up in Canada, she was 'fully obsessed' with Fashion File, the TV show presented by journalist Tim Blanks. Her father owned a clothing store and she would flex those fledging muscles by nicking her brother's 501s and his black motorcycle jacket - 'which looks exactly like all the Celine men's bomber jackets right now'. It's not all that different to her low-key '60s Jean Seberg-via-'90s Winona Ryder 2020 look, 'a little tomboy, a little classic, a little French'. The family wasn't wealthy so the teenage Karla had to be creative. She thrifted a lot, and knew she had to make the pieces she did buy count.

Armed with innate good taste and a grafter's work ethic, Karla started her career managing a restaurant, then became a sommelier in her early twenties. The photographer Matthew Welch came into the restaurant one day in 2001; within a year they were married and she had moved to LA. Helping on Matthew’s shoots, she became acquainted with the world of styling. Her first clients were musicians and she styled all the early iPod campaigns. Her big break, however, came in 2006, when Brooke Wall, founder of top talent agency The Wall Group, spotted Karla as she was picking out clothes for a client in Barneys in LA, signing her on the spot.

Today, despite having her run of haute couture collections and being on first-name terms with the world’s most influential designers, including Marc Jacobs, Nicolas Ghesquière and Pierpaolo Piccioli (‘Pinch me! They’re my rock stars’), the thrifty spirit of Karla’s youth continues to cast its spell. ‘There’s no reality in just wearing designer clothes,’ she says. ‘The elite world doesn’t really appeal to me at all.’ A lot of the brands she dressed Lorde in for her Melodrama tour she discovered on Instagram.

It was her desire for fashion to be more inclusive that led Karla to found her personal styling app, Wishi, last year. A side effect of her vocation is that she receives texts from people asking her what they should wear to an event, or whether or not they should buy something. Alas, we don’t all have Karla’s number or the budget to call on her services, but she decided to bring her expertise to us all. ‘I wanted to take how I work with my clients – how I look at their body type, what they like and don’t like – and really bring that to a digital space’. It resonates – Wishi has been downloaded more than 200,000 times since it launched in October.

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Tracee Ellis Ross ©Getty

Then there's her clothing line of wardrobe basics, X Karla - the perfect tee, slouchy sweaters, the jeans that fit just so. She was inspired to start it after Justin Bieber started asking for extra-long T-shirts. As there was nothing like that available, Karla made her own. 'I hate buying $100 shirts and I wanted a really specific fit', she says, adding that the line will be completely sustainable by the end of the year. 'I wanted to expand beyond just styling and I think we've entered this space where limits are being taken off,' she says. 'Why would I want to put myself in one box?'

Certainly, she refuses to be boxed away like a pretty pair of shoes, speaking fashion and nothing else. Profits for the X Karla Levi's collaboration were donated to gun reform charity Everytown and, in Karla's Instagram bio, before you get to the word 'stylist' it simply says 'The Resistance' with a peace sign emoji.

With over 255,000 Instagram followers, Karla is adamant she’ll use her platform as a tool to talk about the causes she cares about. So there, among the pictures of couture gowns and premieres, are posts urging followers to call their senators or to keep abortion safe, legal and funded. ‘Sure, I work in fashion, but my heart is in activism,’ she says. ‘What I can do is use my voice to amplify the people who are doing that hard work. For me, it’s all about getting the message out, because I think we’re in very dark times and that’s more important than the dress. I love showing the dress, too, but you’re going to get the politics and the causes that matter to me on my Instagram. I’d rather not have a client than not do what’s right.’ Unsurprisingly, her hopes for this year aren’t about dressing a Best Actress winner or securing a mega-bucks campaign, but for a new President.

Given the tumult the world’s in right now – something Karla is acutely tuned into – one might wonder what the point is in caring about clothes at all. But there’s a power to be found in glamour. ‘I’m giving my clients their armour to go face the world and it can be joyful armour. It should make you happy,’ she says. ‘I understand wanting to be in sweatpants a lot of the time, but sometimes we can’t. Even though there’s so much horribleness in the world and stuff that’s way more important than this, it’s still important to do. Because we need escapism and we need to dream. We can’t just go grey, you know?’

SEE: All The Best Looks From The Oscars Red Carpet

Gallery

Oscars 2020: All The Best Looks From The Red Carpet

Saoirse Ronan in Gucci1 of 50

Saoirse Ronan in Gucci – the black peplum top was made from the same fabric as her BAFTAs dress

Olivia Colman debuted newly blonde hair and a Stella McCartney dress2 of 50

Olivia Colman debuted newly blonde hair and a Stella McCartney dress

Laura Dern in Armani Privu00e93 of 50

Laura Dern in Armani Privé

Zazie Beetz in Thom Browne4 of 50

Zazie Beetz in Thom Browne

Lily Aldridge in an archive Ralph Lauren dress, Jimmy Choo heels and Bulgari jewels5 of 50

Lily Aldridge in an archive Ralph Lauren dress, Jimmy Choo heels and Bulgari jewels

Billy Porter in custom Giles Deacon with custom Jimmy Choo heels6 of 50

Billy Porter in custom Giles Deacon with custom Jimmy Choo heels

Regina King wore Versace with $500,000 worth of Harry Winston jewellery7 of 50

Regina King wore Versace with $500,000 worth of Harry Winston jewellery

Julia Butters in a pink Christian Siriano ensemble with a Lark & Berry necklace8 of 50

Julia Butters in a pink Christian Siriano ensemble with a Lark & Berry necklace

Sigourney Weaver in Christian Dior9 of 50

Sigourney Weaver in Christian Dior

Idina Menzel in a J.Mendel dress10 of 50

Idina Menzel in a J.Mendel dress

America Ferrera in a red Alberta Ferretti dress and a Jennifer Behr headpiece11 of 50

America Ferrera in a red Alberta Ferretti dress and a Jennifer Behr headpiece

Kristin Cavallari in a strapless ice blue gown by Valdrin Sahiti12 of 50

Kristin Cavallari in a strapless ice blue gown by Valdrin Sahiti

Mindy Kaling wore a one shoulder, canary yellow gown13 of 50

Mindy Kaling wore a one shoulder, canary yellow gown by Dolce & Gabbana

Spike Lee (who attended with his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee) wore a suit in tribute to Kobe Bryant14 of 50

Spike Lee (who attended with his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee) wore a suit in tribute to Kobe Bryant

Chrissy Metz in Christian Siriano15 of 50

Chrissy Metz in Christian Siriano

Kelly Marie Tran16 of 50

Kelly Marie Tran

Billie Eilish in head-to-toe Chanel17 of 50

Billie Eilish in head-to-toe Chanel

Beanie Feldstein wore custom Miu Miu18 of 50

Beanie Feldstein wore custom Miu Miu

Kaitlyn Dever wore a fully sustainable dress by Louis Vuitton19 of 50

Kaitlyn Dever wore a fully sustainable dress by Louis Vuitton

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a custom navy silk dress by Vera Wang20 of 50

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a custom navy silk dress by Vera Wang

Janelle Monae wore a silver sequined Ralph Lauren gown, complete with matching hood21 of 50

Janelle Monae wore a silver sequined Ralph Lauren gown, complete with matching hood

Rebel Wilson in custom Jason Wu22 of 50

Rebel Wilson in custom Jason Wu

Greta Gerwig wore a custom Christian Dior Haute Couture gown23 of 50

Greta Gerwig wore a custom Christian Dior Haute Couture gown

Sandra Oh wore an amazing Elie Saab gown with dramatic sleeves24 of 50

Sandra Oh wore an amazing Elie Saab gown with dramatic sleeves

Geena Davis25 of 50

Geena Davis

Costume designer Sandy Powell wore the same suit she wore to the BAFTAs, which was signed by an array of A-listers and will be auctioned for charity26 of 50

Costume designer Sandy Powell wore the same suit she wore to the BAFTAs, which was signed by an array of A-listers and will be auctioned for charity

Maya Rudolph27 of 50

Maya Rudolph in a bronze sequined dress

James Corden with his wife, Julia Carey28 of 50

James Corden with his wife, Julia Carey

Margaret Qualley in a black Chanel dress with feathered hem29 of 50

Margaret Qualley in a black Chanel dress with feathered hem

Salma Hayek Pinault wore a white Gucci gown30 of 50

Salma Hayek Pinault wore a white Gucci gown

Penu00e9lope Cruz in a Chanel dress inspired by a 1995 creation from the fashion house31 of 50

Penélope Cruz in a Chanel dress inspired by a 1995 creation from the fashion house

Kathy Bates in Giorgio Armani32 of 50

Kathy Bates in Giorgio Armani

Cynthia Erivo in Atelier Versace33 of 50

Cynthia Erivo in Atelier Versace

Florence Pugh in Louis Vuitton34 of 50

Florence Pugh in Louis Vuitton

Renu00e9e Zellweger in Armani Privu00e935 of 50

Renée Zellweger in Armani Privé

Rooney Mara wore custom Alexander McQueen36 of 50

Rooney Mara wore custom Alexander McQueen

Natalie Portman wore a Dior look with a cape embroidered with the names of all the women who were snubbed by the Academy this year37 of 50

Natalie Portman wore a Dior look with a cape embroidered with the names of all the women who were snubbed by the Academy this year

Camilla Morrone38 of 50

Camilla Morrone

Lucy Boynton wore a Chanel dress from the SS20 collection39 of 50

Lucy Boynton wore a Chanel dress from the SS20 collection

Margot Robbie wore Chanel40 of 50

Margot Robbie wore Chanel

Brad Pitt41 of 50

Brad Pitt

Timothu00e9e Chalamet in Prada42 of 50

Timothée Chalamet in Prada

Kristen Wiig wore Valentino Haute Couture43 of 50

Kristen Wiig wore Valentino Haute Couture

Charlize Theron in Dior Haute Couture44 of 50

Charlize Theron in Dior Haute Couture

Leonardo DiCaprio in Giorgio Armani45 of 50

Leonardo DiCaprio in Giorgio Armani

Brie Larson in Celine46 of 50

Brie Larson in Celine

Colin Jost with Scarlett Johansson, who wore custom Oscar de la Renta47 of 50

Colin Jost with Scarlett Johansson, who wore custom Oscar de la Renta

Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson48 of 50

Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson

Gal Gadot in Givenchy Haute Couture49 of 50

Gal Gadot in Givenchy Haute Couture

Lu00e9a Seydoux in a white Louis Vuitton dress50 of 50

Léa Seydoux in a white Louis Vuitton dress

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