Beyond the Kaftan with
Cathy Graham

The award-winning artist and fashion illustrator chats with Ala on everything from flowers to parties, to what her second book has in store.

“As a flower obsessive, I’ve long admired Cathy Graham’s work. From floral and fashion illustration to product design, to incredible table and garden arrangements, her approach to flowers and color is truly one-of-a-kind. I was thrilled to have a chance to talk to Cathy and explore her road to success and how second chances are sometimes where you least expect them.”

Cathy Graham on her patio wearing purple stretch knit dress by Ala von Auersperg
Cathy Graham in her dining room wearing purple floral long dress by Ala von Auersperg

Ala: It’s been wonderful watching your work with floral arrangements over the years. I’m always thinking, I wish I could do that! What got you into arranging and everything that followed? Do you grow your own flowers or go to the markets?

Cathy: I go to the market all the time. I used to grow when I had a house in Northwestern Connecticut. I first did a cutting garden that was so heavenly. I was an illustrator before I started with flowers. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design for painting and studied fashion illustration at Parson’s School for Design. Then I met Robert Isabell at a party for my late ex-mother-in-law. I had never seen such beautiful flowers in my entire life. I hired him to do something, and then he said, “Come work with me!” I said, “When?” He said, “Tomorrow!” From there we had the most glorious time and became very close.

Ala: Your drawings are so beautiful and I can totally see that your background is in art. I had no idea about the Robert Isabell piece, that must have been a kick.

Cathy: He gave me confidence. He’d say, “You go do the head table at Alexandra and Alex von Furstenberg’s wedding. He’d push me all the time to work on projects.

Ala: That’s so interesting about the confidence he gave you. Often we don’t understand our talents until someone comes along to push us further beyond where we’re comfortable going. Obviously he saw the talent in you and was interested in pushing you further. You’re so lucky to have had someone like that in your life.

Cathy: Without a doubt, he really did give me confidence and pushed me to areas I was slightly uncomfortable in. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor or friend. He could create magic. He saw weddings, parties, everything in a total 360-degree way. Each event was unique.

Cathy Graham putting together a bouquet

Ala: He had such a vision. So how did you go from the studio to your book?

Cathy: My first book was a result of my good friend, Howard Slatkin, who wrote Fifth Avenue Style, pushing me to do a book. I never got around to it, and then when my ex-husband left me suddenly after 30 years, it was amazing because I got a book deal two months later with Vendome, and it got me through a very difficult time in my life. I was thrilled Mark and Nina Magowen took a chance on me because I got a chance at a new life. I’m working on my second book right now.

Ala: What are the themes of each of these books?

Cathy: My first book is called Second Bloom. It’s about flower arranging and entertaining with a lot of my illustrations in it. Sometimes my work can be a bit nutty. I always like to have something unusual or surprising in what I do. So this book works off on that. I work with different colors and I have my “fantasy flowers.”

Ala: What are fantasy flowers?

Cathy: It’s a bit like textile design, where I use long beans and flowers and cut out tropical leaves and cut them into rose leaves. I change them. I took a variegated leaf and made it something else. It’s a bit of fantasy. Next week we have a big rose shoot. It’s a pretty table with roses that I can’t possibly describe because it’s too weird. It’s like longstems gauzed with clay to make into a dress form. And then you make a dress for it. The flower becomes a person - it’s odd things like that.

Ala: It sounds fabulous!

Second Bloom Cathy Graham's Art of the Table By Alexis Clark Foreword by Joanna Coles
Picture of Cathy Graham for her interview with Ala von Auersperg

Cathy: There’s a lot of fantasy in it. It’s the silly things. But there are also pretty arrangements and table settings. It’s good to have something normal and pretty, so that I can get away with doing something nutty.

Ala: It’s unbelievably cool. I can’t wait to see what they look like. Do you speak about your floral work?

Cathy: Yes! I have a slide presentation, and before Covid-19, I’d travel around to many cities and garden clubs. I’d do this presentation and talk about how the book came about, a bit about its background. I’d show slides of the book and I’d try to make it funny and do floral demonstrations. I love going out and speaking. I will start up again in the fall.

Ala: That’s a lot of dedication.

Cathy: I was such a shy person when I was married and now, I’m like, where did this ham come from? I’m actually quite comfortable getting in front of ladies and talking.

Ala: Do you think that’s a function of age? I’m similar, but I think the older I’ve become, the more comfortable I feel. I’m less shy than I used to be. I have this “I am who I am, take it or leave it” attitude, which has given me confidence in my work, too. I’ve got nothing to prove.

Cathy: It’s very true. Except for me, the only difference is that I was married to a very articulate, amusing man, so I was always in his shadow. So in a way, this freed me up.

Ala: My husband doesn’t have a shy bone in his body. He’s so fun, which sort of takes the onus off me. He’s so comfortable talking that I can just stand there. He’s doing own thing, which has pushed me to do things I’m uncomfortable with, but then I’m happy I’ve done them.

Cathy: That’s how you grow and change and not stay stagnant. Also, it’s kind of a shock when your kids grow up! My son is 22 now. I said, “When are you coming home for summer?” He said, “Mom, I’m not!”

Ala: It’s such a horrifying moment. I have four kids and when they left, it’s a total shock. You know they’ll leave but you’re never prepared for it. Now I have five grandkids so they all come back.

Cathy: You are so lucky!

Ala: Just know that when they leave the nest, they always come back.

Cathy Graham wearing long purple tulip printed stretch knit dress by Ala von Auersperg
Cathy Graham at home wearing long stretch knit dress with tulips printed on them by Ala von Auersperg