“Fashion you can buy, but style you possess,” said 99-year old fashion goddess Iris Apfel.
Wallace founded SCAD, the arts university based in Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia, in 1978, while she was still in her twenties–a public school teacher turned higher ed visionary. Her eye for style was always there. As a girl growing up in Atlanta in the sixties, she learned to sew and fondly recalls creating a pencil skirt in wool and a blouse of patterned silk, with a jacket lined in the same silk. “We did not call fashion,” she said, “although that is precisely what it was, learning to create sharp, smart clothes we wanted to wear.”
Her eye for style in visual art came early, too. As a girl, she remembers watching her father hang a pair of paintings that her mother found at a little antiques boutique. “The paintings, mirror images, depicted lemony white parrot over verdant tropical background,” she said. Any room where they landed was immediately brightened and warmed.
In Savannah, Paula Wallace SCAD applied her eye and gift for style to interior design and preservation design, repurposing the historic Savannah Volunteer Guards Armory, long since abandoned, into a new college for the arts. “With creativity and countless coats of Vernax Furniture Polish, this glorious old building with its martial history was repurposed into a home dedicated to the creative act of adaptive new use.”
Forty-two years later, Wallace’s eye for style has fashioned SCAD into an international university for the creative professions, offering accredited graduate and undergraduate degrees in fashion, film, fine art, the building arts, and dozens more disciplines. We recently sat down with Wallace to unpack her personal sense of style, hoping for insight into how her unique eye, which has shaped a university, is reflected in the current moment.
Q: How would you describe your personal style?
WALLACE: How many words do I have?
WALLACE: Classic, cool, and collected (hopefully!).
Q: What do you most love wearing? A specific designer? A favorite jacket?
WALLACE: Dynamic designs by SCAD alumni, from statement gowns by Christopher John Rogers to accessible ready-to-wear by Eleanor Turner, from Jocelyn DeSisto’s aquatic-inspired cocktail rings to Libby Newell’s layered collage brooches.
Q: What would you describe as your most cherished piece?
WALLACE: I do treasure my collection of charm bracelets, which evoke memories of childhood celebrations and travel adventures. I’ve been known to rummage for vintage charms at weekend markets.
Q: What can’t you live without?
WALLACE: Family. Giving and receiving their love makes my heart happy.
Q: What’s the best wardrobe advice you’ve ever received?
WALLACE: I don’t remember who told me this, but someone once recommended I go with vibrant hues—yellows, corals, and pinks—colors I have always loved, radiating warmth and cheer. After all, you do not have to look at yourself, but others do! This is where style and philosophy intersect for me. Clothes should project your best reality, the world you want to inhabit.
Q: You’re a smart dresser, from the stage at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival to your many talks and lectures around the country. What does your at-home look consist of?
WALLACE: A lot of Lululemon! As sun rises, I am usually on the treadmill. Then I switch to work attire—with sandals—for 8 a.m. Zoom meetings. Pandemic or not, a daily regimen & professional look promote productivity & positivity.
Q: As a university president, your work never ends. How do you do it all?
WALLACE: Sipping black and green tea, served over ice and sweetened with a touch of organic honey from the hives at SCAD Back40, our Savannah-based sustainable farm. (Our mascot is Art the Bee, naturally.)
Q: You’re a native in Atlanta, where you began cultivating your sense of style of fashion. What are your favorite places to shop in Atlanta these days?
WALLACE: SCAD alumna Caroline Ruder’s studio, flowing fashions (think colorful, swishy dresses with statement sleeves), and Wish, Lauren Amos’s boutique that pairs international style with limited-edition footwear.
Q: How have the ups and downs of 2020 impacted your understanding of style and personal expression?
WALLACE: Style is about transformation, and 2020 has required adaptation and transformation above all else. This year has demanded our best. They are awesome.
Q: If style is about creating the world you want to live in, what do you hope the future holds?
WALLACE: Joy! From our families to our communities to our world, let’s all practice the power of one: one person makes a difference, one day at a time.