It was a scene all too familiar in many Canadian households during the 1990s: the fashion-obsessed child sitting in front of the television set, eyes glued to the screen as a young Tim Blanks revealed the industry’s grandest moments both on and off the runway. For a budding generation of style connoisseurs, CBC’s Fashion Files was a pioneer of its time. The show was much more than a look into the lifestyles of the rich and famous; it was a phenomenon, a visionary perspective that allowed the fashion industry to be recognized as a piece of cultural relevance.
The program reached Canadians far and wide, bringing the extravagant tales of John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and Karl Lagerfeld into living rooms from east to west. In Powell River, British Columbia, a small town on the Sunshine Coast, Karla Welch faithfully tuned in to receive her own fashion education. The show “was everything for me,” she recalls. “I would religiously watch it on CBC when I was a kid. I was like, ‘I want to live in this world.’”
It’s a glorious spring morning in Vancouver, and Welch, fresh off a flight from Nashville, has returned home to British Columbia. Inside the Vancouver Convention Centre, home to the 2018 Vancouver International Auto Show, a sea of shiny cars brings in a record crowd, yet it is Welch who commands the room. She dons a sleek ruffled-sleeve faux-leather dress paired with bright red Stuart Weitzman boots and an even brighter red lip, exuding a confidence that is infectious. It is no wonder this local talent reigns superior in the world of fashion as one of Hollywood’s powerful stylists.
Tracee Ellis Ross. Olivia Wilde. Lorde. Busy Philipps. Karlie Kloss. Sarah Paulson. Elisabeth Moss. Ruth Negga. It’s an all-star lineup of Hollywood names, each transformed by the brilliantly stylish mind of Welch. Labelled by Vogue as “the most in-demand style visionary” in 2017, she has taken her celebrity clients to the top of best-dressed lists each awards season and beyond.
It’s an interesting occupation, turning a celebrity into a trendsetting statement. Yet, in an industry that is often portrayed as superficial, Welch is as real as they come. Just like the car she is in town to celebrate, the new Cadillac Escala concept, the mega-stylist focuses on innovation and authenticity. “I never really tend to copy anyone’s style,” she says. “I’m definitely myself.”
She is happy to be back in Vancouver, a city that marked a crucial chapter in her fashion story. “For me, Vancouver had this magic allure,” she says of her youth. “It was where we would come to buy our school clothes.” Not to mention, the city was where her father operated a menswear store—one where Welch would help craft window displays and learn about the business of buying (she also worked in the city for a time as a sommelier). She took those skills with her when she moved to Los Angeles in 2001.
Welch’s big break has a Vancouver connection, too. While at Barneys in Los Angeles, pulling clothes for a job with Canadian songbird Feist, Welch was scouted by The Wall Group agency founder (and fellow Vancouverite) Brooke Wall. “This woman was following me around and she looked at me and said, ‘I love everything about you.’ She signed me on the spot,” the stylist happily remembers. “Canada is so special. There are all these little ties to Canada.”
Her career in fashion skyrocketed after that. And although a life of dress-up sounds amusing and fun, Welch takes her job seriously. “Preparation is everything,” she says. As she speaks, her fierce drive and relentless passion are evident. Her work ethic, she says with a chuckle, comes from her humble Canadian origins. What Welch does best is collaborate with her clients to create the most flattering and faithful versions of themselves, never transforming them into something they’re not. Take Irish actress Ruth Negga, for example. At the 2017 Academy Awards, which saw Negga nominated for best actress for her role in Loving, Welch dressed her in a romantic crimson Valentino dress. And then there is Elisabeth Moss, who Welch has worked with for five years, taking her from Mad Men to The Handmaid’s Tale.“It’s a little bit of magic,” Welch says of styling Hollywood’s elite. Recently, she worked with Oprah. “I cried,” she says with a laugh. “She was magic. You felt her energy radiating off her.”
Aside from dressing the stars, Welch has worked with brands like Dior and L’Oreal. In 2017, she collaborated with American clothing brand Hanes on a line of perfect white t-shirts inspired by fellow Canadian Justin Bieber, who she worked closely with during his Believe world tour in 2012. “That was actually a big moment in my life,” Welch admits of the t-shirts. “It was interesting to see my name on something.” Next for the stylist is another clothing enterprise, this time with Levi’s.
As Welch circles the Escala, draped in opulent cashmere and covered in hand-cut and -sewn leather, it is evident how perfect this partnership truly is: both car and stylist are daring, bold, and designed to inspire. Welch marvels over the three-piece signature grey leather luggage set, designed by fellow fashion-forward Vancouverite Jason Wu, that sits in the Cadillac’s trunk. This moment is Vancouver creativity at its best.
Although Fashion Files said goodbye to loyal viewers in 2009 and Tim Blanks went on to become the editor-at-large for Business of Fashion, the enchantment of the show still lives on within Canadians like Welch. At the height of her career, she is undoubtedly living in the world that the CBC series once exposed her to as a young girl in Powell River.
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