THE SUNNY SIDE
On a wall in Laurette Kittle’s design studio, a collection of family photos traces a life spent surfing some of the world’s most beautiful beaches—Hawaii, Costa Rica, Bali. There are pictures of her sons Cody and Henry surfing. A stuffed and mounted sunfish carves a graceful arc above a rustic side table topped with a white orchid; a Buddha; an alabaster seashell; and Enlightenment, a book by her photographer husband, Kit. Across the room a seating area with rattan furniture opens to a small terrace overlooking the Byram River. Down the hall, another room holds rolling racks of clothes—the dresses, caftans, tunics, shirts, rompers and dusters that comprise her new retail line, Walker&Wade. Throughout, the mood is breezy and bright. No small feat on this early-June day, when the rain is coming down sideways. It speaks volumes about the designer, her clothes, and her sunny approach to life.
A fabric designer for twenty-five-plus years, Laurette has created collections for Schumacher, Waverly and Martex, among others. Two years ago, backed by her oldest son, Cody, who works in the financial industry, she directed her passion in a new way. No one is more surprised than she at the unexpected turn her life has taken. “This is the greatest gift my son has given me,” she says.
“My design business comes in waves and I had a lot of free time. I could have seen myself spending way too much time going to luncheons and coming home to watch Ellen. This has unleashed my creativity.”
The clothing business started through a convergence of events: A family trip to Bali for a friend’s birthday. A visit to a tailor named Gog. A couple of quick sketches—a coat, a dress. “My sons and husband got clothes made, and I decided to get a few things, too,” she recalls. “We did the coat in a turquoise gabardine and purple gabardine and a little dress made of excess shirt material.”
A few days later, the family returned to life back home. Then a most unexpected thing happened. “In the spring I started wearing the clothes to luncheons and social events,” she says. “People went crazy for them.” One friend in particular—Greenwich-based fashion designer Alease Fisher—took Laurette under her wing. “She said ‘You are going to design my resort line.’ My son Cody said, ‘You’re going to do this.’ Honestly, I was petrified at the thought of diving into a world I didn’t know.”
She dove anyway. That summer, with Alease as her mentor, Laurette had a crash course in Fashion Design 101. In January, she flew back to Bali with little more than a handful of ideas. One of them—the Goddess Kaftan—has become the mainstay of her collection.
“I was thinking about women over forty-five when I designed it,” she says. “Women who want to feel sexy, and vibrant, and carefree, like a goddess.” The kaftans—short and long—have subtle design details (fluttery cap sleeves, for instance) that are meant to hide flaws and play up assets. “It’s drapey and a little sheer, but not too sheer. It’s fitted but not super fitted.” A tie-dye version goes one step further: “The pattern goes from light to dark, which creates a slimming effect,” she adds. (Goddess Kaftans have been such a hit among her younger clientele, Laurette now offers a version with peepholes in the sleeves.)
An artist by training—she graduated with a degree in fine arts from the Rhode Island School of Design—Laurette says the genesis of Walker&Wade (her sons’ middle names) can be traced back to the early days of her marriage. “We are beach people,” she explains. “We love the ocean and water.” When the boys were young, the Kittles lived in Manhattan and spent summers in East Hampton. “They would spend six to eight hours a day surfing. At the end of the day they were always starving. There wasn’t time to go back to wherever we were staying and change. I’d pour water over my head, throw on a sarong and out we’d go.”
This same easy vibe, what she calls a “beach-to-table” philosophy, informs all her designs. In just two years, her collection has grown to include mini-dresses, and easy no-wrinkle travel dresses, billowy tunics, tailored shirts, breezy lounge pants and rompers, and more. All the fabrics are sourced, printed and hand-dyed in Bali, though last year Laurette introduced a line of silk tunics embellished with ornate beadwork from India.
What is most striking about the clothes are the unusual prints and vivid colors. “For me the excitement is picturing something and designing it. I see fabric and I’m not even sure what I’m going to make yet.” Many of the clothes feature beadwork—a Walker&Wade signature. “It’s a dying art,” she says. “Our bead workers come from families who have passed this craft down for generations.”
Since hosting her first trunk show in May of 2014, Laurette’s line has been picked up by retailers across the country, including a shop in Stuart, Florida where her parents live. “I met my first retailer at a nail salon there,” she recalls. “She bought fifty pieces for her store, Matilda.” Locally, Walker&Wade is sold at Patricia Gourlay, Dakor and Delamar Greenwich Harbor Spa, as well as Lilies & Lace in Armonk.
Among the top-selling items is the white Italian lace “Beach Blazer,” which has a hint of glitter. “It’s a no-brainer,” she says. “So versatile. You can wear it with a cami and jeans. It’s like a high-low thing.” Some of her dresses have a preppy Palm Beach vibe, while others are clearly designed for Club 55 in St. Tropez. She even makes versions of some items in black—her least favorite hue to work in. “Every time I do something in black, it sells out in three seconds. That’s New England for you.”
Laurette is involved in every step of the process. “I’m often up at 1 a.m. sketching things and sending them to Bali.” She spends a month there each year, working alongside the team of sewers and bead workers. “I love it. I’m really a people person. When I designed by myself, I was alone a lot. I’d spend a month working on something, and the client would say they didn’t like it. That was hard.”
She also sells online and through trunk shows. In addition to the clothes, there are chic beaded clutches, Malas (featured in Nicole Miller’s fall runway show during Fashion Week), serenity beads and fun beach towels. Marketing is through Instagram and Facebook. She has a muse, a young fashionista named Kelsey White with more than 60,000 followers. Laurette sends her clothes, and Kelsey posts pictures of herself and her friends wearing them in exotic beachy locales throughout the world.
“I’m learning as I go,” she says. From the kitchen counter she reaches for a small pottery tray that has the words Never Give Up on it. “I look at this every morning,” she adds, with a smile. walkerandwade.com