We’re hoping that the elegant era of fashion illustration might make a comeback one fine day and Sheila Camera Kotur can then return to her original career wrenched away from her when photography triumphed. Not that she let it stop her drawing or illustrating or establishing a second career as an interior designer. Mother of two daughters well known in the world of fashion, Hong Kong-based designer Fiona Kotur Marin and former U.S. Vogue style director Alexandra Kotur, Sheila remarks, with British directness, that neither daughter ever “showed the slightest interest in being creative” when they were young. “[But] it must have been there,” she adds. “I think it’s osmosis. They were surrounded by it. We didn’t talk about it. It was the clothes I wore, my lifestyle.” Working mainly from home, for almost two decades Sheila created illustrations for many Condé Nast publications as well as advertisements for the likes of Bergdorf Goodman and Saks. One of those lucky people who is never bored, her little home office/studio in the Upper East Side family apartment is still overflowing with work and ideas.
Do you do interiors for other people—we haven’t been able to find out for sure!
Oh tons! I do tons! All the time! But I never publish and I never show it.
Because I never show it. I walk away … do you know, I don’t know why.
Have you been asked to publish your work?
Well I used to be but I think they actually all gave up on me. Some of the things I’ve done are … quite nice!
Well you have a great sense of style.
I’ll tell what my personal thinking is, I think [interior design] is a service—I don’t think it has anything to do with anything else. You’re providing a service. Unless you’ve got something really to offer—anyone can do a modern room, anyone can do a period room, as long as you know how to put stuff together and where to get it from. I never felt that I was a Frank Gehry; I never felt that I was a John Saladino. They created a “look”. I’ve never created a “look”. I [just] create very nice, lovely rooms and my work has always been very individual—being an illustrator, I’ve never copied.
What kinds of projects are you doing now?
I’ve just done a house in Santa Fe—these two ladies who I’ve worked with for years and years. It’s a real fabulous old adobe. We did it very modern.
So you’re equally happy to do modern as you are to do any other style?
Well to be frank with you, I think everybody’s work looks alike anyway.
Do you mean that most designers aren’t as distinctive as they think they are?
Oh, I don’t know what they think—it’s more to do with what the client wants, frankly. I watched the movie on Frank Gehry and he said he had to see a psychiatrist for 30 years because when you do something so unusual, you’re not sure. It’s not that you’re not sure about what you’re doing [but] you are giving it to the public—I always felt this about Matisse—and they’ve never seen anything like it before and it’s bound to make you feel very insecure.
It requires courage and daring—they’re doing something original, and we don’t always like originality as much as we think we do.
Those are the people I totally admire. You see I know my limitations.
Now you started off as an illustrator, didn’t you?
I won a bursary in England that sent me to Paris. I had just turned 18. I was at Balmain first of all, then at Dior—of course Dior was over the top fabulous.
Why did you apply for the bursary?
You know when I grew up, children weren’t even … I mean they were coping with bombs—who cared about you? We were worried about our lives. In those days the British school system was wonderful. I had the most fabulous teachers and when I went to art school when I was 15 I had no idea that was I very good at art, but apparently I was. I had this fabulous teacher there—Maggie Shepherd, so elegant! I had a wonderful education there, architecture, design, anatomy—you were taught anatomy in England. You were taught everything! It was massive work but fantastic. Maggie Shepherd applied me to the bursary.
How did you like Paris?
I hated it. I had never been away from home before. Parisians are very, very different to the British. The women were very cold and very manipulative and very tough.
And what happened after that?
Well, my father loved horses and he was at Ascot and he was with his friend who was dating the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, Theresa Ritchie, the Honorable. My father said, “When you’re in Paris, look up my daughter.” So she did. She said, “When you get back to England, show me your work.” Of course when I got back to England, I didn’t show her my work.
What did you have in your portfolio at that time?
My designs! Because I was a designer.
At the age of 18, for Dior? How did you manage to do that?!
I’m going to tell you! In the end my father called her. She looked at my portfolio and she said I’m going to see where I can put you as a designer. And this was the time of the Rolling Stones, Vidal Sassoon, The Beatles, Carnaby Street—nothing was catered to young people before that. We were ignored, our generation. But suddenly they realized there was money there to be had. Theresa Ritchie said to me I’ve got a fabulous job for you.
And what was that?
She said, “Have you ever thought of illustrating?” She gave me eight pages in Harper’s Bazaar. The story was a fabric story and I had to design the clothes for the story and illustrate them. I then worked for Horrockses, which was a very successful business then … and one day the Queen wrote to the PR people and said she wanted to meet me.
Princess Anne was about my age and obviously the ladies-in-waiting children came and she would say, “Whose dress is that and it was mine.” I was introduced to the Queen.
What was that like?
Lovely! She wanted to hire me! First of all I started making clothes for Princess Anne and then I did the Queen’s cruise wear. Horrockses was a cotton house, you see.
What sort of clothes did you design for them?
Oh … lots. Princess Anne is a fabulous woman, you know. I think she would have been a great queen. She does 540 engagements a year. Anyway, it was about then that I decided to start my own company but I said, “Before I’m going to start my company, I’m going to go to America.” I was about 20 or 21. So anyway, I came over and a similar thing happened.
What was that?
Well I thought perhaps I’ll design a collection while I’m here, so I called Vogue. No answer. I didn’t know you were supposed to keep calling. I called once. So I sent my work up to Glamour and I got a call saying, “Could you illustrate for us?” And they gave me eight pages. My style was very, very modern and they’d never seen anything like it before. But you don’t know you’re doing something unusual. Then I started being an illustrator for Condé Nast. I did it for 18 years. I also got married—we met and we were married within three months. I also tried designing. I was hopeless on Seventh Avenue. Couldn’t survive. They were so awful. The first thing they would say was, “You’ve got to copy this because it’s selling.” And I would say, “Why don’t I do it and let them copy us?”
Well, it does have a very distinct reputation. It’s very tough.
I think if you’re born in America, it helps. I just didn’t understand it.
When was the real shift from illustration to photography?
When I stopped getting any work.
I suppose it was about 30 or 40 years ago, right?
Yes. Suddenly it stopped. I said to my husband, “What am I going to do?” And he said, “You know when your house was in House & Garden, you got lots of people asking you if you could you be their decorator.” So I said, “Well the next person that calls …” and that’s how I started.
And did both your daughters grow up in this apartment?
They both grew up here. Never showed the slightest interest in being creative, either of them. Never discussed it with me. In fact I remember Alexandra coming home from Chapin with her little blazer on—I worked from my bedroom—and she stood there in the doorway and she said to me, “Do you know you’re the only mother that draws all the time? None of the other mothers do that.”
They blossomed later, I guess.
Well, it must have been there. Alexandra was very interested in sports and Fiona was very good at English.
I think people probably think because you’ve got these daughters working in fashion, all three of you spent ages talking about clothes and going shopping—it doesn’t sound like it was like that?
No. I think it’s osmosis. They were surrounded by it. We didn’t talk about it. It was the clothes I wore, my lifestyle. I can get to eight museums from here and I can walk across the park to the Lincoln Center. I raised them this way—and sent them to England. I raised them like a European would.
What is your approach to style? I saw you on a website where someone had stopped you in the street to take your picture because you looked so stylish.
How about that? And they didn’t ask my permission! I’ve never seen it. Where is it?
It’s on the web—they asked you some questions. You said, “I don’t wear anything belted because I don’t have a waist but I do show my legs because I have good legs” and your fashion advice was, “Keep it simple.”
I do believe that. I made my own clothes for many, many years and I still wear them. I also kept all my Chanels, which I bought in Paris. She [Coco Chanel] dressed me twice. What I got from Paris was style. And I think I did teach that to the girls.
Can you talk some more about style—it’s such an elusive concept.
Um … first of all you’ve got to take care of yourself. I don’t know how to put this nicely but over-eating is not being kind to your health or to your appearance. And I think that is the beginning of it all. You could wear the simplest of nothing outfit as long as you look healthy and fit. And you don’t need a lot of anything but what you have should be really nice.
So you really only buy good things?
No … [points to the dress she is wearing] H&M. Because it’s the shape I wanted.
I look for what will look good on me—you have to know your body. I always wear a dress. I never wear pants. What is nice today is that everyone has lovely, shiny hair—as opposed to perms and things. It worries me that they all wear sneakers. I’m sure it’s very good for the feet but …
What do you do for exercise?
I never exercise. I hate exercising. I’ve never exercised in my life. In fact when I was at boarding school and you’d go outside where they made you jump over a pommel horse, I used to hide in the closet. But I walk everywhere, all the time, all over, always.